Not quite rising from the ashes (metaphorically) of Primitivo, but certainly filling the downtown void left by its closing, is Sonterra Grill. The space has been renovated into a faux stone-walled fantasy; the original smoking room is now a semi-private dining area; the bar is as expansive as before (and the bartenders even better); the crowds are as lively. Though Primitivo's closing broke my heart, one bite of the food at Sonterra and I knew I was healing fast.
The food is simply terrific. While many standbys like tortilla soup, guacamole and coconut shrimp can be found at lesser restaurants, here they are taken to an entirely different level by elements like the balance of flavors and seasoning in the preparation, the presentation, the fresh ingredients. Guacamole that in many places often started out as a packet of powder is made tableside at Sonterra: Our waiter, wielding a large spoon with the demeanor of a surgeon, sliced, scooped and coarsely chopped the perfectly ripe avocado. A heavy squeeze of a lime, a flurry of salt and secret seasonings, a sprinkle of cilantro, tomato and onions, and we had a bowl of the best guac in town.
Tortilla soup is livened up by chunks of grilled chicken and garnished with avocado. Coconut shrimp, another appetizer, could suffice as an entree. Four large butterflied shrimp are lightly battered and finished with coconut and arranged around a mound of mango-pineapple salsa, rice and bean relish. Pinwheel swirls of pineapple goop looked too pretty to eat. (One taste got us over that nicety -- it was delicious -- like the rest of the dish, a fine balance of sweet and tart, smooth and crunchy.)
The salsas and sauces are what make Sonterra Grill wonderful. The never-ending chips come with a mild salsa and one that's a zinger. Ask for some of the pineapple salsa; it's the best of all three. The baby back ribs are glazed with a chipotle mango barbeque sauce that enhances the pork rather than smothers it. The meat was so tender it fell off the bone. The Chicken Tejon, a grilled chicken breast topped with spinach and artichokes, and two of the enchiladas are lightly topped with a delicate poblano and red pepper cream sauce. No Tex-Mex drowning in sauce or glopping of melted cheese at Sonterra Grill.
The only dissonant note in the food was the Chili con Queso, er, con Velveeta. It was bland and quick to harden in that telltale phony cheese way. The appetizer had been fabulous on an earlier visit. When pressed, the waiter explained that the kitchen was experimenting with a different recipe but would be returning to the original recipe. Be sure to ask which way they're preparing it.
We sampled as many entrees as we could; all were uniformly excellent. The Stuffed Filet, at $22 the priciest item on a very affordable menu, was several inches thick and tender as could be. The stuffing was a thin layer of roasted red peppers, cheese and shrimp. Filet traditionalists can get theirs without the filling for $18.
The menu offers three different enchiladas and five types of tacos, all quite different. Vegetarians will find portobello mushrooms playing a central role. They appear with red peppers and green chilies in a quesadilla appetizer; they team up with spinach in an enchilada; and they accompany zucchini and yellow squash in tacos. Fish tacos are made with either salmon or mahi-mahi; the latter is the better choice with the mango-pineapple salsa. If you're feeling salmony, order the oven-roasted Cedar Plank Salmon.
Chicken eaters (eaters of chicken, not timid diners) should go for the enchilada rather than the taco. Both are made with mesquite smoked chicken and are good, but the enchilada had more flavor; the taco was a tad bland -- perhaps because they use their mild salsa. The roasted pork taco, on the other hand, was all tender pork and tomato-avocado salsa -- a keeper.
Seasoning is done with a deft hand and an awareness that more is not generally better. This is Southwestern-influenced cooking at its best. And this is what I'm ordering the next time I'm at Sonterra Grill: I'll start with the Ceviche Martini made with shrimp, scallops and mahi-mahi with a tomato salsa, cilantro, avocado and, of course, lime juice. I'll sip one of their well-made margaritas with that. I'll share one of their very large salads with whomever I'm with, and then pause for a glass of wine (the list is limited but the selections are well-thought out with wines one seldom sees by the glass -- like Caymus Conundrum). Throwing dietary caution to the wind, I'll finish with either the Chicken Tejon or the Monterrey Enchilada -- spinach enchiladas topped with shrimp, scallops and that addictive poblano-red pepper cream sauce. Wait -- that may be too much seafood. Okay, I'll start with the Tenderloin Quesadilla then, and maybe have the fajitas; but should I get steak or chicken or shrimp fajitas, or maybe a combo or maybe I should just start with lunch and stay for dinner ...
28 S. Tejon St.
Mon. Wed.: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thurs. Sat.: 11 a.m. to midnight