Just a month ago, Lalo Umejido was excitedly making the final preparations to open his first restaurant, a dream 20 years in the making. It’s been his goal to fill this culinary niche ever since he immigrated to Santa Barbara in the 1990s. But as a new immigrant, he didn’t have the financial means to do so at the time.
Twenty years and one successful housekeeping business later, Taqueria Santa Barbara finally opened its doors on State Street this year. The only caveat? The restaurant opened in March 2020, just as the statewide stay-at-home order was issued to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic.
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“We were like, ‘Should we wait until COVID-19 blows over? Or should we open?’” said Eva Umejido, Lalo’s daughter and co-owner of the restaurant. “We just said, ‘Well, we’ve already waited so long. Let’s just open and see how it goes.’”
Located in the heart of the Art District on the 1200 block of State Street, right across from the Granada Theatre, the restaurant was inspired by the traditional taquerias that Lalo grew up with in Mexico City. The menu features all of the taqueria classics — tacos, tortas, and alambres served with a variety of meats — along with other popular dishes like burritos and quesadillas. Lalo’s own touches include unique alambre combinations and wide vegetarian options, recipes that have been in development for years.
“I remember I was in high school and my dad was making horchata because he wanted to perfect the recipe,” Eva recalled. “I’m 30 years old now. It makes me so happy that all of his hard work is paying off.”
When Lalo’s wife passed away seven years ago, he decided to take a leap of faith and bring his dream to life. He took over as the household chef for his four children, learning through Mexican cookbooks, videos, and good old trial and error. The best results are now being served at Taqueria Santa Barbara.
The restaurant’s signature dish? “Definitely anything al pastor,” according to Eva. The crisp yet juicy layers of richly marinated, spit-grilled pork are served with thick slabs of pineapple on handmade corn tortillas. She recommends pairing the meat with her father’s sweet and spicy pineapple salsa, but many love the salsa verde, which is actually her late mother’s recipe.
Also popular is the torta cubana, a Mexican-style sandwich packed with three different meats: al pastor, asada, and milanesa. Married with a generous amount of gooey Chihuahua cheese and served on an impossibly pillowy bread roll called a telera (supplied by the local La Bella Rosa Bakery), the torta cubana is a meat lover’s paradise.
Many of Taqueria Santa Barbara’s traditional items are hard to find outside of Mexico. The frijoles charros, for example, is a chorizo, bacon, ham, and vegetable dish typically served as a pre-taco appetizer in Mexican taquerias. The bombas y frijoles, which feature a sweet bun filled with beans and cheese, is a savory dessert traditionally eaten by the indigenous people of Mexico.
The Umejidos happily share these backstories with curious customers who may be unaware of their cultural significance. “I’m bringing our culture to Santa Barbara,” said Eva, “and that’s rewarding for me.”
Opening during a pandemic, of course, comes with unprecedented challenges. “I just wish that people could try our food fresh, directly from the kitchen to the table, instead of in a takeout style,” Eva said, speaking to the fact that all of the restaurant’s corn tortillas are handmade and fresh-griddled to order. Lack of foot traffic has also been an obstacle, but the Umejidos hope that their new outdoor dining area will help attract new customers. They finally started serving dine-in customers last week as State Street restaurants opened for business.
Though they’re working “way over full time” on a tight budget, the gratification of turning a lifelong dream into reality is priceless. The Umejidos hope that the restaurant will become a beloved spot for people to come together and break bread — and tortillas — for years to come.
“He wants to thank his friends, family, and everyone who supported him,” Eva said, translating for her father. “He says that he’s planning on working here at the taqueria until he dies.”
1213 State St.; (805) 869-6618; taqueriasantabarbara.com