East Beach Tacos
(226 S. Milpas St., 770-2761)
Nestled in tight next to the batting cages at the ocean end of Milpas Street, East Beach Tacos serves up what they describe as “Gourmet-Style Beach Tacos.” Ranging from $4-$6 a taco, their fusion menu goes well beyond typical taquería fare, offering, among others, bánh-mì-pulled-pork-and-shredded-cabbage tacos, Gangnam Korean short-rib tacos, battered and grilled cod tacos, and spicy tempura shrimp. Their ahi poke tacos are both mouthwatering and belly-busting, and best of all, East Beach offers a three-taco combo (of your choice) for $9 that also comes with a token for a round of swings in the cages next door.
La Super-Rica Taquería
(622 N. Milpas St., 963-4940)
Welcome to the taco joint that Julia Child introduced to the world. This now legendary restaurant, with its building’s trademark teal trim, chevron-inspired roofline, and daily line stretching out the door down Alphonse Street, is worlds beyond a straight-ahead taquería, though any discussion of taco spots in S.B. would be incomplete without mention of Isidoro Gonzalez’s place. Their handmade tortillas are light and fluffy, just the right amount of chewy, and as addictive as a strong narcotic, providing the bar by which all other tortillas in the 805 are measured. And then there are their rajas tacos, which are a world-class eating experience not to be missed. Want to dig in at La Super-Rica without the wait? Go at off-hours on a weeknight.
Taquería El Bajio
(129 N. Milpas St., 884-1828)
Existing in the long shadow of La Super-Rica since it opened some two decades ago, El Bajio has been a true local spot for Mexican food fans in the know. Though the tacos run you at least $3 and come with only one tortilla (as opposed to the standard two-tortilla approach at most taquerías), they are meal-sized and delicious, often requiring a fork to clean up what spills out onto your plate. They have a veggie taco that makes you forget all about the meat options, a uniquely flavored lengua (cow tongue) taco, and an absolute must-try chicharrón (fried pork belly or rinds) taco, a tender and taste-bud-popping number bathed in a spicy chile verde sauce. As an added bonus, El Bajio has a rotating lineup of agua fresca and daily licuados specials.
(201 W. Carrillo St., 564-1414)
A longstanding staple in the Ventura taco landscape, Cuernavaca opened up an outpost next to the new Mel’s a few years back, and the place has been going gangbusters ever since. With fare ranging from $1.60-$2.25, their menu — inspired by their namesake city in state of Morelos, Mexico — is one of the few in town that includes less common taco options like suadero, chuleta, milanesa, and their “Tinga Taco,” a chipotle-bathed-shredded-chicken treat. They also have one of the area’s best al pastor tacos, cooked in the traditional slow-turning spit style. That being said, none of their menu, in my gringo opinion, comes close to their “Veggie Taco #1,” a jack-cheese-covered pasilla-pepper-and-potato taco sent straight from the heavens.
(310 Chapala St., 966-9180)
Ever have the desire to try steamed-cow-tongue or lip or cheek or eyeball tacos? If so, Jose Sepulveda’s taquería is the place to do it. Santa Barbara’s original, no-frills, street-style taco spot, Lilly’s remains an absolute monster in the local scene. Still priced at less than $2 a taco, it has a full fridge of real-sugar, glass-bottle “Mexican” sodas; a complete and exotic menu of grilled and steamed meats (their tripas is available on weekends only); and a stripped-down salsa bar that offers exactly what you need, nothing less, nothing more.
Taquería La Colmena
(217 N. Milpas St., 845-6970)
Where once Pavlako’s served up legendary Greek eats, Alvaro Abrego and Jesus Gonzales & Co. have been quietly building a taco empire along the west side of Milpas Street. A full lineup of $2.25 tacos with an award-winning salsa bar (their peanut salsa is the stuff of legend with their avocado-based salsa not far behind) greet you once you walk in the door, the TV invariably tuned to some soccer match. The place has the feel of a south-of-the-border diner. Their lomito (cooked in a secret garlic sauce), tripas (if it’s not sold-out), and ever-rare hígado de res (a sauce-smothered beef liver) are worth traveling for, though I have never been disappointed by anything on their menu. Abrego and company also offer an increasingly popular catering service where they show up and cook tacos street-style at your house or wedding or whatever other event you can dream up.
Mony’s Mexican Food
(217 Anacapa St., 895-2978)
The Funk Zone had been waiting for Mony’s. The neighborhood had long suffered from a lack of tasty and quick affordable eating options — hence the hodgepodge of food trucks crashing the ’hood most days and nights. One of these trucks gained enough traction with locals and visitors alike that eventually its owners — the husband-and-wife team of Mony and Jose Diaz — decided to open up a brick-and-mortar operation on Anacapa Street two years ago July. Their salsa bar is like no other (pistachio salsa alongside peanut salsa alongside mango salsa alongside habanero salsa alongside avocado salsa), and their taco lineup, all right around $2, includes staples like asada and buche and tripas as well as pollo, done asado or mole style, and arguably the best fish tacos in town. The latter, especially, should be enjoyed with their mango salsa and a cool breeze at one of their sidewalk tables. As a bonus, all “eat in” orders include free chips, providing perhaps the best way to explore the Mony’s salsa bar.
(524 N. Milpas St.)
A taco truck with a semipermanent location, Tacos Pipeye is open for business most nights along the 500 block of Milpas Street, parked just outside of Big Brand Tire and complete with tables and chairs in the parking lot. The tortillas are handmade to order in the truck every night, and their three tacos for $5 is a tough deal to beat, especially if you are including their poblano chile with cheese and their chorizo con papas in your order. They serve until at least 11 p.m. and have $1 watermelon juice that seems irrationally refreshing.
Tacos El Rey
(5 W. Haley St., 653-1111)
The ultimate combo of traditional street tacos and heady gourmet taco interpretations, Tacos El Rey is a colorful hole-in-the-wall just off State Street. For $2.25, you get a standard street taco like carnitas or barbacoa or, for the non-meat-eaters, portobello garlic mushroom. However, spend a few dollars more, and you will enjoy what El Rey does best, “Specialty Tacos”: Mango-relish-and-cabbage shrimp tacos; sushi-grade ahi poke tacos with seaweed, avocado, ginger, and honey-mustard sauce; tofu tacos with cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, and sprouts; or their Guero, a big-belly satisfying combo of meat, cheese, sour cream, tomatoes, and guacamole. But don’t forget your greenbacks, as Tacos El Rey is cash-only.
(1114 State St., 965-4770)
After a brief hiatus, this Tuesday-Friday lunch spot that operated inside of the insanely popular Mexican eatery Cielito is back. Markedly more spendy than most other taquerías in town (tacos start at $7.50), the Cielito Taquería bar serves quasi-meal-sized edibles for the foodies among us. Beer-battered local white fish with coconut lime crema, Sriracha aioli, and cucumber, known as the Tacos Ensenada, or their Tacos Verduras, with pickled and braised carrots, an ancho chile mole sauce, and queso fresco are the type of eats that linger on your palate long after you are done and keep you coming back for more. The ambience of sitting outside by the turtle fountain only heightens what can be a truly memorable lunch experience.
Taquería El Pastorcito
(2009 De la Vina St., 895-2827)
The name says it all; this is the place to get your al pastor on. The unofficial taco spot of the Santa Barbara Police Department (the Vargas family has been doing taco catering locally since 2005 and has long been a go-to for SBPD events), El Pastorcito is a family-run affair done in celebration of Mexico City’s street taco style. It’s a place that is the undisputed epicenter of al pastor tacos and home to the annual al pastor taco festival. The Vargas family is so guarded in their particular seasoning recipe for their al pastor that not even their son, Noe, who helps run the restaurant, knows exactly how to make it. I have sought out al pastor tacos the world over, and the ones you get here are as good or better than any I have tasted. Pair it with their red salsa, some fresh white onion, and cilantro, and you have the dictionary definition of umami. I dare you to eat just one.
Other Great Taco Places
El Sitio (2830 De la Vina St., Ste. C, 682-9747; 138 S. Salinas St., 963-0171)
Rudy’s Mexican Restaurant (305 W. Montecito St., 899-3152)
Super Cucas (626 W. Micheltorena St., 962-4028; 2030 Cliff Dr., 966-3863)
Taquería El Buen Gusto (836 N. Milpas St., 962-2200)
The Mex Authentic (413 State St., 845-6364)
Ana’s Taco Bar (505 State St., 963-4233)
Tacos & Mariscos Boca de Rio (318 N. Milpas St., 845-8898)
Mayo’s Carniceria & Tacos (2704 De la Vina St., 569-1591)
Mexican Fresh Taquería (315 Meigs Rd., 963-7492)
Don Paco’s Taco Truck (weekend nights only at the corner of San Andres and Micheltorena sts.)
Los Arroyos (14 W. Figueroa St., 962-5541; 1280 Coast Village Rd., 969-9059)
Los Agaves Mexican Restaurant (600 N. Milpas St., 564-2626; 2911 De la Vina St., 682-2600)
Taco Tuesday at El Paseo Mexican Restaurant (813 Anacapa St., 962-6050)
El Zarape (1435 San Andres St., 899-2711)
Casa Blanca (330 State St., 845-8966)
Romanti-Ezer (701 Chapala St., 730-1612)
Rose Café (1816 Cliff Drive, 965-5513; 424 E. Haley St., 966-3773)
Want to Make Your Own?
The delis at these two markets have some of the best seasoned and uncooked taco meats imaginable.
Santa Cruz Market (324 W. Montecito St., 966-2121)
Chapala Market (605 N. Milpas St., 963-2039)