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Craving Mexican? Mapping Little Mexico in Santa Barbara

January 18, 2011 - Julia Austin

Los Arroyos Burrito If you live in California - anywhere from San Francisco to Long Beach - you're probably something of a Mexican food elitist.  Which particular city has the most authentic fare is a pretty heated debate here - and most locals know it's kind of like religion - you don't bring it up at a dinner party. 
on left: The Los Arroyos Burrito

However, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Santa Barbara is "it" when it comes to the real deal.  About a two-hour drive from LA, the seaside town is a city that embraces the coral-tinted, stucco architecture of actual towns in Mexico. It only makes sense that a lot of the local fare is inspired by the same culture.


Without further a-do: here are my favorite eats in Santa Barbara.

Los Arroyos
The downtown eatery - one of two locations - is basically stuffed in a wall between a deli and a smoke shop. Los Arroyos became wildly popular for it’s hard-to-believe reasonable prices, the most extensive salsa bar in town, and food so flavorful you are a little confused when you leave NOT feeling sickly full….

That’s because Los Arroyos doesn’t use the sodium-saturated refried beans or sweet-like-candy margarita mixes that bigger chains do. Everything—including the fluffy tortillas and addictive chips—is made in house. Nothing on the menu exceeds $25, unless of course you are splurging on the wine list, which features mainly local grapes.

One of my favorite dishes is The Carne Campestre. You get to try a little bit of everything in this one. A tender, juicy steak is accompanied by corn or flour tortillas (or both!) grilled onions, beans and rice, fresh sour crème and guacamole. And for breakfast, don't miss Johnny’s burrito. It's not your usual Huevos Rancheros -  the textures in this tightly wrapped concoction are so smooth and comforting (just what breakfast food should be) with warm, soft red potatoes, pinto beans, piping hot cheese and sour cream. Simple and satisfying.

The restaurant gained such a crowd (one that could no longer fit on the street outside as wait time to be seated grew to 45 minutes to an hour DAILY ) that the owner—Tony Arroyo, who worked his way up through multiple Santa Barbara restaurants before opening his own—opened up a second location in the star-studded neighborhood of Montecito. Among others, Oprah, Michael Douglas, Steve Martin and Paul McCartney can be found choosing Los Arroyos over the over-crowded and over-priced Lucky’s steakhouse across the street. Even the celebrities seem to appreciate the low prices…

By the way, your meal comes with entertainment Friday through Sunday night, with either a live Harp or Spanish Guitar player sitting under the Palm Tree archway in the front.

El Paseo
Maybe you have been to (or at least seen on one of the hundreds of movies about vacations in Mexico) one of those breathtaking restaurants within a beach resort, where the waitresses are adorned in typical, old world, off-the-shoulder blouses and full floral skirts, moving between lush palm trees and fountains. Well you don’t need your passport to find such a place.

Off the beaten path, El Paseo is one of those places the locals have to tell you about. Just off of the ever-buzzing State Street (where Old Navy, Starbucks and College Bars sit, so you get the picture) El Paseo is tucked within an alleyway of shops that does for a moment make you feel that you are in Mexico. When you step off the narrow path of Cobble Stones and into the large heavy doors of the restaurant, you’ll see why the entrance feels the need to make such an impression—you are transported when you get inside. Boasting two levels of seating (it’s so great to people watch from the upper level) the restaurant has a half-outdoor feel with trees bursting out of the ground sporadically around the room, twinkling with tiny white lights. A trickling fountain sits in the middle, and a generously sized Cantina-style bar is situated just off to the side of the main dining room.

You will forget that just outside the doors of this dream-like destination the first language of the citizens is English…

Another vacation-invoking detail, the tableside fresh guacamole. The tamale-flipping chefs in the back are happy to have an audience, so go say hello!

I’ll be honest though, you come to this place for the atmosphere. The food is merely satisfactory—all the traditional dishes like Taquitos and tamales—but nothing above your seaside, tourist town meal. Appetizers are priced at around $12, Entrees $15-$25. But really, do go for the atmosphere! It’s truly an experience in itself.

La Superica
We’ve covered the cute and well-priced, we’ve done the elegant, hopefully you trust me enough now to be open to the idea of a slightly tilted, green and broken down shack in one of Santa Barbara’s reputed “dangerous” areas. It’s really not dangerous, by the way. So few places in Santa Barbara are - it just doesn’t have mansions lining the streets!

You don’t have to take my word for it though. Julia Child reviewed this joint and called it one of her favorite taco spots. Whoa.

La Superica will regularly have a line around the block, but it is SO worth it. This is authenticity at it’s…well…most authentic. Located on Milpas Street, the restaurant sits in the neighborhood most Santa Barbarians refer to as “Little Mexico.” The food can only be so good because the nearby inhabitants would not stand for any place commercial.

Get ready for plastic chairs, a sun-patio, over-crowded seating area, and ordering at a window - cash only! Possibly feeling guilty for the less-than-elaborate décor, prices are cheap, cheap, cheap! A plate of tacos goes for about $5.

But, you won’t be disappointed. My favorite item there: Horchata. A surprising chilled beverage made with rice milk and cinnamon.  It’s actually the perfect drink to temper any spice. Other Mexican restaurants in town offer this drink, but none come close to La Superica’s recipe. When sediments of real cinnamon cake at the bottom of your cup, you know you’re drinking the real deal.

The options for Mexican restaurants in Santa Barbara are as dynamic as the inhabitants. But tourists, locals and celebrities alike frequent these three I’ve listed. The bikini-clad girls on roller skates by the Pier may allure you closer to the Seafood restaurants, but don’t leave Santa Barbara without a serving (or 3) savory, South of the Border fare. Hey, at least you'll be able to join in on the heated debate over which California city does it best.

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Would be heading to Santa Barbara right now, if I could.

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