Her First Fiesta: “My first goat taco,” gasped 20-year-old New Yorker Ariel Shapiro, peering at a corn tortilla loaded with shredded meat.
“I’ve never eaten goat but I’ve wanted to for a long time. In New York it’s the swanky new meat to eat.” Ariel, who is a summer intern at The Independent, my wife, Sue, and I were tasting our way around El Mercado De la Guerra Wednesday, August 3.
Here we think it’s a wild treat to taste chivo once at year at Fiesta, while to those hip Manhattanites it’s just a trendy snack to get the evening going. But there was nothing jaded about Ariel’s chivo experience. Raul Gil, at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce booth, suggested that she slather on a spicy pico de gallo sauce that included nopales—tender shoots of cactus. She didn’t hesitate.
“This goat is good,” she told us, giving the thumbs-up sign. Not surprisingly, a splotch of hot sauce appeared on her notebook. (She’s writing about Fiesta, too.) The goat tacos go for three for $7.
Along came 2nd District County Supervisor Janet Wolf and after a little urging on my part, she had to try a goat taco, too—and liked it.
“I’ve never had a tamale,” Ariel confessed. (She goes to school at Madison, Wisconsin.) So we made our way through the growing crowd to the Holy Cross booth; all the food stands benefit one nonprofit or another. Now I’ve had my problems with Fiesta tamales. I’ve found good and bad—yes, there is such a thing as a bad tamale. It’s dry and there’s not enough meat or other filling to speak of. They’re an insult to this wonderful Mexican dish.
So I was a bit hesitant to allow Ariel to try one. But we ordered two, pork-filled with red sauce. She delicately unpeeled the husk and spooned a hunk into her mouth.
“I wasn’t sure about the corn husk but I liked it,” she told me. “It’s very good.” I tried one and it was excellent, moist and juicy. I gave it an A.
Year in, year out, the longest Mercado lines are at the Old Spanish Days booth, where you can order carnitas and all manner of Mexican food. (They needed more help.) There I insisted that my New Yorker friend try a cup of horchata, that traditional Mexican cinnamon-flavored rice drink. I love it. So did Ariel. “It’s like rice pudding on ice.”
We bumped into Dave Gonzales, the singing Santa Barbara cop now retired from the force but just signed on as a volunteer driver for Food for the Heart, which delivers meals to shut-ins and others. He also opened Fiesta at the Mercado at 11 a.m. on Wednesday by singing the new Viva la Fiesta, written by our own Peter Clark.
I was beginning to fill up so I almost passed up the corn-on-the-cob booth sponsored by the “Don Riders,” the Santa Barbara High Low Riders Bike Club, raising money to help at-risk kids. Luke Menchaca stuck out his hand. “You spoke to my third-grade class at Roosevelt School. I just graduated from UCSB.” One ear of corn for $3, three for $7.
I spotted a church-sponsored stand vending one of my all-time favorites, arroz con pollo, rice with lots of other tasty ingredients and chicken. But, just as we can never find food to match mom’s cooking, I’ve never found arroz con pollo like the dish I ate many moons ago in Panama. The guys at the booth there remembered me from last year, pointing out that this was a Colombian recipe, using small bits of chicken, not the big hot pieces Panamanian cookbooks call for.
Anyway, in the spirit of Fiesta, I shelled out $4.50 for a bowl that Ariel and I shared. I confess, it was hot, spicy, and excellent. But we couldn’t finish it. There was only room for a churro, that toasty, sugary sweet that one can’t leave the plaza without tasting.
David Archer, wearing an Hecho en California T-shirt (made in California) was hawking them for $2.50. “I’m a native, born at Cottage Hospital.”
Ariel needed no introduction to churros. “I’m a churro fan,” she said, chewing away and laughing to beat the band.
And so went her introduction to Fiesta food. And she’s got days ahead to try new delicious dishes. But from now on, she’s on her own.