Expanses of cattle ranches and cacti dot the desert landscape of the Northern Mexico state of Sonora, and the outdoor mesquite grilling of both vegetables and meats is a defining factor of the cuisine. For Los Angeles restaurant Salazar, the design and cuisine are all about this feel, giving customers a view of the open sky and mountains across the Los Angeles River.

“Our goal was to make Salazar a destination reminiscent of a faraway place, yet firmly anchored in the neighborhood,” says Samantha Gore, founder of the Yard, the firm behind the design of the restaurant. “We took inspiration from all over, studying photos of early gas stations abandoned along old highways, ad hoc street vendors and open markets, public spaces people meet at to play chess or ping pong, private and communal yards, and botanical gardens.”

Salazar sits in a former Mazda repair shop, which lends itself to a focus on outdoor dining because a former wide garage door frame leads from the small interior to the patio.

“The fact that the location had recently been a working mechanic shop was the driving force of the design,” Gore says. “Hoping to keep the charm of the neighborhood shop, we stayed with the blue and white exteriors, pumping up the colors, and we had a local craftsman hand paint the logo on the building. Borrowing from the textures and colors of serapes to create a modernist hand-painted pattern for the bar-front design, we brought all these elements together and kept old-school techniques and craftsmanship at the mast.”

Having plants in the outdoor area was a crucial part of the design, and the site was so close to the Los Angeles River that it fell under an ordinance that dictated a certain percentage of the plant material had to be native to the area. “We all have a very broad concept of what is native in Southern California, but these requirements were quite stringent,” Gore says. “We found a balance that worked for the site, starting with the palm trees Washingtonia filifera–the only palm native to California–along with yuccas, sages, and matilija poppies.”

The restaurant also planted bougainvillea along the northern and eastern perimeters of the outdoor-dining area. The flowering plants create a colorful enclosure to keep out the sights of nearby traffic. “We introduced a series of planters with Echinopsis pachanoi [San Pedro cactus] to create living walls that would devise cozier areas,” Gore says.

Salazar’s menu, developed by Chef Esdras Ochoa, fits perfectly into the outdoor environment that Gore and The Yard have created. Items such as thick-cut pork chops, rainbow trout, hanger steak, portobello mushrooms, and eggplant are grilled over mesquite and served with house-made flour tortillas and sides including potato purée with chorizo, pinto beans with pork belly, and queso fresco.

“Sonoran cuisine is all about how meat, wood, and smoke all come together. There were many meetings about the authenticity of the design, always making sure that everyone—chef, bartenders, servers, and designer—were on the same page,” Gore says. “This translated to some of my favorite elements: the stacked wood left within view of the patrons, fruit trees and herbs throughout the garden, and a very certain idea of [being in] an outdoor Sonoran grill.”

Feature, Restaurant Design