In the little kitchen of Santa Barbara’s La Casa de la Raza community center, Elubia Orozco prepares iconic pupusas from scratch three days a week. The process is deceptively simple: Flattened masa dough is packed with savory fillings like meat and vegetables, rolled into a ball to seal the contents, and then pressed into the shape of a tortilla. Then, the batter is pan-fried to crispy, gooey perfection and served with a refreshing side of Salvadoran cabbage slaw and salsa roja.
One of the only Santa Barbara restaurants to serve these savory treats, Elubia’s Kitchen was opened by Elubia and her husband, Ruben Orozco, in November 2019. But her pupusas started making waves in Santa Barbara six years ago, when she was working as an after-school teacher at Peabody Charter School and sold some as part of a fundraiser.
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They were an instant hit. “The line was at least 50 people,” said Ruben. “And that’s how we knew: maybe there is a need for this.”
After successful runs during 2019’s Old Spanish Days and Solvang Fall Festival, the Orozcos rented affordable kitchen space in La Casa de la Raza. As popularity grew, the restaurant went from being open one day a week to three, and they plan to open a Goleta location this month at 152 Aero Camino to serve on Wednesdays. As of press time, Elubia’s Kitchen is still operating at the La Casa location even after the recent sale of the community center’s building, and the Orozcos plan to do so as long as they can keep their lease under the new owner.
Elubia’s cooking expertise traces back to her childhood in Guatemala, where she helped elderly women in her neighborhood make food to sell in markets. “For years, they [taught] me how to make different kinds of foods,” she explained. “I’ve been cooking since I was maybe 10 years old.” A woman from El Salvador taught her how to make pupusas, and the rest is history.
Other than the Salvadoran pupusa, Elubia’s Kitchen also serves a variety of Latin-American dishes. There’s the Mexican mulita and dobladita, the Guatemalan garnacha and empanada, and a variety of aguas frescas, with plans to introduce more dishes in the future. They’re also committed to ensuring that the entire menu remains gluten-free.
That’s important because Elubia herself suffered from an undiagnosed wheat allergy for more than a year, struggling with hives and shortness of breath before an allergy test pinpointed the issue. When Elubia’s Kitchen opened, the couple went gluten-free to protect her health and differentiate themselves from other eateries.
“That feedback has been tremendous,” Ruben said. “At every festival, there are always tons of people coming up and saying ‘God, this is the first time I can go somewhere and eat the whole menu.’”
It’s not the only way that Elubia’s Kitchen is helping the community. They’ve donated a portion of their profits to nonprofit organizations since their very first food festival. The expansive list of organizations they’ve helped includes the Cottage Children’s Medical Center, Domestic Violence Solutions, and the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re now donating to the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County every weekend.
Serving authentic, hard-to-find Latin-American dishes is an immensely rewarding experience for the couple. Ruben recalled serving Guatemalan customers who hadn’t eaten authentic garnachas in decades. “They said, ‘Thank you very much for taking me back to my country,’” he explained. Elubia, meanwhile, enjoys being told that her dishes remind customers of their mother’s tortillas or grandma’s taquitos. In these situations, the Orozcos are reminded that Elubia’s Kitchen is more than just a restaurant — it’s also a place of connection and cultural community.
“I am very lucky to [be able to] share my food to the Santa Barbara community, and that they can enjoy my culture,” said Elubia. “Because this is a part of Guatemala, of me, of my town.”
Elubia’s Kitchen is located at 601 E. Montecito St. and is open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. and 4-7 p.m. During the pandemic, they are doing takeout and delivery via Grubhub, DoorDash, UberEats, and Postmates. See elubiaskitchen.com.