If you are reading this, there are perhaps no two truer things about you than the fact that you are living and the fact that, at some point during that living, you must eat. What follows is a celebration of the intersection between those two fundamental facts, an ode to keeping it easy and answering that age-old question of “Where we gonna eat?” by simply feasting where you live. That is to say, walking down the street and enjoying the wonders of eating in your neighborhood. Of course, some corners of Santa Babylon lend themselves to this sort of culinary cruising better than others, and, well, it is just such ’hoods that will be featured in this consistent yet occasional column written by me, Ethan Stewart, a mostly unsophisticated eater who once worked two shifts as a waiter at an Italian restaurant on Cape Cod in 1997.
This maiden Eat Your Neighborhood adventure begins at the intersection of Milpas Street and Cannon Perdido, a place that is some 778 adult-sized steps from my front door. Here, in the shadow of the Santa Barbara Bowl and along the well-beaten path of lunch-breaking Santa Barbara high schoolers, looms a particularly potent and ethnically varied assembly of eateries. Within an easy stone’s throw of each other, you have a taquería, a pizza and pasta spot, a panadería that does a whole lot more than just bake breads and cookies, and a Chinese restaurant that is arguably the best to be found in the 805 area code. And, depending on your definition of “eating,” there is also a Speedy Mart and a liquor store, as well as a tattoo parlor and a Laundromat if you feel like multitasking during mealtime. In short, this is one-stop shopping (or eating as the case may be) for any and all appetites.
On my approach, dropping down the pitch of Milpas hill toward the Pacific, Sal’s is my first option, a pizza joint that also slings sandwiches, salads, and pasta dishes. For the past eight years, Sal Esquivel has been making pizza with his trademark East Coast-esque crust at 900 North Milpas Street. Having cut his chops in the kitchens of places like the Wine Cask and the now-shuttered Tutti’s, Esquivel delivers more than just your typical pizzeria experience. Read: If you just stick to the pizza portion of Sal’s menu, you are missing out big time. Grab a seat on the outdoor patio, order a cold beer and something like the Ranch Crispy Chicken sandwich with fries or the perfectly spicy Penne Arrabiata, and settle in for some prime Milpas-style people watching with a tasty and affordable meal to keep you company.
Across Canon Perdido from Sal’s is Taquería El Buen Gusto (836 N. Milpas St.), a blocky sort of brick building that is one of the best-kept secrets on Milpas’s storied Mexican food trail. Pozole on Friday, birria on Saturday and Sunday, a huevos rancheros dish that will make your breakfast one to remember any day of the week, a taco lineup that features everything from brains and tongue to fish, chicken, and al pastor, and tortas that are impossible to eat without juice running down your face and arms are just a few of the reasons to pay a visit. The television playing either Telemundo or a soccer match, the juke box in the corner, and the little-used garden patio out back only add to the experience. If money is tight, the $6.99 taco combo — with two tacos of your choice, rice, beans, and salad — is about as savvy a meal move as you can make in this town.
Across the parking lot, where it has been for the better part of the past three decades, is Shang Hai (830 N. Milpas St.). Family run and offering a mega-sized vegetarian menu since way before catering to vegetarians was cool, this Chinese restaurant is perhaps S.B.’s best food-flavored example of the age-old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” From the outside, Shang Hai looks like a place you should probably avoid if finding edible food is your goal, but once you are on the inside of the graffitied landscape, blacked-out windows, and heavy glass and metal doors, it is safe to say that you can do no wrong when exploring their menu. I have been a devoted Shang Hai eater since I found them one lonely Christmas season a decade ago, and after moving into the neighborhood a few years back, I hit them up nearly every week for lunch or dinner, often running into city councilmembers and Montecito-dwelling superstars. The mu shu (extra pancake recommended) and kung pao dishes are shining stars in the S.B. food universe, and when dinning in, the sensory delight of their sizzling rice soup (it smells great, tastes better, and sounds like a bowl of Rice Krispies) is not to be missed. The service is always top-shelf, the tea is always free, and the Luncheon Special has long been a mainstay for locals who know what is good for them and their wallet. When lunch hour hits, it is hard to beat a full menu of pork, chicken, beef, vegetarian, or seafood meals all priced between $6 and $8. Even better, the bigger-than-you’d-expect portions also include egg rolls, fried wonton, and fried rice.
Last, but certainly not least, next door to Shang Hai is La Tapatia Bakery (832 N. Milpas). A sugary and sweet Mexican bakery, this unassuming hole-in-the-wall has become a popular neighborhood breakfast spot (the breakfast burritos are gut busters and wonderful hangover helpers) as well as a regular morning feed zone for the hard-working men and women of the SBPD. They also do a fine authentic menudo soup on Saturday and Sunday and serve up tender and delicious barbacoa each and every day. As I like to tell people, “La Tapatia: Come for the desert, and stay for the meal.”