Restaurant review: Balboa

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

On its website, Balboa contends to have been "inspired by the chill vibes you find in Southern California." If by "chill vibes" the Balboa folks mean "nonstop parties on the patio," then I agree.

Otherwise, "chill" hardly comes to mind when describing a nouveau Mexican restaurant that has been attracting boisterous crowds since opening on May 5 by hosting a huge Cinco de Mayo celebration. But scratch beneath the surface of the teeming hordes and often-lengthy waits for tables, and you'll find a handsome place, a friendly staff and good food. Chalk this up, at least in part, to owner Brian Swanson (who also owns Bodega) and Executive Chef Jason Murphy (formerly of the Refectory).

In addition to a wildly popular patio, Balboa - it occupies the radically rehabbed former Shoku space in Grandview Heights - has a small bar in a small room and a large bar in a large room. The attractive décor, which includes touches of whimsy but minimal kitsch, might be called "mission-revival rustic-chic."

Light-bulb clusters enveloped in wicker shades and flickering candles ensure an amber glow. Liquor bottles - some containing house infusions - are backlit in wooden cabinets. Banquettes resemble Mexican blankets, but tastefully so. Conversation pieces include a life-size white bull sculpture and two playground-worthy swings hanging from the ceiling beside the stylish large bar. Apparently addressing intrepid (if not necessarily sure-handed) imbibers, a nearby sign reads: "swing at your own risk."

To lower the risk of spillage, I swigged my margaritas at a table. My favorite (they're all $8) was the Straw Jalapeno, with strawberry-and-jalapeno-infused tequila reined in by the licorice notes of yellow Chartreuse. The most interesting thing about the sweet-tart house margarita is that it's on tap. Also on tap: about a dozen beers, about half from California (most drafts are $6).

If only seeking a snack, the Balboa Street Corn ($5) - two chargrilled little cobs with all the right bright, rich and zesty garnishes - is hard to beat. For something much larger, the Sampler ($10) is a well-executed and popular ensemble of tangy, above-average queso dip topped with chorizo (I'd like more), lime-forward guacamole, kicky roasted salsa and a metal bucket of warm, non-greasy tortilla chips.

You can also scoop Balboa's crisp chips into Tuna Ceviche ($13). The generous serving of lime-drenched, clean-tasting, diced raw fish - the Latin answer to sushi - is enhanced by pico de gallo components, avocado and "avocado-crema." Like most items here, it arrives attractively presented and shy on salt (which I don't mind; it's oversalting that isn't fixable).

Tacos are three per order; most trios cost $11. Counterintuitively, they're better with the flour tortillas (toasty, puffy) than the corn tortillas (somewhat stiff). I'd prefer more poblano chili heat, but still enjoyed the hefty Short Rib Tacos with plenty of juicy beef strands, sweet caramelized onions, pepper jack cheese, cilantro and "tomatillo crema."

Because slaw garnishes slabs of seared, slow-cooked meat, the Pork Belly Tacos recall a hybrid of Mexican food and American barbecue. Mine diverged from the menu description - instead of beans and tomatoes, I got cotija cheese, salad veggies and a creamy, fruity sauce. Whether or not prepared this way intentionally, the slightly spicy result was a Balboa highlight.

Balboa's Slow-Roasted Chicken Torta - sweet, sautéed onions and peppers flattering good, warm chopped meat and slaw on a thin and crisp, toasted telera roll - also evokes barbecue. At $12 (with chips and salsa) it's relatively pricey, but is well made with fine ingredients.

Ditto for the Mahi Bowl ($14). Although a unifying sauce would be nice, with tender blackened fish planks, lettuce, avocado, sticky rice and a tropical fruit salsa, it's a dish that is fresh, inviting and satisfying. But it's not really "chill."


1312 Grandview Ave., Grandview Heights