It’s Sunday morning in Isla Vista, 9:30 to be exact. The empty streets will be quiet for another hour or two as last night’s belligerent patrons settle comfortably into their well-deserved hangovers. The pace of weekend life is slow here, especially on a Sunday.
There’s no need to rush that pounding headache.
That is, unless you happen to be cooking brunch for 60 people — by yourself — in a kitchen the size of a Smart car, in which case you’ve been awake for several hours by now, prepping ingredients and gathering supplies for the 11 o’clock rush. Or maybe you didn’t sleep at all last night thanks to your neighbor’s new subwoofer and the litany of checklists running laps around your brain. But for Karla Subero, none of this matters. She’s used to it.
Subero is the one-woman show behind Isla Vista’s bourgeoning underground dining scene. Subero has been cooking impromptu brunches out of her apartment since March 2011, serving a variety of globally inspired dishes to friends and fellow students in exchange for monetary donations. It’s not a “pop-up” restaurant per se — just a casual brunch to shake the hangover you’ve been nursing all morning, featuring some seriously elevated Isla Vista cuisine.
The idea was born during Subero’s short-lived career at UCSB’s Student Food Collective, a catering project on campus that struggled to maintain funding for its farm-to-table aspirations. After pumping out assembly-line banquet menus for upward of 10 hours per day, she went home feeling physically exhausted and mentally unaccomplished.
The cooking was there, but the creativity was not.
“The level of stress wasn’t worth the time and effort,” Subero said. “So I decided to try something different. I would cook the food I wanted to eat and invite my friends to join.”
What began as an intimate gathering quickly evolved into a full-blown public affair, with printed menus and Facebook events that packed more than 40 guests into Subero’s tiny one-bedroom apartment. The menu — composed entirely of seasonal ingredients from the Farmers Market — changes weekly and is focused on specific themes like “Chinese New Year” or “Americana Diner.” Dishes are made-to-order and served à la carte for very reasonable prices that typically range from $3 to $8.
“The menu has changed a lot as I’ve become more confident in my cooking abilities,” said Subero. “You’re not going to find this stuff on a catering menu. In fact, you’re probably not going to find it on any menu in Santa Barbara.”
A recent brunch titled “Cowboys and Campfires” featured an array of rustic-yet-refined comfort foods inspired by memories of camping and summer barbecues. Highlights included a pulled-pork brioche sandwich with blackberry barbecue sauce and s’mores French toast with graham-cracker challah bread and homemade marshmallow cream. For patrons over 21, Subero offered an eye-opening blood orange margarita with fresh lime and chili peppers.
She says the most rewarding part of her enterprise is the flexibility and the freedom to “get wild” with obscure ingredients and new techniques. It seems the risks are paying off, as more and more new customers convert to Subero’s growing pool of regulars, eager to entrust their appetites to her seasoned palate and playful imagination.
Clayton Beaver, a fourth-year economics and accounting major at UCSB, is one of these eager patrons. Beaver has attended several of Subero’s brunches throughout the past year and is consistently blown away by the quality of her bootlegged production.
“The atmosphere is always warm, and the people are always sweet,” said Beaver. “They reflect the food and the person who spent all that time preparing it.” Warm and sweet are the potential side effects of Subero’s Venezuelan heritage and her natural tendency to treat every guest — nay, every ingredient — like a member of her own family.
Though determined to develop her own unique cooking style and repertoire, Subero is part of a much larger, flourishing trend in the food industry that’s abandoning the traditional model of “restaurant” in favor of more creative, democratic approaches to serving good, honest food. Young chefs and entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo, and Paris have launched a veritable army of food trucks and underground “pop-up” restaurants that blur the lines between real and imaginary, legal and “tax-exempt.”
Subero’s enterprise is about as guerrilla as they come — with no permits, health inspections, or advertising other than Facebook. Her sublegal status has yet to become an issue, however, as area law enforcement continues to occupy itself with the bottomless cesspool of Del Playa debauchery — bigger fish to fry, if you will.
But this won’t last forever: Subero graduates in June and is planning to move to the Bay Area. Until then, she’s serving up her famous brunches every Sunday, as well as some sporadic prix-fixe dinners on Thursday nights.
To reserve a spot, email Karla Subero at firstname.lastname@example.org.