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First Look: El Sueño

The new Mexican restaurant, from the owners of Don Pietro, will feature multiple bars, an outdoor patio, and a speakeasy

When it comes to dining out, sometimes Old Town can get put into the only-for-tourists category. But, recently, the area has seen a wave of new restaurants, coffee shops and even a Michelin-starred sushi spot that’s adding to the repertoire of what Old Town has to offer.

With the soft opening of El Sueño on Friday, June 9, the neighborhood is adding another name to its growing list of notable eateries. The Mexican restaurant—owned by Pietro Busalacchi, his dad Salvatore, and Gustavo Rios, their family friend—is taking over the longtime La Piñata space that served the community for decades on the Juan Street block.

El Sueno Mexican restaurant

El Sueno Mexican restaurant

“A lot of people have fond memories of this place so I really hope that we can live up to that legacy,” says Pietro.

But since restaurants run in the Busalacchi family’s genes, filling those shoes seems like a pretty manageable task. Before it was the bustling neighborhood we know today, Pietro’s uncle was one of the original restaurant pioneers in Little Italy. “He helped start that renaissance by having seven restaurants on India Street, that’s my idea for Old Town. Do the same thing,” says Pietro.

He’s well on his way. Born as a tribute to Rios’ mother who died a few years ago, the Old Town restaurant is also the trio’s second in the area together behind Don Pietro which opened in 2020.

El Sueno, Old Town

El Sueno, Old Town

Outdoor dining will be the soul of El Sueño. The patio almost makes you feel like you’ve stepped out of Old Town and into a hidden restaurant tucked down an alleyway in Mexico City. With solid wooden tables mingled amongst olive trees, and the twinkle of market lights above, the outdoor dining area feels like an elevated space for both everyday dinners and special celebrations.

Inside, the dimly-lit bar area is “one of those places you want to go and sit at the bar,” says Pietro. With a focus on high-quality tequilas, and creative tequila-focused cocktails, the bar menu is something that he’s most excited about.

Guests can try drinks like the “Bad Bunny” spicy carrot margarita, modeled after the spicy carrots served at taco shops, and the “No Tears Left to Chai” using chai-infused tequila.

In the dining room, faux moss covers the walls, and in some cases fake plants take over full walls, reminiscent of Pietro’s travels to Mexico City where he says plants rule.

Angus tomahawk, El Sueno

Angus tomahawk, El Sueno

The greenery vibe is also a throwback to his unrequited dreams of being a modern-day Indiana Jones after studying anthropology in college. “I grew up camping a ton and I love the outdoors. Going camping, you see the moss growing on trees, and it kind of popped up in my head: ‘If you were to leave a building out in the jungle, what would happen to it after 20 years?’” says Pietro.

Upstairs, a members-only speakeasy will be accessible through a secret entrance for their hundreds of founding members who have “been along for the ride” in their restaurant journey. The experience will be intimate and high-end with the team looking to learn every detail about their clientele so they can offer special touches such as having their favorite cocktail waiting for them when they arrive. Pietro thinks this opportunity could open to the public, eventually, but for now it’s exclusive for their biggest fans.

As the El Sueño team makes their mark on Old Town’s longtime dining scene, Pietro hopes to bring in their own spin on the Mexican restaurant experience—sharing a new community space in an area he calls home (actually, just down the street from the restaurant). “I think this area has a lot of character and I think it’s been here for so long,” he says. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere, it’s only going to get better from here.”

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By Elena Gomez

Elena Gomez is an Emmy-nominated reporter who has spent much of her journalism career working in broadcast news in San Diego and Los Angeles. She joined the San Diego Magazine team as a freelance writer in 2020.

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