Plenty has changed about the capital city since Brian Swanson was part of a successful three-headed Park Street empire alongside Chris Corso and Mike Gallichio.
One thing that hasn’t: if you’re promoting a place with a spacious patio, you can pretty much print your own money.
Since cashing in on his share of the Park Street Complex, Swanson has been busy building his own portfolio of updated local hot spots—first with the uber-popular Short North Bodega, and then snapping up Grandview Café, and the former garage behind it that had been Shoku.
Grandview Café will open later this summer, but Swanson’s vision for the old Shoku spot was a California-inspired bar. This era of revamping and rebuilding starts phase one with Balboa, akin to the Cantina of old—though spared some of the kitsch, with a more straightforward approach. Where Cantina felt like a baja tourist trap (which is totally what they were going for, by the way), Balboa seems just like the kind of place you’d find in San Diego—it’s all about fresh air and cold drinks.
The interior is inventive and clean—they even have a couple of swings at the bar—but the centerpiece of Balboa is a patio that seats 70 and provides excellent people watching regardless of which side of the gate you’re on.
The menu is a safe take on a Mexican approach to food. The most adventurous item would be the choice of ceviche (shrimp or tuna), but despite the fact that you can’t find any beef tongue or house-fried pork rinds, the menu does offer some nice culinary touches like tomatillo crema, and Modelo-braised short ribs.
Of course, one look around and you realize the order of business here is to drink, be merry, and eat—quite possibly in that order. House cocktails include three kinds of margaritas, infused tequilas, and a homemade shandy that puts pre-packaged stuff to shame. They have big, boozy slushies for those hot summer afternoons and sangrias by the pitcher. Mercifully, they go easy on the Mexican beer, opting to allocate six taps to California brewers like Green Flash, Anderson Valley, and Cismontane. Four handles are reserved for local beers, all of the “sessionable” variety, and two more handles get a global designation. At the opening, one went to Pacifico, while the other was reserved for 5 Rabbit, a brewing company out of Illinois known for imbuing a Central American theme in their process. Don’t worry—Corona, Dos Equis, Modelo, and Tecate are all available from the cooler.
Of course, the house favorite is bound to be Barley’s Blood Thirst Wheat. The blood-orange infused thirst-quencher pairs effortlessly with the food, and the five percent ABV makes it a perfect beer for patio relaxing.
A page borrowed from Cantina’s playbook is a robust tequila selection—complete with plenty of options of all three variations. There are over 22 varieties of anejo alone, many of which are actually quite hard to find, which in itself is a worthwhile reason to visit Balboa. If you think you know something about tequila because you’ve chased a few shots with limes, you really need to settle in for an education. In case they don’t tell you, PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T ASK FOR ANEJO TEQUILA IN A MARAGARITA! Seriously, bartenders will happily charge you $50 to ruin Don Julio Real, but that doesn’t mean you should. Balboa is the perfect place to taste it neat and find out why that is.
If you think tequila has a worm in the bottle, stop and don’t say another word until you’ve stopped in. Then you can contrast and compare tequila with mezcal—it’s a lesson worth learning.
Balboa keeps things popping during the week with a half off special on wine pours and SoCal beers from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. The obligatory taco Tuesday combines two dollar tacos with five dollar margaritas. Brunch will be served on weekends, and the club does have accommodations for private parties.
Overall, it’s a fun little spot. Opening night definitely had a little Park Street pulse to it, and that’s probably not a bad thing for Grandview. The fact that Balboa makes its large patio a key component of the club should help it succeed where others have failed. Time will tell if Swanson can his empire running smoothly (including the soon-to-open Hadley’s downtown), but so far he’s off to a good start. – Steve V. Croyle
1312 Grandview Ave.