As a co-owner of Casa Blanca Restaurant & Cantina, Adam White can be honest to a fault. “We started with a fairly pedestrian menu that didn’t match the facility in some ways, so we had to get a more high-octane chef,” he admitted recently. “Onofre Zuniga had been let go by Cava after 15 years and was recommended by one of our vendors. He started last Wednesday [November 2], and the damn food is night-and-day better already.”
White is definitely right on two accounts. First, the no-costs-spared remodel of the former warehouse/store spot on lower State Street at Gutierrez is a knockout, largely designed by Jeff Shelton in a tile-intensive style White jokingly calls “Dr. Seuss goes to Mexico.” Second, the food has picked up, at least based on the zingy halibut fish tacos, which, of course, start with the freshest fish. That’s what you’d expect from White and his father, Tom, who have also opened the Boathouse, FisHouse, and the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, which Julia Child lauded back in its earliest days.
Casa Blanca did have its rocky first days. “From start to finish, we opened in five months, but it’s like running a marathon and then having to sprint,” said White. “We opened Fiesta weekend, as we needed to make some sales. If it had taken two more weeks, we would have been dead out of money.” Even with a limited menu to make the opening a bit softer, the establishment hasn’t had the easiest of times on Internet reviewing boards. “I wish people would talk to me and not just post things,” said White. “If there’s ever an issue, I try to see that as an opportunity, so I ask the table, ‘What’s wrong? What can I do?’ People are so happy to be taken care of, it’s almost better somehow, really showing them we are committed to their having a good time.”
Pleasing people is his goal, for Casa Blanca has its roots in one of White’s favorite haunts while attending college in Boulder, Colorado. “The Rio Grande—it was a really big, fun place, our go-to spot. You could even afford it when you were in college,” White recalled. “In Santa Barbara, there didn’t seem to be a place really like that. Most of the Mexican restaurants do take-out or counter orders. This was always sort of a dream of mine; I’d look at this building and thought it looked like a Mexican restaurant with the patio and tower.” Now White feels it’s just a matter of time ’til Casa Blanca hits its stride, saying, “Letting Onofre go on the menu, he’ll get it dialed in.”
Case out the new cocina at Casa Blanca, 330 State Street; (805) 845-8966, casablancasb.com.