In Southern California, it’s easy to take the taco for granted, but not all tacos are worth gulping down. An actual street taco is a minimalist, delicious work of folk art. You need those perfect tortillas, moist but not mushy, tasting of the grill, and then you need the perfect topping. That’s it. Some salsa, perhaps, but not always.
Santa Barbara has its famous spots, two of which this paper has awarded Foodies to — La Super-Rica and Lily’s Taquería. And yes, Fiesta is a great time to get a fix at one of the mercados. But here, we’re lucky enough to have a handful of spots that deal in authentic, delicious tacos you can get year-round.
Here are four of the best.
Taquería La Colmena
I may have to join Salsa Anonymous because of La Colmena (217 N. Milpas St.; 845-6970). I’ve been tempted to kick back shots of their habanero-peanut salsa — some roasted tomato richness, that peanut sweetness, and then the roundhouse heat kick of the habanero, just beyond what I usually can take, but so good I keep eating anyway. Luckily, the delivery systems for this delight, the tacos themselves, are also wonderful. If you want a different pork taco, try the lomito, a sort of pork chop, very tender, squared up. And if you always thought the best part of a grilled cheese was the cheese that spilled out the sandwich and singed on the pan, you’ll love the rajas con queso, just the right ratio of pepper to cheese, and so much crunchy fried cheese goodness that when you slather it with the habanero-peanut salsa, you might just cry with delight.
There’s other good stuff in this odd building — where Pavlako’s was, on that triangular plot on Milpas — from the ever-friendly help to the creamy bean dip they give you with chips to the alambre plates, where whatever you order, including fish or shrimp, comes in one grilled pile with veggies and more and tortillas on the side. But with these tacos — including a barbacoa, where BBQ and Mexico meet in a tasty alley — it’s easy to forget the rest of the menu.
Loving tacos and animals isn’t easy, as taquerías love to butcher, and then offer you hoof and snout (we’ll get to tongue in a bit). And while Cuernavaca (201 W. Carrillo St.; 564-1414), nestled next to Mel’s in a small, generally crowded spot, certainly does all sorts of meaty meals, it also offers two veggie options plus the rajas con queso. They aren’t just doing it to be kind to vegetarians; these are scrumptious, especially Veggie #2, with mushrooms finely sliced and seriously grilled. Veggie #1, with potatoes, is nearly as good.
For those desirous of flesh, you must try the al pastor, topped with a little cap of sliced pineapple, holding hands across cultures with baked ham and pineapple rings on Easter, or bacon and pineapple on Hawaiian pizza. It’s an unbeatable pairing, all that good sweet and salt, bright tang and pork depth, and if you set it off with a bit of their roasted red salsa that brings the heat, it’s a taco party in your mouth. They also do a suadero, or beef stew, that’s brisket cooked ’til its pale — it appears to be pork. But the taste is truly beef, something on the way to the heartiness of marrow, if not that mushy in consistency.
Tacos y Mariscos Boca de Rio
Part of the trick at Boca de Rio (318 N. Milpas St., 845-8898) is finding the tacos on the menu, despite the name of the establishment. They’re listed under Platillos Mexicanos, not that they come with rice and beans, except for the veggie-friendly tacos dorados — hardshell tacos — that you can get filled with yummy potatoes. You can order fish or shrimp, plus the usual suspects: asada, pollo, lengua, cabeza, pastor, and carnitas. The lengua, or tongue, is beef at its most tender, tiny cubes that could melt in your mouth (weird, I know).
What’s best about these tacos are the tortillas, ones that taste 3-d: They are almost springy, willing to bite back. And while subtlety generally is the name of the game here, they do make a fiery camarones a la Diabla for those willing to dance with the devil at dinner. Otherwise, few devils are around. Sometimes a fine guitarist entertains; other times strangers will engage you in conversation about the Gold Cup that’s broadcast on the dining room’s big screens.
Los Tarascos Mexican Restaurant
Los Tarascos (5915 Calle Real, Ste. B, Goleta; 683-1919) leaves me eating my tacos naked. That is, I don’t really need salsas here, as the taco toppings are so tender, so long-marinated. In fact, it might be hard at first to be sure which taco is which, as they tend to share a lovely maroon glaze. But nothing is greasy — it’s just flavor sucked deep into well-cooked meats. If you like carnitas, Los Tarascos is for you, pork pulled like Freddy Krueger had at it, yet just enough of that carbony char, that crispy crust you want in a carnitas.
The place is easy to miss next to the lightshow that is YoYumYum Yogurt, but the small dining room is quaintly decked out and impeccably clean. There’s no salsa bar, but you’ll get some with your meal, and it’s pleasing but not amazing. Luckily, you won’t want it on your tacos, which will arrive neatly dressed in onion and cilantro with quartered-limes. The small tacos are cheap ($1.25) and well-stuffed. You will leave even better stuffed. And the menu has other fine options, too, like a filling seafood burrito.