Eating at Del Norte:At last, elbow room when I’m roaming Fiesta food booths. That’s what I found Thursday at grassy MacKenzie Park./strong>
Look, El Mercado de la Guerra Plaza is fun, but unless you sit down on a curb or the steps of City Hall, there is virtually no place to have a seat while you’re balancing a plate of Mexican food and a horchata rice and cinnamon drink.
Ah, but at MacKenzie there are tents shading large round tables. True, the seats are in major demand, but they’re there if you’re willing to play musical chairs.
And there’s lots of room to stroll (except at peak hours). El Mercado del Norte is known as a family-friendly place. There’s a huge circus at the far end, with rides and those inflated fun houses, and live music on stage.
And, over the years, food you could never find at De la Guerra Plaza. Sadly, German sausages, Thai dishes, and other exotic non-Mexican cuisine have been missing this last couple of Fiestas.
But I found plenty to fill my stomach at El Mercado. And there seemed to be more booths this year – and beer, which you’ll never find hawked at the Plaza. The Thirsty Iguana is a fenced-in place where you can wet your whistle with Tecate or Bud Lite for $4 a cup. And – as I was told by the woman at the gate – wine margaritas.
Sue and I weren’t drinking, but we did get lucky with the best tamales I’ve tasted all week. At the Homemade Fiesta Enchilada booth, sponsored by the Apostolic Faith Tabernacle, I was blown away by the beef tamales, which would have been tasty even if I hadn’t sprinkled hot sauce on them. Not to mention they’re a deal at $4.50 each. For some reason it’s hard – though not impossible – to find outrageously delicious tamales the rest of the year.
At the same booth, Delilah Lopez and Ignacio Jimenez sold my friend Michael Edwards a plate piled up with a chicken enchilada, beans, rice, a tamale, lettuce, and a horchata drink for $14.
I was envious, but new culinary adventures beckoned. Over on one side, I found Sanjua Gil and her baseball-playing son Jose (nicknamed “Pepe”) at the family’s El Sitio restaurant booth.
“You must try a sope,” insisted Sanjua, a warm, gracious woman. I was already digging into one of their tacos de abobado, jam-packed with shredded pork, but I gulped one down, handed the other two to Sue, and tried a sope.
A sope – Sanjua’s signature dish – is built on a thick corn bread tortilla, then topped with cheese, lettuce, pepper slices, and a slice of tomato. It’s the pepper that got me and I was soon swigging down all the water I could swill.
But my favorite was the shredded beef taco featuring a traditional favorite in Mexico, pork skin, or chicharron. They’re small, but lovely. Sanjua said the family started out 18 years ago with one El Sitio and now have five. The booth benefits the Scorpions baseball team, where Pepe, 14, tall, and headed for Santa Barbara High, is a pitcher.
After that, Sue and I needed something cool. I heard someone yelling about ice cream and traced it to Boy Scout Troop 2’s booth. Scott Burns, Fiesta El Presidente in 1999, was hawking Oreo ice cream sandwiches and Choco Tacos; an ice cream goodie. Fran Rosenberg offered me a wonderfully sweet $3 cup of frozen lemonade, “sold with a smile.” “Someone says they sell them at Dodger Stadium for $5,” Scott said.
Scott’s son Matthew was in the booth with Jamie Rosenberg; both members of Troop 2. “I was a Scout once,” I said. “Once?” questioned Les Sloane replying, “once a Scout, always a Scout.” True.
It was coffee time and we headed for the Gay Cafe (sponsored by the Gay Santa Barbara Foundation), where Sue eagerly paid Charles Rice $6 for a Greek-style iced coffee frappe. It was warm, so we skipped the hot chocolate Mexicano and were too full to try the oatmeal cookies or zucchini and carrot bread.
There’s much more to eat at MacKenzie Park: Chicken nuggets and taquitos at the Notre Dame School booth, quesadillas benefiting the San Marcos High Dance Force dance team, pizzas to raise money for the Santa Barbara High Aquatics Booster Club and countless other ways to fill your stomach and help the community.
Barney Brantingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-965-5205.