Eat Civic, Where Primo-Mex Lives
The transformation of SanTana into one of the county's best cities for food is such that it's not just gabacho outsiders who are clamoring to open restaurants in the city's downtown. Now, born-and-bred santaneros, completely at home in each side of the Mexican-American hyphen, are setting up shop by offering the food they grew up with. Cafe Calacas pioneered the trend with its Chicano coffeeshop; the kids at Tabu a couple of doors down on Fourth Street are doing the same, if a bit more focused on lunch. But the team with the most ambition is Civic, a tiny storefront off a section of Civic Center Drive that probably saw its best days in the 1960s. The aptly titled Ghetto Records stands abandoned next door; the space Civic occupies hasn't had a successful tenant since the late, great Ruth's Place closed more than a decade ago. Nevertheless, Civic is like a molcajete: It gets better with every whirl.
Three guys run the place, with an emphasis on making stuff in-house (the peanut butter is sweet, silky and perfect) or sourced as locally as possible (the owners are regulars at SanTana's recently rebooted farmers' market). Don't think this is dainty fresa shit: The owners are practitioners of what I have previously deemed Primo-Mex, the kind of mashups Mexican cousins do every carne asada Sunday to show off. So not only are there gargantuan burritos (one with green chorizo!), but they'll also come with a green salsa that resembles wheatgrass juice but burns and makes you forget the bottle of Tapatío you grabbed. The lunchtime sandwiches come with jalapeño remoulades. And also on the menu are the stunning bacon-wrapped hot dogs of co-owner Christian Lemus, better known as Mr. Hot Bunz and legendary throughout SanTana nightlife for his scorching half-pineapple, half-habanero sauce.
The only knock I have against Civic is also its most exciting feature: Everything here is a work in progress. It demands daily visits, if only to get all of the daily specials posted on Instagram. One day, it can be red and green chilaquiles ringed by strips of perfectly pink steak; other times, it's an epic brownie awash in caramel and pecans. Those are great meals, but the one I've yet to catch is a beef teriyaki burrito. You know these guys are the real deal when they take the ultimate Japanese comfort food for Mexicans and wrap it in a tortilla. Hey, cabrones, I dare ustedes to make a Maruchan Ramen pozole—not only would y'all make it delicious, but you would also make it GANGSTA!
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