Santa Barbara’s history and culture are deeply intertwined with Mexico, so it’s only natural that Mexican cuisine has long played a prominent role in Santa Barbara’s culinary landscape. This makes Santa Barbara a particularly delicious destination for taco lovers because stumbling upon restaurants and taquerias serving up mouth-watering tacos and authentic Mexican fare is dangerously easy to do here in The American Riviera®.
Between the well-known spots with cult followings, the mom-and-pop neighborhood joints and the newer fast-casual outposts that put a contemporary twist on the traditional, you can chart your own taco trail and graze as you go. Let the aroma of freshly baked tortillas guide you from the Haley Corridor and the Funk Zone to the waterfront, downtown State Street and beyond as you home in on the top tacos, superior salsas made from scratch and other addictively delicious hand-crafted concoctions.
MILPAS & HALEY STREETS
Locals know that Milpas Street is where it’s at for the most authentic tacos in Santa Barbara. There’s no better place to start than Taqueria El Bajio (129 N. Milpas Street), a quintessential Milpas joint. A family-run business specializing in traditional homemade Mexican fare, menu favorites include the carnitas tacos and the tamales—especially the sweet corn and pork renditions.
Tacos Pipeye (217 N. Milpas Street) is one of Santa Barbara’s best kept secrets—from the hot and fresh, handmade tortillas to its flavorful (and colorful) array of salsas, a stop at this taco truck-turned-brick-and-mortar is an absolute must. Many mornings, locals eagerly queue up to grab their breakfast and lunch, fueling themselves for the long day ahead. The four for $10 taco special is always on the menu and includes filling options like barbacoa, carnitas, buche and more.
Cesar’s Place (712 N. Milpas Street) gets two thumbs up for its fresh seafood—and there sure is plenty of it on the menu to choose from. This hole-in-the-wall delicacy offers $3 tacos with your choice of meat served in either a soft tortilla or hard taco shell. Whatever you decide, expect to leave happy and full.
The “secret” is out when it comes to Los Agaves (600 N. Milpas Street), and it’s easy to see why—the success of the original Milpas restaurant inspired the subsequent opening of De La Vina Street and Goleta locations. On Milpas, a cheery interior with Spanish tile tables greets eager customers lining up to order from the tantalizing menu best known for its seafood dishes. Beyond the sea, standout tacos include Costra Al Pastor featuring a cheese crust with marinated pork, pineapple and chipotle sauce and the Taco Azteca with steak, rajas, elote, Monterey jack cheese and jalapeño dressing.
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), the late Julia Child’s favorite local taco shop. A humble cement shack with a bright blue exterior, La Super Rica has attracted media attention over the decades for its celebrity clientele and terrific and authentic tacos. The widespread popularity does have its downside in 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 it’s worth the wait.
Just off Milpas heading towards State Street is Lito’s Mexican Food (514 E. Haley Street), whose pork posole was featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives.” One of the longest running family-owned Mexican restaurants in Santa Barbara, Lito’s is a daytime spot serving an extensive variety of epic breakfast burritos all day long. The equally vast taco menu includes the Central Coast’s signature tri-tip cut of beef as well as excellent fish tacos and carne asada.
A couple blocks away, the scent of pan dulce baking in the oven is enough to draw anyone into Los Tarascos Bakery and Deli (314 E Haley Street). While the restaurant is known for its Mexican sandwiches (tortas) and pastries, as well as fresh-squeezed juices, you won’t find a shortage of tacos here, either. And the simple taco menu sticks to classics like pescado, carne asada and carnitas.
WATERFRONT & THE FUNK ZONE
Given East Beach Tacos (226 S. Milpas Street) falls on the south side of the 101 and is just blocks from the beach, we’re including it in the Waterfront section, though you could easily include it on a Milpas taco trek. East Beach Tacos serves hard and soft shell tacos with a contemporary twist, and has an inviting shaded patio for those post beach day munchies. The “Triple Play” option allows you to customize your order and sample three different tacos, such as ahi poke, spicy crispy shrimp and banh mi.
Situated in the Funk Zone, which is a top destination for local wine and beer tastings, Mony’s Mexican Food (217 Anacapa Street) is reason alone to hit the creative neighborhood. 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. The self-serve salsa bar is arguably one of the best in town due to the variety of choices and unique, fresh flavors such as pistachio.
Established in 1976, the original Rudy’s Fresh Mexican Food (305 W. Montecito Street) location is in the West Beach neighborhood. The local mini-chain also has outposts in the Presidio District (138 E. Canon Perdido Street), Upper State (3613 ½ State Street), and Buellton (234 E. Highway 246, Buellton). Rudy’s savory signature taco goes heavy on the veggies with grilled poblano chile, mushroom and onion plus cheese and your choice of meat. Pescatarians can’t get enough of the fish and shrimp tacos layered with avocado spread, cabbage slaw and creamy chipotle sauce.
On The Alley (117 Harbor Way) is a staple of our working Harbor, also home to its sister restaurant Brophy Bros., which is synonymous with Santa Barbara seafood. So, it’s only natural that the battered fish tacos are some of the best in town. The fast-casual joint also serves Baja Shrimp and Fried Avocado varieties. Additionally, this local favorite can be enjoyed at its second location in Goleta (7038 Market Place Drive, Goleta).
STATE STREET TACOS & BEYOND
The central Downtown State Street retail and entertainment district is peppered with taco-centric delights, both on the main drag and off-the-beaten-path, including the legendary Lilly’s Taqueria (310 Chapala Street). Meat-lovers beware—there are abundant, exotic choices in store if you are willing to comply! Think cabeza, cachete, lengua, labio and ojo tacos—or beef head, cheek, tongue, lip and eye. Tamer options such as chicken and veggie are available for less adventurous palates. There is nearly always a line out the door given Lilly’s is a scrumptious option that won’t break the bank. Beat the crowd and try Lilly’s second location in Goleta (290 Storke Rd, Goleta).
Taqueria Cuernavaca (201 W. Carrillo Street) is a regular on local “best-of” lists for good reason. It serves reliably delicious smaller street style tacos with over a dozen filling options, ranging from tripa and tongue to chicharron and buche. Veggie and potato options round out the taco selection. (Tip: Be sure to wash your tacos down with an ice-cold horchata or tamarindo.)
Yona Redz (532 State Street) is a relative newcomer that has earned a cult following for its crunchy and cheesy birria quesotacos. Opt for the Yona Special, which includes three quesotacos and a cup of consommé for the ultimate experience at this State Street gem. The tacos come in birria (shredded beef), asada, chicken, pastor, shrimp, veggie and birra de chivo (goat) versions (birria de chivo is only served on weekends), and you can wash down the messy goodness with a refreshing michelada.
Beast Taqueria (634 State Street), located inside M. Special Brewing Co. on State Street, is a culinary gem led by owner/chef Ramon Velazquez of Corazón Cocina. Indulge in a delectable array of decently sized (to say the least) tacos with unique flavors like the smash burger taco—the perfect marriage between a classic burger and taco—or the Mar & Toro taco with hearty portions of steak, shrimp and beans inside a flour tortilla, all while enjoying the perfect pairing of these flavorful dishes with a refreshing lager or two from the beloved local brewery.
Kanaloa Seafood (715 Chapala Street) is a pioneer in the sustainable seafood movement—it was the first certified sustainable seafood company in the U.S. So, it was very exciting when its expanded its seafood market and distribution business to include a restaurant. Here, of course, it’s all about the seafood tacos. Specialties include crispy fish, Korean salmon, swordfish jerk and shrimp. It also has a Thai lettuce wrap option with a choice of chicken, tofu or shrimp for those avoiding grains and corn.
Chef Velazquez’s original culinary masterpiece, Corazón Cocina, located inside Santa Barbara Public Market (38 West Victoria at Chapala Street), is not your average taco vendor. Daily specials offer a modern twist on traditional Guadalajara street tacos—there’s cauliflower-tempura, braised short rib, butternut squash, wild white shrimp, mole con pollo, octopus and more. For brunch, we recommend the market scramble taco and chorizo con papas with a fried egg.
Los Arroyos (14 W. Figueroa Street) has been a family affair since 1999 and expanded to include equally popular locations in Montecito and Goleta. Helmed by chef/owner Tony Arroyo, the expansive menu features combinations and house specials including taco plates served with your choice of Caesar salad, Mexican rice or black or brown beans. Opt for crispy or soft tacos and taste the love and care that went into the handmade flour and corn tortillas.
Taqueria Santa Barbara (1213 State Street, Suite A) is another family-owned, locally operated spot that really gets our mouths watering when we think of its fresh salsa, homemade corn tortillas and perfectly seasoned meats. Its simply delicious street tacos are only $3.50 each with over 10 protein styles to choose from. Vegetarians aren’t left out of the party—there are potato, corn and mushroom varieties on the menu, too.
No taco list would be complete without mentioning Super Cuca’s Taqueria (626 W. Micheltorena Street and 2030 Cliff Drive), 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.
Discover Taqueria La Unica (3771 State Street), a new and contemporary takeout joint on upper State Street in Santa Barbara. Delight in the casual, yet gourmet, flavors of the pit-roasted al pastor, skirt steak, chicken—and for the more adventurous, beef cheek and head tacos—all crafted with fresh, high-quality ingredients. The taqueria also boasts a hearty list of vegetarian items to choose from, including the “al pastor” made of a medley of mushrooms, cauliflower and pickled pineapple.
Once you’ve charted your personal Santa Barbara taco trail, quench your thirst with a well-deserved margarita. Here are a few places to get started.