With all due respect to Ernest Hemingway, Fiesta truly is a movable feast — you just move from one food booth to another, digging into something different with each step. Santa Barbara sure isn’t Paris, but when Fiesta rolls around, you’ll find the best open-air concentration of spicy food this side of the border. And you’ll never go back to Taco Belch.
We’re talking about booths ringing De la Guerra Plaza (aka Mercado de la Guerra) downtown and MacKenzie Park (Mercado del Norte) at Las Positas and State Street, all benefiting nonprofit agencies. And don’t forget about the extra-especial mercado at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Nopal Street on the lower Eastside, where some of the most authentic Mexican dishes can be found.
Let’s start with the rich cornucopia at De la Guerra. First, I’ll be heading for the El Zarape booth, where my old friend Raul Gil is creating tasty tacos of pork, beef, and goat. Yes, I said goat, and if you haven’t tried one of these traditional snacks, dripping with hot sauce, you haven’t had a real Fiesta.
Next stop will be the place that always has the longest line, the Old Spanish Days booth. The popularity is partly because it’s the first booth when you enter the plaza, but it’s also because of the burritos they serve, jammed with either chicken, tasty carne asada (marinated steak), or carnitas, the slow-cooked, kinda crispy pork bits originally from Michoacan.
I’ve been loitering around Mercado de la Guerra since 1960, and faithful readers know that I moan about the shortage of enchiladas there every year. I’m very happy to report that the United Latin American Pentecostal Church heard my plea to the Almighty and will be serving chicken, cheese, and tender beef enchiladas this year!
The famous, tasty, traditional tamale is also hard to find at Fiesta for some reason. But this year, you can get your tamale fix by heading to La Bella Rosa Bakery booth, where they are filling the cornmeal treats with pork, chicken, or cheese, along with sides of beans, rich, and that sweet desert, flan.
I’m a nut for pulled pork and know I’ll find spicy sandwiches at the Vietnam Veterans of America booth. You say you just want old-fashioned tacos and no fuss or muss? Head for the old reliable Rugby Association and Special Olympics booths, and you’ll find them, along with lemonade to wash them down. Speaking of drinks, this is one week when you’ll find plenty of icy, milky, nondairy horchata and cool jamaica, made from the hibiscus flowers.
Up at MacKenzie Park, Mercado del Norte is best known as a family-friendly fest packed with kids and carnival rides, yet still boasting more elbow room than DLG as well as a slew of tables, if you can grab one. The parking was also recently given a facelift.
Every year I know I can find hot German sausages, and the Muscle Beach Café has them, along with artery-clogging, bacon-wrapped, all-beef hotdogs and French fries. You crave tamales? The Apostolic Assembly Church has cooked up chicken, pork, and cheese tamales, washed down with horchata.
There’s always something different at Del Norte, such as the Surfrider booth’s Kahlúa burgers, Kahlúa pork sandwiches, and egg rolls. Del Norte is also where carnivores will find good old Santa Barbara County tri-tip sandwiches and beef ribs, at BBQ Heaven.
Boy Scout Troop 1 is serving up genuine American corn on the cob, and south-of-the-border chicken fajita burritos.
All the spicy stuff you can handle, and more, awaits at the Santa Barbara-Puerto Vallarta Sister Cities Committee booth: chicken taquitos, fish tacos, soft chicken tacos, carne asada burritos, tortas, tacos, and carne asada super nachos. Wow, that’s a mouthful.
Speaking of tradition, the women of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the Eastside have been cooking for days, preparing dishes as authentic as you’ll find anywhere in town this week and maybe more so. Aficionados know it’s not Fiesta without a stop here. It opens today, August 5, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and stays that way through Sunday.
This is just a sampling of the Fiesta dishes you’ll find. It’s way more than I can handle, but that won’t stop me from trying.
Happy Fiesta feasting!