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Santa Barbara is every foodie’s haven and there is no shortage of diverse cuisines to taste and devour. One of the most prominent cultural cuisines in Santa Barbara is without a doubt, Mexican food, making it nearly impossible not to stumble upon a Mexican Restaurant and instantly begin to crave a mouth-watering taco.
While the well-known spots in Santa Barbara consistently draw crowds and have great food, the locals and savvy tourists know not to ignore the numerous small, equally as delicious, places that offer the chance to skip the line and explore something different. To ensure you and your bellies have the best tacos Santa Barbara has to offer, let the aroma of freshly-baked tortillas guide you to Milpas Street, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Santa Barbara.
THE MILPAS TACO TREK
A quintessential Milpas joint is Taqueria El Bajio (129 N Milpas Street). A family-run business offering traditional homemade Mexican dishes, it’s impossible to go wrong ordering from the extensive menu. Some favorites are the carnitas tacos and the tamales, especially the sweet corn and pork renditions. A short block away is Taqueria La Colmena (217 N Milpas Street), another quaint taqueria with a quality selection of meats. Locals love the rajas tacos (peppers and gooey cheese slathered over a handmade tortilla), and rave about the homemade orange-peanut-habanero salsa.
Cesar’s Place (712 N Milpas Street) gets two thumbs up for its fresh seafood—and there is plenty of it on the menu to choose from. Order the ceviche campechana, a fresh blend of fish, shrimp, and octopus, served with a side of homemade crispy tortillas and saltine crackers; or go the nontraditional route with a big plate of fish and chips. Whatever you decide on, expect to leave happy and full.
One place on Milpas Street that isn’t such a secret is Los Agaves (600 N Milpas St), and it’s easy to see why. A cheery interior with wood and Spanish tile tables greets eager customers as they line up at the front to order. The menu features several seafood and authentic Mexican dishes.
If you know anything about Santa Barbara Mexican food, it’s safe to say you’ve probably heard of La Super-Rica Taqueria (622 N Milpas Street), Julia Child’s favorite local taco shop. Not much more than a cement shack with a bright blue exterior, La Super Rica has attracted a ton of media attention for its celebrity clientele and terrific tacos (anyone seen Katy Perry’s video for “This Is How We Do”? La Super Rica makes a special appearance). The widespread attention does have its downsides, like the almost-constant line wrapping around the corner from where this shanty stands. It has remained an iconic figure of Milpas taquerias throughout the years, however, so it’s safe to say people consider it worth the wait.
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STATE STREET TACOS AND BEYOND
If time and transportation are an issue, step into one of the hidden gems off State Street for a quick and satisfying hunger fix.
Meat lovers beware—there are abundant, exotic choices in store if you are willing to comply. The legendary Lilly’s Taqueria (310 Chapala St) downtown, and with a second location in Goleta, serves cabeza, cachete, lengua, labio, and ojo tacos—or beef head, cheek, tongue, lip, and eye. Tamer options such as chicken and veggie are available to those who aren’t feeling as adventurous. There is nearly always a line out the door as Lilly’s is a scrumptious option that won’t break the bank.
A bit down the road from Lilly’s on Chapala Street is Romanti-Ezer (701 Chapala St), a taco stand with the motto “weird name, delicious food.” Walk up to the inconspicuous stand to order, then head around the corner to the hidden patio in the back to feast on traditional Mexican delicacies. Bar hoppers rejoice: on weekend nights, this is one of the few late-night SB haunts, open until 3 am.
Casa Blanca Restaurant & Cantina (330 State St) is an upbeat State Street stop with Spanish-style architecture and décor, designed by renowned architect, Jeff Shelton. A hand-carved Acacia bar accompanies 120 tequila options while brightly colored tiles line the floors and walls. As for the menu, Mexican classics such as chile rellenos and fajitas are served alongside more rare options such a birria (lamb shank). The outdoor patio features people watching and a fire place, which is perfect for a chilly Santa Barbara evening.
Mony’s Mexican Food (217 Anacapa St) is one of the few options for eats in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, but should be at the top of your taco list. Get there by noon, and don’t be afraid to wait in line. Not only is it more than worth the wait, but the line moves quickly. While there, the self-serve salsa bar is not to be missed, and is arguably one of the best in town due to the variety of choices and unique, fresh flavors. Of all the nine-plus salsa flavors, make sure to try the pistachio.
Lead by Chef Ramon, Corazon Cocina SB (located inside the Santa Barbara Public Market, 38 West Victoria at Chapala) is not your average taco shop. Daily specials offer a unique twist on traditional tacos, like the cauliflower-beer battered taco. Or, change things up and swing by for a taco brunch. We’d recommend the chorizo con papas with a fried egg.
No taco list would be complete without mentioning Super Cuca’s Taqueria (2030 Cliff Dr and 626 West Micheltorena St), the self-proclaimed first Taqueria in Santa Barbara. Winner of the Santa Barbara Independent’s “Best Burrito” contest every year since 1991, Cuca’s offers hearty portions made with authentic ingredients. With two locations in Santa Barbara, see for yourself whether Super Cuca’s deserves this coveted title.
The scent of pan dulce baking in the oven is enough to draw anyone into Los Tarascos Bakery and Deli (314 E Haley St) in Santa Barbara or Goleta. It promises tasty Mexican sandwiches (tortas) and pastries, as well as fresh-squeezed juices. The pastry menu changes daily, offering dessert and lunch pastries hot out of the oven. From the torta selection, “La Tarasca” is a top pick—ham, egg, tomato, beans, bacon, lettuce, onions, cheese and roast beef all on homemade Bolillo bread.
Once you’ve made your way through the Santa Barbara taco trail, quench your thirst with a well-deserved margarita. Sandbar, Paradise Café, La Playa Azul Cafe, and The Boathouse are a few places to get started.