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A&E >  Food

Sonrisa Urban Taqueria wants to make you smile through tacos with flavors from around the world

UPDATED: Tue., May 1, 2018, 5:12 p.m.

Take a trip around the world – through tacos.

There’s Argentinian inspiration in the Bobby Axelrod, which comes with grilled hanger steak and onions, roasted jalapeño and chimichurri. There are French, Vietnamese and Chinese influences at work in the Banh Mi, No Banh You, featuring hoisin sauce, Sriracha aioli, daikon slaw and shredded five-spice duck. The vegetarian version takes the palate to India with cumin and coriander lime crema, roasted baby carrots, fried carrots and caramelized onions.

Of course, there are more traditional Mexican-style tacos, too – grilled shrimp, classic pork carnitas and lamb barbacoa.

They’re all generously stuffed, and two for $15 – including a side. Choose from Mexican-style street corn off the cob – with lime and cilantro crema, cayenne aioli, cotija cheese and ancho chili powder – beans and rice, house-made tortilla chips, jicama-and-cucumber salad and Mexican tots topped with fried jalapeños.

The idea is that these tacos and their accoutrements will make you smile.

That’s what the lighted-up sign, hanging at the end of the bright red bar, reminds diners in the back of the restaurant. “Tacos make you smile,” it reads.

And that motto is reflected in the name of the place.

Sonrisa Urban Taqueria opened mid-April in the spot that formerly held Victory Sports Hall in downtown Coeur d’Alene. The concept, said opening chef Alex Jacobson, who designed the menu, is “whimsical and worldly” tacos.

La sonrisa is Spanish for smile. As Jacobson said, “It’s all about smiling.”

The space looks largely the same as it did when it held Victory, with a garage-door-style window flanked by bench seating in front and, on the walls, four enormous screens, two jumbo ones above the back bar and two more, slightly smaller ones on the opposite wall.

“Victory was definitely sports-bar forward,” Jacobson said. Now that the space has a new concept, menu and name, however, “they really are not going to be showing sports here anymore.”

Big games – such as the Super Bowl or World Series – still might be shown, he said. But on screen now is mostly music videos from the 1980s and 1990s, offering an upbeat and catchy – or at least familiar – backdrop.

Corona buckets line low shelves behind the bar. That’s new. So are the strings of bulbs hanging among the high ceiling’s wood beams, installed to add warmth and evoke the feeling of an outdoor market in Mexico. Black-and-white photos on a front wall show people from around the world with wide smiles, including the highly recognizable grin of a young Jack Nicholson. Vases with flowers were installed near the entry, too, lending some softness to the otherwise modern, industrial ambiance.

The $15 two-taco-and-a-side deal takes up much of the menu. One of the best things about it – besides the size of the tacos – is you can mix and match. In fact, it’s encouraged. So is, of course, smiling.

“To me, cooking is definitely heart and soul,” Jacobson said. “If people are upset and not in a good mood, it reflects in the food.”

Perhaps most approachable is the shredded chipotle-braised chuck with pepper jack cheese, guacamole, pickled red onion, shredded cabbage, sour cream, pico de gallo and lime on a flour tortilla.

The carne asada comes with an Argentinian twist; it features chimichurri as well as pickled watermelon radish and Napa cabbage on a corn tortilla.

The slow-roasted lamb barbacoa, seasoned with cinnamon and cumin, has been one of Sonrisa’s top-sellers, Jacobson said. The five-spice duck banh mi taco is done in a classic French-style confit using duck fat.

For a dollar more, try seafood tacos. There’s grilled shrimp with mango-jalapeño salsa, avocado, cilantro, shaved cabbage and a cumin vinaigrette. It’s a favorite of Rob Berger, owner of Sonrisa as well as the Crafted Tap House and Kitchen next door.

Berger said he originally opened Victory to help with overflow from Crafted, which gets packed during its weekly turtle races as well as when the weather’s warm “and everyone wants to be on the patio.”

But, the indoor sports bar “didn’t really help with overflow because everyone wanted to sit outside. Victory,” Berger said, “just wasn’t really generating any additional income.”

And, he said, let’s face it, lots of people love tacos. The new concept was simply “to come up with unique variations for tacos” – and, hopefully, make people happy.

If shrimp doesn’t do it for you, but you like seafood, there’s the “heavier” swordfish-and-black-bean taco with cherry tomatoes, grilled corn, fried jalapeño, cabbage-and-kale slaw, lime and honey. It’s an homage to the chef’s wife, Brittany Jacobson, whose parents own Nadine’s Mexican Kitchen in Rathdrum, where she also works. She makes a similar grilled corn salsa at home, and her husband wanted to incorporate it in Sonrisa’s menu.

“I totally fell in love with her salsa,” he said. “I had to give her some love (on the menu) for putting up with the long hours that being a chef requires. With the firm fish and creamy beans, it just works really well together.”

Jacobson graduated from high school in Sandpoint in 2004 and the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in 2007. After eight years in the Bay Area, he returned to North Idaho in 2015, working first at Sante Restaurant and Charcuterie in downtown Spokane and then at Crafted.

The grilled chicken taco with bacon jam, green onion, dill-ranch slaw and crispy onions on a flour tortilla is an “ode to Crafted” and its No. 42 burger, which features bacon jam, he said. “That’s the best burger.”

A couple of salads – they’re “awesome” and not to be missed, Jacobson said – round out the menu, which liberally uses the citrus-chili-lime seasoning from the Spokane-based spice company Spiceology.

The Dulce Fresco salad features three kinds of cabbage, red bell pepper, jicama, cherry tomatoes, cilantro, spiced pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries and a creamy, mayo-based roasted jalapeno-and-honey dressing. An heirloom tomato salad – De La Granjera – includes cotija cheese, grilled corn, roasted poblano peppers, avocado, cucumber, cilantro, tortilla strips and a cumin vinaigrette.

“I like bright flavors that aren’t too heavy and aren’t overwhelming,” Jacobson said.

Look for them in the appetizers, too.

The stuffed poblano pepper is big enough to be an entree or split among several people as a starter. It features Mexican cheese, garlic, shredded lettuce and pico de gallo.

Or, opt for the Mama Said Guac You Out … With Queso. You get house-made guacamole – with lime, cilantro, cumin, olive oil and sea salt – as well as queso with roasted chilies.

Look, also, for a shrimp cocktail, ahi tostado with egg and a soy reduction, nachos with house-made tortilla chips and a fried egg, chicharrones with aleppo pepper and lime.

Another bonus: there are, between Sonrisa and Crafted next door, 90 beers on tap – 50 at Crafted and 40 at Sonrisa.

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