First cousins

A battle of service-station Mexican eats

Los Primos, 7401 Sheldon Road in Elk Grove; (916) 681-8226;

Los Amigos, 700 Harbor Pointe Plaza in West Sacramento; (916) 376-0881.

Los Primos received a two-star rating. Los Amigos recieved a two-and-a-halfstar rating.

Chairman Mao is on the tee box waiting for the foursome ahead to remove themselves from his kill zone.

This would be Wei Mao, head of the Sacramento Chinese Golfers Association, whose flock affectionately—go figure—calls him Chairman. The Chairman is chatting with Dave Low, clout-laden lobbyist for the California School Employees Association. The topic turns to food, as it often does with Dave.

As for Mexican food, the Chairman says his favorite haunt is inside a gas station.

That would be Los Primos in Elk Grove. Its entrance is to the left inside of the Food Mart doors at the Shell on Bruceville and Sheldon roads. The fast-food/drive-through joint is the sole Northern California member of a chain concentrated in Orange and San Diego counties.

A Spanish-English dictionary reveals that primos, as a noun, can mean cousins—los primos hermanos—which fits given the restaurant’s logo of two zany cartoon Mexican guys eating. As an adverb, primo means first.

Los Primos is not primo.

Granted, neither Dave, Dave’s wife Frances, one of the state Senate’s most astute labor-law analysts nor myself entered the 22-seat establishment expecting Chasen’s. That said, however, the place is like me: flawed with moments.

We regret missing the 11:30 a.m. cutoff for breakfast. The chain’s Web site boasts of serving breakfast all day, fact unknown at the time, otherwise outrage would have been expressed.

Based on the size of the carne asada burrito we share, the breakfast burrito would easily feed two. Machaca, shredded beef and eggs, looks appealing at $5.75. The young woman behind the counter delivers the food while dispatching drive-thru orders via headset. Styrofoam plates, plastic cutlery and a paucity of napkins accompany the food.

Consensus: Stick to the burritos, all of which are à la carte and in the $4 to $5 range. There are plenty of options: surf-and-turf, cabeza, lengua, chorizo, and the Monster at $5.25, which the Chairman digs with pollo asada.

Dave nails the carne asada as “soggy but tasty.” A value meal with it as the star plus rice, beans and a 20-ounce drink is $6.49. My bean tostada is bland. It would improve sharply with serranoed-up salsa verde rather than the mild-mannered Clark Kent stuff offered.

The Supermen at the salsa bar are the hot sauce—pert near perfect—and the escebeche, a hefty kick but carrot-heavy. Bring me pickled onions to match my mountains!

There’d be no dent in the place’s bottom line if the tostada’s crown were sprinkled with sliced olives, chopped onions and grated queso seco cotija rather than store-bought Mexican cheese mix. The fish in the tacos isn’t very crunchy. In an act of fish taco sacrilege, lettuce is used rather than the always-superior cabbage.

Verdict from Dave and Frances: OK, but Juanita’s Taco Shop in Encinitas, which they frequent when in San Diego, is a superior eatery.

Accompanied by Mark Twain, I elect to delve deeper into the Mexican-restaurant-in-a-gas-station oeuvre—or is it a motif?—by visiting Los Amigos in West Sacramento. Across Reed Avenue from the California Highway Patrol Academy, it’s probably one of the area’s safest dining spots.

Twain and I debate whether Los Amigos is actually in the 76 station, since it’s separated from the Food Mart by a Quiznos and has its own entrance. For the sake of comparison, Twain orders a fish taco. I go for the $5.99 Super carne asada burrito, which purports to include sour cream, guacamole, cheese and pico de gallo, in addition to the rice, beans and meat. Excavation turns up little more than trace elements, however.

This fish is crunchier. There’s a dollop of sour cream, but, alas, this taco too is contaminated by lettuce. There are hard plastic plates and real cutlery.

The salsa verde delivers a satisfying oomph. Not the walking-barefoot-on-the-sun I crave, but far superior to Los Primos’ pabulum. Beverage options are limited to Diet Coke, Sprite, water or the sugary surfeit of Jarritos because the soft drink fountain is on the fritz.

Los Amigos is less cramped, brighter and has more parking. Prices at the two places are comparable.

Edge to Los Amigos. But can we fix the damn soda fountain, por favor?