When Jonathan “Yona” Estrada opened Yona Redz on State Street a couple weeks ago, the 30-year-old, first-time restaurant owner figured that a lot of his clientele might be the family and friends he grew up with on Santa Barbara’s Westside. “It was the complete opposite,” said Estrada. “It was all strangers and just a couple people I knew.”
Santa Barbarans of all sorts were hungry for birria quesatacos, crispy, cheesy tacos filled with long-simmered, chile-soaked beef and a side of hot, savory consommé. A Mexican melting pot of a dish, the quesataco relies on birria — a stewed meat dish (originally goat) with a long history in the central state of Jalisco but which was created just over a decade ago at Tacos Salseados in Tijuana, far to the north. They soon spread beyond the border, tantalizing Los Angeles eaters for the past few years and catching on recently in the Bay Area as well.
As eclectic and diverse as Santa Barbara’s dining scene is for a city of less than 100,000 people, we’re often left waiting for the latest big-city trend to reach our shores, a predicament laid more stark by the travel-trumping pandemic. Estrada’s opening — in the heart of a pedestrian-rejuvenated, vehicle-free 500 block of State Street — quelled this particular envy, and he’s getting a jump on others as well, including birria ramen (admittedly not his invention, but new to us) and birria tortitas, whose bolillo buns are even better than tortillas at sopping up that rich consommé. (While birria touches most of the small menu, there are potato taquitos for vegetarians, served with green salsa, avocado, sour cream, and queso seco.)
He too was crushing his cravings with treks south. “I was going to L.A. for this all the time, and I was sick of it,” said Estrada, who regularly hit Teddy Red Tacos, Birrieria San Marcos, and Birrieria Estrada (no relation), as well as some closer spots in Oxnard. But birria was already in the first-generation American’s soul, passed down from generation to generation as a secret recipe in his family, who’s originally from Guanajuato, the state just east of Jalisco.
He learned from his mother, who died in 2014. “This is the biggest thing she gifted me,” said Estrada, whose dad died when he was 12. On May 30, 2020, when Estrada made up a pot to serve to neighbors during the height of the coronavirus, he was shocked to see a line snake down the street.
By August, these neighborhood feasts caught the attention of the White family, who’d closed their kitchen at Casa Blanca at State and Gutierrez streets, where Estrada began doing Yona Redz pop-ups. Their Instagram-powered popularity attracted the attention of property owner Ray Mahboob, who invited Estrada to open a restaurant at his 532 State Street property, which has been a revolving door of culinary concepts over the past decade.
That forced Estrada to get serious and quit his job in maintenance at Alpha Resource Center, where his girlfriend is also employed. “It was a great place to work,” he said. “The hardest thing for me was to leave a full-time job with benefits and a pension. But once I did that, I was all in.”
There were other unforeseen hurdles — someone stole the restaurant’s tables, chairs, and artwork — but Yona Redz opened on Sunday, November 15, with a City Hall ribbon cutting. “For the mayor to come to my opening, congratulate me, and say that I’m an inspiration for the Latino community, it meant a lot to me,” said Estrada. “It was a big day, a big step from the backyard. I’m still in shock. I’m the first in my generation of my friends and my family to ever do anything like this.”
If all goes well, Estrada would like to open a spot in Isla Vista one day to serve the college kids. The food goes particularly well with a bellyful of beer late at night — he was hoping to stay open till 3 a.m. on State Street until the recent COVID curfews started — and the Generation Z demographic is uniquely attuned to the social media publicity that’s made Yona Redz an immediate hit. He envisions bringing in a trompo to make al pastor in the future and is also excited to start serving traditional goat birria on the weekends. “That will take this to another level,” he said.
But the draw for now is that birria quesataco combo, which includes three tacos, consommé, and a soda for $15. A deep red due to the chile sauce that’s applied as they cook — hence the Redz in the name — the tacos crunch a bit on the outside before giving way to the irresistibly hot ooze of melted cheese and pillow-soft birria, whose richness is offset by the tang of onions, cilantro, and lime. “That’s been simmering for hours,” explained Estrada of the meat. “We just get a cleaver and, like, tap it.” The stewed meat instantly falls to pieces.
Then there’s the consommé, which awaits a dip from your already-crumbling taco into the paper cup. Loaded with umami, dried chile flavors, and just a hint of spice, this soup — somewhere between beef pozole and bone broth on the culinary scale — is just as good when sipped straight down, and not quite so messy.
I was barely hungry when I arrived on his first Tuesday afternoon open, but I chowed the combo plate down before Estrada could even come outside to talk. In their wake, as I tried to ascribe some deeper meaning to these tacos — a natural habit of a food writer — I realized that there’s no real need to overthink Yona Redz. This is hedonistic, ridiculously rich, perfectly greasy food, and that’s all it needs to be.
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