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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 on 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 Milpas Street 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.
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. 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, 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 tacos. It even makes a special appearance in local Katy Perry’s video for “This Is How We Do.” 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). Expect 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. And the simple taco menu sticks to classics—fish and carne asada.
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. Their “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 their 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 their battered fish tacos are some of the best in town. They also serve Baja Shrimp and Fried Avocado varieties. This local favorite can additionally be enjoyed at their 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. They serve 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. Wash your tacos down with a horchata or tamarindo.
Yona Redz (532 State Street) is a relative newcomer that has earned a cult following for their crunchy, hard shell tacos dipped into a special red sauce. They come in beef and cheese versions, and you can wash down the messy goodness with a refreshing Michelada.
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 they expanded their 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. They also have Thai lettuce wrap options with a choice of chicken, tofu, or shrimp for those avoiding grains and corn. Lead by Chef Ramon, Corazon Cocina SB located inside the 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 their 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 their fresh salsa, homemade corn tortillas, and perfectly seasoned meats. Their simply delicious street tacos are only $2.50 each with 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.
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.