Just like the rule that the closer a restaurant is to the ocean, the less good the food has to be, it’s also true that historic or gorgeous locations tend to be places hailed as fine for a drink before you move on to a tastier dinner elsewhere. El Paseo Restaurant has too often been that kind of place—a Santa Barbara beauty with not enough culinary care. It was okay for the food to be mediocre because you were sitting amid a Spanish charmer that puts the inside of the Arlington Theatre to shame, especially on summer nights when the roof canvases are open and you can dine beneath the stars.
That’s all changing since long-time Santa Barbara Chef Alex Castillo took charge of the kitchen in November. “You’re eating outdoors in an inside place,” he said about cooking for the spot that’s been open since 1922. “I have to give my all here. It’s an honor to be in this landmark.”
His attention to detail starts with the basic building block of so many Mexican dishes: the tortillas. “At some restaurants, you go on a Monday, and you have the most amazing tortillas,” he related, “but if you go on a Friday, they’re not so good. That’s because when they’re slow earlier in the week, one person only makes the tortillas. Later in the week, that person has other jobs to do. Here, we have one woman each shift—that’s all she does.” Indeed, each order, whether corn or flour, comes piping fresh, fluffy, and delicious from the tortilleria in the far corner of the dining room. As for the chips, El Paseo is now frying those for each order, too. “Ours are not from a bag, and they’re not fried in the morning and reheated in the evening,” Castillo said. “It’s amazing what we do here.”
Castillo’s career has taken him through many of the better kitchens in the area, from Piatti to the Wine Cask to Lucky’s, with his past two years with John Scott of Scottco Hospitality at the Harbor and Longboard’s before moving to El Paseo. Since he’s been immersed in the techniques of a variety of cuisines, from Italian to French, Castillo can claim, “I’m not just making the classic Mexican dishes, but using the freshest ingredients I can get my hands on. I’m doing what I like to call Santa Barbara cuisine.” Despite the somewhat imposing size of the space, the focus is still on making things from scratch, from salsas (ask for the special hotter one, rich with a multi-peppered kick) to the rajas appetizer (deliciously stewed peppers and onions in a rich cream sauce with those toothsome tortillas).
“We’re gradually changing the menu, adding more different areas we haven’t even gotten to yet,” Castillo insisted. One direction will be tasting menus paired with tequila cocktails, from a soothing cucumber version to a scintillating serrano-charged one, overseen by the affable, longtime managing partner Paul Jakubowski. “We’ll be doing what I did at the Wine Cask, making sure to showcase both the tequila and the food, to be sure they complement each other,” Castillo said. “When you combine perfectly, it has the most amazing impact. It’s a new generation of tequila producers—it’s blown up. With all the varieties and makers and tequila-infused liquors, it makes it easier for chefs to play.”
“Cactus—you can do amazing things with cactus. Chayote … people don’t know what to do with it; most people use it in a minestrone-style soup, but there’s so much more you can do with it.”
Castillo’s playfulness lifts what could be a rote recitation of the typical Mexican menu into something exciting. “I use Mexican ingredients but you can make the classic style with a different flavor,” he pointed out. “Cactus—you can do amazing things with cactus. Chayote … people don’t know what to do with it; most people use it in a minestrone-style soup, but there’s so much more you can do with it.” You won’t just get vanilla flan at El Paseo, as Castillo makes a Belgian chocolate version. His crème brûlée might be infused with grappa. And sometimes the shift is a step up in presentation. “My arroz con leche [rice pudding] is in a totally different style,” he explained. “Most people serve it in a glass, but I put it in a cylinder of toasted flour tortilla dusted with cinnamon and sugar, and then plate it on lines of homemade caramel sauce. We already have customers who come only for dessert after shows.”
Explained Castillo, “I want to bring the most amazing flavors and presentations to the dishes I create. I tell everyone in my kitchen, ‘If you would not serve it to your family, don’t put it out.’ People forget to do things that customers really enjoy.” There’s little danger of that happening at El Paseo soon, with a creative force like Castillo in the kitchen.
El Paseo is located at 10 El Paseo. Call 962-6050 or see elpaseosb.com.