HOT EATS: Here’s my guide to Fiesta food, for these five days and nights a year when we go hog-wild, forgetting about vegan, veggie, healthy, natural, organic, soy, or any other variety of small-planet chow.
Look, it won’t kill you to take relish in warm and fuzzy pleasures of all kinds during Fiesta.
Have a midsummer love affair (but don’t cheat on anyone, of course). Stay out late dancing. Take your mother-in-law out for Mexican food (I did when Vivian was alive, bless her French soul).
Wallow in — YES — Mexican food in all its spicy, exotic, wonderful varieties. Never had mole? Then hunt out this hot, chocolaty sauce slathered over chicken. For once in your life, be daring! You need to find a restaurant for that, though.
While I’m not aware that mole is being served at the Fiesta food booths at De la Guerra Plaza or Mercado del Norte at MacKenzie Park, just about everything else from south of the border is.
Even — hey, you only live once — goat tacos.
You can find them in De la Guerra Plaza’s El Zarape booth, benefiting the South Coast Community Youth Cultural Center. Along with pork tacos and chicken á la Mexicana, spicing up your otherwise humdrum eating life.
Drag Mom out of the kitchen, toss a folding chair for her in the car, and find a parking spot near the Plaza. There awaits a cornucopia of cuisine I never tire of, even after 50-plus Fiestas. Good tamales are hard to find, and La Bella Rosa Bakery is serving the pork, chicken, and cheese varieties, along with beans, rice, and that sweet, sweet dessert, flan.
My buddies at the Vietnam Veterans of America are selling pulled-pork sandwiches and sweet potato fries. Walk behind the plaza booths, and you’ll see and smell beef ribs on the barby, thanks to the Masons.
For lo these many years now, Casa de la Raza has been cranking out these huge tri-tip tortas. The only trouble is that after one, I’m full and can’t try anything else.
For more than a quarter-century, almost since the days of Padre Junípero Serra, Semana Nautica folks have been serving chicken burritos and chicken or cheese quesadillas. I never miss quenching my thirst there with a tall cup of the traditional Mexican rice drink horchata, or jamaica (ha·my·kah), made from hibiscus flowers.
I’ve spent days at Fiesta searching for a plate of good old-fashioned no-nonsense cheese enchiladas. This year, I know where to find them: at the United Latin American Pentecostal Church booth at the Plaza, along with bowls of hot chicken and rice. When I was spending time in Panama, my favorite dish was arroz con pollo, and maybe it’s just the way time blurs memory, but I’ve never been able to find a chicken dish that tastes the same.
But just as I never find the perfect taco, I keep trying. Speaking of which, the guys at the Santa Barbara Rugby Association booth, benefiting the Special Olympics, are as usual hawking good old-fashioned original-recipe tacos, hot and juicy, so good I usually have two or three, slathered with salsa.
There’s much more to eat here, like fish tacos, guacamole dip, and to top off the treat, the CALM folks (Child Abuse Listening Mediation) are serving up strawberry shortcake and brownies to soothe your taste buds.
Right here, I want to make it clear that I don’t mean to neglect Mercado del Norte. Where you’re liable to be shoulder to shoulder in De la Guerra Plaza, the Northside version has plenty of room, even sporting a few tables. And, of course, music on the bandstand (loud) and a carnival. It becomes Family City.
Want a bacon-wrapped hot dog? Mercado del Norte’s your place. Hawaiian shave ice? “Gourmet” sausage? And the great folks at Santa Barbara City Fire Department are whomping up cheese quesadillas, guacamole, chips, and salsa.
Mercado del Norte really gets rocking after about 5 p.m., but De la Guerra Plaza swings all day and into the night. That’s because all the downtown folks flock there for lunch, then sneak away from work for a snack, and meet the family there for dinner.
Fiesta food negatives? Well, at De la Guerra Plaza, everyone knows it’s hard to find a place to sit, and at Mercado del Norte, it’s hard to find a place to park. But once you get there and start stuffing your face, it’s worth it — as usual.
Fiesta? Padre Serra would love it.