People that know me personally, when they associate me with food they usually think of Asian cuisine, or pizza because I make a lot of it at home and post it on the socials. What many don’t know is that Mexican fare was my first love. In my early career when I was in sales, I would travel the country and be in a different city every day, and eat at a different Mexican restaurant every day for a week straight.
I still love it, and my latest affair is with Prima Cantina on St. Pete Beach. They started in Southern California, first in Santa Monica and then Pacific Palisades. The St. Pete Beach location opened in March 2023, and we dined there earlier this week, on February 7, 2024.
All of the food at Prima Cantina is housemade from scratch daily, including the chips and the tortillas. We were told that they inherited a freezer from the previous restaurant and that it is unplugged and unused.
Flavor is the word of the day, every day here. Everything at Prima Cantina is packed with mouthwatering delight. They really know how to season the food well. We just kept saying, “Wow! This is so good!” with everything we ate. It was all so craveable–with only one exception described later with the food details.
It’s not too surprising that the dishes are so delectable once you find out that the place is owned by Nando Silvestri who also owns Matteo Trattoria & Pizzeria in The Grand Central District of St. Pete. They have nailed Italian-American at Matteo, and likewise for Cal-Mex at Prima.
Most of the Mexican offerings in this area are Tex-Mex, so many people are not familiar with the difference. Red Mesa Mercado bills itself as “Cali-Mex”, which means the same thing as Cal-Mex.
In contrast with Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, is a fusion of California cuisine and traditional Mexican cooking, and is known for fresh and seasonal ingredients, leaner proteins, more seafoods, avocados and more veggies, and plant-forward dishes. You’ll also find more grilled foods than fried. I’ve also read that Cal-Mex more often has whole beans rather than refried beans, which is the case at Prima Cantina. However, I looked at several Southern California Mexican restaurant menus that all had refried beans on them.
Don’t worry if you’re not sure about Cal-Mex. If you love Mexican food, you will love this version too. There may be less heavy sauces, and not as much cheese, but the cheese is still there, and there’s steak, carnitas, ground beef and chicken for the diehard carnivores. There are definitely some dishes that crossover between the Texas and California styles too.
We started with the spectacular Piccante Margarita that was perfectly balanced with tequila blanco, muddled Serrano chili peppers, agave nectar, hand squeezed lime juice and a splash of cold pressed orange juice. It’s a little bit spicy with the Serrano peppers, but still quite approachable and delicious.
For many people and restaurants, chips and salsa are an afterthought. Not at Prima Cantina. I definitely recommend getting the salsa flight. It’s inexpensive, and you can’t go wrong depending on your taste and heat tolerance.
All of the salsas are homemade, using a variety of fresh vegetables, chiles and herbs from different regions of Mexico.
The enchilada sauce (left of photo below) isn’t shown on the flight section of the menu, but we requested it to try it. It has a mild-to-medium spice level with warm, toasty flavors of charred chili peppers. It is served warm.
If you’re a heat freak, like I am, you’ll love the Salsa Ajo and El Jeffe. They are both super spicy. If jalapeños are super spicy for you, you might NOT want to try these. They are MUCH hotter. Both the Salsa Ajo and El Jeffe are served chilled. The Salsa Ajo (top of photo below) has a smokey flavor and is made with roasted garlic, roasted arbol chiles, salt, pepper, and oil. The El Jeffe Salsa (right of photo below) is made with habaneros, garlic, and dairy free mayo.
The tanginess of the tomatillos dominates in both the Salsa Rojo and Salsa Verde below with the rojo having an added smokiness. Please note that these are both served warm as we’re used to most Mexican salsas being served chilled. The Salsa Rojo has tomatoes, chili guajillo, tomatillos, arbol chiles, onions, garlic, cumin, pasilla chiles, oregano, salt and pepper.
The Salsa Verde is made with tomatillos, onions, garlic, jalapeño, cilantro, salt, and pepper. These are both mild-to-medium in spiciness.
The Casa Salsa of blended tomatoes, red onions, jalapeños, fresh cilantro, salt and pepper is one of the best house salsas I’ve ever had.
We had lots of stuff to dip chips into, but we still wanted more and couldn’t resist the fresh made guacamole, and side queso, and even more cheese with the Queso Fundido.
Not all guacamoles are created equal and this one is hugely craveable. It also comes in handy for putting the fire out after eating the spicy salsas. They use fresh Haas avocados, red onion, cilantro, and lime… and some amazing secret seasonings that are not listed in the menu description.
The side queso dip was perfectly creamy, cheesy and mostly mellow with just a little punch to it. For a heftier cheese and meat hit, the Queso Fundido hit the spot with Jack and Oaxaca cheeses, mild chorizo and your choice of warm flour or corn tortillas.
For entrées, Lori ordered her go-to which is steak fajitas. Fajitas are generally thought of as Tex-Mex, but I did see them on the six other So-Cal restaurants I surveyed. The main difference as you can see in the photo is that there are more vegetables including tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, zucchini, and bell peppers along with garlic, salt and pepper. It comes with cilantro rice and beans. The rice is jasmine, and as is the custom with Cal-Mex there are a few kernels of corn mixed in. They just top the rice with a cilantro pesto of sorts, so they were able to leave it off for Lori.
The fajitas were the only item we didn’t love. We loved all of the veggies in it, but the meat flavor was too sour for us.
For tacos, they currently offer Carne Asada, Shrimp, Chicken a la Parilla (grilled), Carnitas, Pescado, and Ground Beef. You have a choice of soft flour, soft corn, and hard corn tortillas. The tacos come as a trio, and you can also mix and match. I chose soft corn tortillas, which feels more authentic to me, and in the Cal-Mex spirit, my first two choices were Pescado – Mahi-Mahi in this case, and shrimp. I rounded it out with carnitas, and also got a carne asada taco with flour tortillas to take home. I loved them all, but my favorite was the shrimp. It had the best flavor and texture / mouthfeel.
In my rice below you can see the cilantro topping which was quite tasty. So many times at other Mexican restaurants the rice and beans accompaniments are just ok. Both the rice and beans were excellent at Prima Cantina. Again, more items that I couldn’t stop eating. The Norteño beans are slow simmered for hours to create a comfort food side dish that I wouldn’t mind having for a meal in itself.
If you enjoy Mexican food and haven’t been to Prima Cantina, add it to your list to go to as soon as possible. Below are a couple of interior photos, menus, and happy hour information. Check out the tequila flights at the bottom too.
Address, phone number, and map with directions are below the menus and tequila flights.
Serving up elevated Cal-Mex cuisine in a casual environment.
PLEASE NOTE: Reviews reflect a certain moment in time. Some restaurants stay extremely consistent over many years, and some change for the better or worse. Some things that may change are: chefs, recipes, food suppliers, ingredients, philosophies, ownership, etc. We always hope that you have the same good, or great experience we had.