21st-century cantina

Posted: February 3rd, 2017 | Features, Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews, Top Story | No Comments

By Frank Sabatini Jr.

It was one of those nights when hubby and I couldn’t decide between Mexican, Italian, Mexican, Asian or Mexican. It soon became apparent we’d end up somewhere with chips and salsa under our chins.

I suggested a place we hadn’t tried yet, Primos Public Corner, which opened in October with an interior design that doesn’t exactly scream Mexico, but rather gives the impression of a taqueria saturated with urban-American soul.

Roasted jalapeño corn bisque (Photos by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Our appetites were instantly whetted when first previewing online such menu items as roasted jalapeno corn bisque, New York strip steak tacos, bourbon-Sriracha flautas, and other dishes constructed with curious flair.

Located in Mission Valley’s Fenton Marketplace, in the generically modern structure previously occupied by Playa Grill, customers enter into a sporty bar lounge replete with flat screen televisions, limited high-top seating and overly bright lighting.

We took a table in the dining area further back, beneath a domed ceiling offering a bit of architectural detail. The painted skyline encircling the dome’s base, combined with our view of a stylish fire feature on the outdoor patio, left us scratching our heads over the establishment’s skewed identity. Sports bar? Trendy industrial-style hangout? Or a customary plaza-restaurant sprinkled with touches of pizzazz?

Complimentary chips are served on cookie sheets with a trio of excellent salsas. The chips, however, signaled the start of a sweet, sugary undercurrent that ran through most of the dishes we ordered.

Dusted in what looked like paprika, our waitress at first told us they’re sprinkled with the sugar and salt mix used on the rims of margaritas glasses. She later clarified the seasoning was chipotle-based, which I’m guessing was in addition to — not instead of — the sugar-salt mix.

Bourbon-Sriracha flautas with black bean sauce

The roasted jalapeno corn bisque was too thick and cloying for my liking, but hubby lapped it up with wild abandon.

I also surrendered to him my bourbon-Sriracha flautas after a few bites. They were filled with shredded chicken and draped in appealing black bean puree and fresh crema. Yet the promise of booze and hot sauce lurking inside these delicate flour tortilla tubes went unnoticed on my palate. Maybe it was my imagination, but the flavor of confectionary sugar surfaced, as though I was eating a Monte Cristo sandwich.

In exchange for the flautus, I seized his “Messi” burrito, a hefty thing bursting with cubed New York strip steak, scrambled eggs, beer-battered French fries and “50/50” cheese, which is a blend of Jack and cotija.

Primo’s “messi” burrito

Finally, the savory flavors I had craved — and with some decent bites of steak to boot. I didn’t mind the heavy ratio of fries and scrambled eggs to the beef, which interacted nicely to traces of zesty chimichurri sauce also tucked inside.

I also forked eagerly into a side of extra-creamy refried beans, flavored seemingly with lard and cumin, as hubby made the flautas go poof.


Indeed, the burrito and beans eradicated the sweet aftertaste plaguing my tongue from everything that came before it, including the few sips I took of an Amor-Rita cocktail laced with heavy measures of pomegranate liquor and rather syrupy Mexican limonada.

For many, like my spouse, a touch of sugar in savory recipes makes them mysteriously appealing, especially when contrasted with salt or citrus. And though our waitress couldn’t confirm whether sugar goes into any of the dishes we tried, I suspect it does and will order differently next time.

—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at

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