Face it. There’s only one famous restaurant in our town. It doesn’t need stars, a Zagat blurb, or nouvelle cuisine pretensions. It’s not fusion. It’s a taco stand, and it’s been resolutely situated for more than 25 years on Milpas Street, the nexus of nosh in this beautiful bourgeois town.
Of course, I mean La Super Rica. Opened during the Reagan era without fanfare in a former Foster’s Freeze, A&W, or Orange Julius site (depending on who’s remembering) but championed posthaste by the celebrated likes of Julia Child and Jackson Browne, its first real touts were from the gay community, and the lines formed almost immediately. Today Super Rica is automatic copy whenever Gourmet magazine tours California cuisine, a de rigueur stopover for visiting stars like k.d.lang, Dustin Hoffman, or Eddie Vedder’s family. Los Angeles knows Santa Barbara for Super Rica the way they used to fixate on the Moreton Bay fig tree by the train station. It’s a landmark. It’s worth the wait, and it’s on Milpas Street, the milagro mile of Santa Barbara eateries.
Long Time Comin’
When I was a high school kid, Milpas was supposed to be dicey. The Eastside our 1960s parents proscribed was supposedly American Graffiti tough: gangs and car guys cruising and the Bravados on their roaring and popping Harleys. But our folks loved Yolanda’s gringo-ish Mexican food, and there was even a Tastee Freez that sold abalone burgers. The city’s first falafel stand opened where Reddick and Milpas cross (later the site of Hibachi); everybody shopped Whitefoot’s Market and the Brotherhood of the Sun’s overpriced organic grocery on the corner of Yanonali.
By the late 1970s, Milpas was getting a bit haute. Fancy restaurants began spawning there. Anderson’s (now on State Street) first pastry store opened there. Mousse Odile sold desserts to go. A place called La Fonda became justly famed for something called chicken mole with chocolate and chile slopping over into fluffy rice and beans. Then came Thai food with the Reagan years, and forever since, press darlings have declared Milpas to be on the verge of paradise-like the lovers on Keats’s Grecian Urn, this far away from perfect bliss (please hold two fingers slightly apart). Well, I say it arrived about three years ago.
It’s good on every level, except the pretentious. In the place where the abalone burger once was, you now have The Habit nee The Hamburger Habit, a burger joint that invariably wins readers’ polls, whose name is usually proclaimed on the street as best in town. Much as I love it, though, I was sorely crushed when they stopped serving chili and turned a little chain-like.
Happily, last month a place called Chili Town opened at 730 N. Milpas, neatly replicating the original chili-mustard-tomato-hamburger admixture: Now we have the best of both worlds. The fanciest American place on the street is Fresco at the Beach atop the Santa Barbara Inn, a hotel most people forget stands guard at the bottom of Milpas-once home to the overrated Citronelle, which offered overpriced 1980s cuisine by god incarnate Michel Richard. Fresco is famed for Caesar salad, but the burger is huge and smothered in caramelized onions, which forgives many sins.
There’s okay barbecue and a decent fish-and-chips shack on the calle de buena comida; shockingly, the Cajun Kitchen left Milpas recently, a sign proclaiming that they lost their lease.
Want ethnic food? Of course you do. There is good Mexican-there always has been. Altamirano’s rules the old school: frijoles, rice, and exemplars of the disappearing art-the taquito, say, or chile rellenos. Up a notch is Taquer-a el Bajio, where carnitas and adobada have a plangent soulfulness, this side of funk but redeemed by fire-breathing salsas. Close to the beach, and higher in experimentalism, is the unlikely Arturo’s Taquer-a stand (near a batting cage), where tacos made from squash and tongue and brains are sauced with an almost mystical complexity.
Asian food begins with longtime resident Shang Hai, a restaurant vegetarians particularly love. The long-lived Thai restaurant Your Place is supposed to be great, but I think it depends on who’s cooking the night you visit. The best news is that China Pavilion plans to open a buffet where the old Hibachi stood. This is the only street in town sans sushi bar, so deal.
Bringing It All Back Home
But the crown of Milpas’s eastern leanings is a place humbly entitled Saigon In & Out. Owned by William Lam, the clean-lined green decor is mirrored perfectly in the fresh snap of the food’s piquant flavors, and it has held its high quality and low prices since opening three years ago. I love the phá», that elegantly sumptuous soup swimming with thin slices of beef and other meats over vermicelli. But my deeper feelings are reserved for Lam’s raw papaya salads and spring rolls, which are crisp and delicious with lavish mint and cilantro refreshing your mouth with every bite. I rarely leave even a drop of food when I visit Saigon.
Some words on desserts: Saigon serves fresh lychee fruit and light syrup. Panader-a la Tapatia sells Mexican pastries (a trifle dry, I think) and tres leches cake (really moist). But the new star of the street is Boris Cake Bakery run by Jose Fuentes, whose training includes Mexico City and Parisian influences, and the light sweetness and delicate flavors of fruit and seasoning amount to the best sense of fusion collusion.
But the epicenter of Milpan cuisine is simplicity justly observed. La Super Rica’s Isidoro Gonzalez once confessed to me in a candid and rare moment outside his shop, after a long walk down State Street, “I don’t know about anything else, but I think I’m very good with tastes.” I laughed-perhaps impolite, but it was like Dr. Seuss saying he was pretty sure kids would like his books. Few dishes contain as much contrast, delicate shades of flavor, and satisfying munchability as the tacos adobado or rajas or a steaming hot chicken enchilada with its Mexican version of crme beurre sauce topped with a hint of guacamole and a cold crisp radish.
I once saw a well-heeled gathering at LSR pull out a bottle of great burgundy, wine glasses, and fine china and silverware; collect their paper plates-ful and then re-scoop their meals onto the bone ware. I see this as a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes food delicious in this country: It has little to do with white linen, and it’s not dependent on fish eggs or bloated duck livers, either. It’s not whether it’s locally grown or imported. It’s basic rounded satisfaction, the delivery of something nutritious that brings your mouth alive, served with grace at a fair price by somebody busy being good with flavors-maybe on Milpas Street.
Panader-a la Tapatia, 832 N. Milpas St., 962-2318
The Habit, 216 S. Milpas St., 962-7472
Saigon In & Out, 318 N. Milpas St., 966-0916
Boris Cake Bakery, 423 N. Milpas St., 962-2080
China Pavilion, 830 N. Milpas St., 962-7833
Your Place, 22 N. Milpas St., 966-5151
Shang Hai, 830 N. Milpas St., 962-7833
Altamirano, 422 N. Milpas St., 882-1390
Taquer-a el Bajio, 129 N. Milpas, 884-1828
Arturo’s Taquer-a, 226 S. Milpas St., 560-6612
Fresco at the Beach, 901 E. Cabrillo Blvd., 963-0111
Chili Town, 730 N. Milpas, 730-7373
La Super Rica, 622 N. Milpas St., 963-4940