Catching Up with Santa Barbara’s Calle Milpas
From the Bowl to the Beach, Businesses Keep It Real on the Eastside’s Main Street
By Ryan P. Cruz, Camille Garcia, and Tyler Hayden | April 14, 2022
Milpas Street, or “Calle Milpas,” has long been the backbone of Santa Barbara’s Eastside. Stretching a mile and a half from the Santa Barbara Bowl at the end of Anapamu Street to the 101 freeway, then another quarter mile south to East Beach, Milpas serves as the Eastside community hub, where residents gather and hundreds of junior high and high-school students walk to and from school each day.
“Living in the Eastside, Milpas Street has always been our downtown,” said City Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez, who was born in and represents the Eastside’s District 1. “That’s where all the businesses have been, where families get their food, and where friends meet.”
Milpas has its own culture and its own unique feel. It has traditionally been the city’s lowrider hotspot and home to the Santa Barbara Eastside Society’s Milpas Holiday Parade and Trick or Treat on Milpas Celebration. Each year, the business owners pitch in together to string up Christmas lights in December, a tradition kept by Taqueria El Bajio owner Santos Guzman.
It’s also an authentic slice of home for those who have landed in Santa Barbara from south of the border. “Milpas represents home, and it gives many of us that come from Mexican roots a little piece of Mexico,” Gutierrez said.
The street has its own history — which community historian and @ChicanoCultureSB founder Michael Montenegro explores in “A Cultural History of the Eastside and Milpas” — complete with its own urban legends. There’s the story of Bossie the Cow, the plaster bovine statue that stood atop of the iconic “streamline moderne”–style Live Oak Dairy building — now Bossie’s Kitchen — on Milpas and Canon Perdido since 1937. Bossie became an unofficial mascot for the nearby Santa Barbara High School, and each year she would get another layer of gold paint from the graduating class. The sometimes-golden cow was also the subject of a number of high-school rivalry hijinks, with Santa Barbara’s crosstown rivals climbing up to give Bossie their own personal decorations.
In August 2020, with 80 years’ worth of paint weighing her down, Bossie took a tumble. Some thought it was a prank gone too far, but the Santa Barbara High School teacher who climbed up each year to paint the names of the graduates later said it was more likely that her legs, already rusted through under the layers of paint, finally gave way.
The Santa Barbara Bowl, which serves as an entryway from the lush Riviera to the flatlands of Milpas, was built in eight months using $77,000 of Works Progress Administration money. The brainchild of the first Old Spanish Days El Presidente Sam Stanwood, the Bowl broke ground in December 1935 and was carved out of the hillside and finished in time for the first day of Fiesta in August 1936.
Milpas also has its own success stories. La Super-Rica, Santa Barbara’s turquoise taqueria, has landed on some big-time “best taco” lists, with foodies from across the world flocking to get a taste. Dave’s Dogs was a mobile cart at first, set up outside a body shop on evenings and weekends. Owner David Reynoso now boasts two locations, including the spot right across from Bossie’s on Milpas and Canon Perdido, former home of Sal’s Pizza.
Over the years, Milpas has evolved several times. Sal’s Pizza is gone, as is local favorite Pollo Norteño. Newcomers have come onto the scene, like The Shop Kitchen, Wingman Rodeo, and Sprouts. It’s created a uniquely Santa Barbaran mix of working-class neighborhood folk and Riviera and Montecito residents coming into town to do their errands.
On the south end of the street sits the iconic green brachiosaurus outside Dino Mart, health-food haven Tri-County Produce Company, and the East Beach Batting Cages. North of the 101, the roundabout serves as a gateway to a row of restaurants, hardware, and auto body shops.
The real soul of Milpas is the variety. One-stop shops like Lucy’s Boutique and Ashley’s Dollar sit next to Mexican-American hotspots like La Pachanga Nightclub and El Potrillo Western Wear.
“It’s basically the last section of Santa Barbara that’s really still old-school,” said Steve Hartman, owner and operator of Milpas Motors, “with the barber shops down the street and some of the little taquerias and businesses like that.”
Hartman worries that the “old-school” flavor of Milpas might go away, following the pattern of redevelopment found in the Funk Zone now creeping its way up the Haley Corridor. Even the term “corridor” — preferred among the city-planning types and real estate developers — carries a sour taste to the locals that spend their days on the street.
“It’s ‘Calle Milpas,’ not ‘the Milpas Corridor,’” said George Trujillo, owner of Classic Barber Shop on the corner of Milpas and Bond. Trujillo says despite some new businesses coming in, he doesn’t think that Milpas will ever lose its authenticity. “I don’t think it will ever get a full grasp on it and change it, ’cause the neighborhood is here,” he said. “Some change is good, but you gotta work with the community to make the change happen; you can’t just throw it upon them.”
The business community is also directly tied into the local Eastside community. “Milpas businesses have always been the go-to for people in the Eastside to go for help to raise money for a family loss, or a loved one needing medical attention. The businesses have also always given back to donate to the local schools,” Councilmember Gutierrez said.
The City of Santa Barbara is hoping to get a grant for improvements on Milpas that would widen sidewalks, add new flashers, and make the crosswalks safer for pedestrians. Transportation Manager Jessica Grant is working with the community to put together an application for the next grant cycle in 2022, after the city was denied funding for the project in 2020. “It’s a very important street for the Eastside community,” Grant said. She added that given the amount of people who walk and bike daily in the area, the $10 million project should be a “top priority” for the city. The application will be submitted in June, and Grant said that although the process is highly competitive, the city will be asking for half the amount as in 2020 and have scaled down the project from a “large-level” to “medium-level” project. City Council is in the position to make the application more appealing, she said, by pledging to contribute a percentage out of the city’s budget.
These improvements and the revitalization of the economy after the pandemic have the future wide open for Santa Barbara’s Eastside main street, but it’s safe to say that the businesses there now deserve the same attention, and spending dollars, as the downtown spots. For now, we have compiled a short list of some of the great businesses you can find on Milpas. —Ryan P. Cruz
Santa Barbara’s Eastside is home to a large Latino population, which carries with it a strong soccer culture. Aggressive Soccer is one of two soccer shops on Milpas and has been operated by the Villagomez family on the corner of Milpas and Canon Perdido streets for more than 13 years. Manager Erik Villagomez took over from his father, Armando, in 2016 and runs the Santa Barbara location along with their Oxnard shop. Aggressive Soccer also runs an adult soccer league, Santa Barbara Central Coast Soccer League, with more than 20 teams playing every weekend.
“I enjoy providing that service to the community, as far as them being able to play soccer,” Villagomez said, “to keep soccer going and keep the community going.” The shop provides everything a soccer player, coach, or referee could need, down to the uniforms and paint for the field. The shop also customizes letterman’s jackets for local
high-school athletes and is one of a few shops in the state that sell official match balls and professional-level cleats, which Villagomez said have changed drastically in the past few years with the popularity of stars Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar.
They had to close for a few months during the pandemic after being deemed a nonessential business, Villagomez said, forcing him to take some time off for the first time in his working life. “I wasn’t used to that,” he said. “All we could do was prepare for when we did come back, so that’s what we did,” he said. When the shop opened back up, he said that a renewed interest in outdoor activity led to a boom in business, and they were able to get the league back full-time.
Aggressive Soccer is open weekdays 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m.-7 p.m., and Sundays 9 a.m.-4 p.m. —RPC
Sandra Hernandez remembers the exact day she opened her store on Milpas Street: November 8, 1995. Hernandez loves her store as a mother loves a child, and she knows every item on every shelf in her colorful and eclectic neighborhood dollar shop. Even when she goes on vacation, she says she can’t wait to get back. “I don’t want to retire ’cause I’ll miss my store,” she said.
Its walls are lined with Mexican snacks, home goods, clothes — almost anything you could think of — and if she doesn’t have it this week, she’ll make sure to have it for you next time. “It’s fun for me, cause people say, ‘Do you have this?’ And I say, ‘No, but I can bring it next week.’” She moved to Santa Barbara from Guatemala with her husband, Edgar, in 1985, and she now spends almost every day working in her store. On her days off, she heads to do her shopping in downtown Los Angeles, where she says she knows everybody who has everything she could need.
In March 2020, she was back in Guatemala when the country’s borders were closed due to the pandemic lockdown and was stranded for nearly three weeks until the U.S. sent two planes to bring Americans back home. She said despite that setback, 2021 was actually her busiest year. People still came to Ashley’s Dollar to get what they needed. The shop is at 216 North Milpas Street, next to Trader Joe’s, and is open seven days a week, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. —RPC
Call it good luck, smart business, or, as CEO Alan Bleecker says, “God’s providence,” but things are about to come full circle for Capitol Hardware. The Milpas Street company, which supplies high-end kitchen and bathroom fixtures to builders and homeowners, is reclaiming half of the trade it gave up nearly 40 years ago when Santa Barbara Plumbing Supplies opened down the road. Bleecker recently bought the plumbing shop and will combine their operations as Capitol Hardware moves to the location in the next six months and 83 units of badly needed apartments are built at its existing property. “It’s a win for everyone,” he said.
Bleecker’s father-in-law, Gordon Reisig, was a manager at Santa Barbara Bank & Trust when, in 1972, he exchanged his suit and tie for a T-shirt and pair of work shorts and bought the hardware store at 711 North Milpas Street. “He loved working with his hands, working with people, and he wanted to do his own thing,” explained Bleecker, a Santa Cruz native who met Reisig’s daughter at Biola University. After graduating, Bleeker worked at the shop, sweeping floors and doing inventory before, years later, he became the big cheese himself. In 2000, he partnered with his brother-in-law, Jay Bjorndahl, whose careful and deliberate personality complements Bleecker’s high energy and quick decisions. “We make a good team,” Bleecker said.
Reisig passed away in November, and Bleecker hopes the upcoming move will help further the family’s business legacy. “We built the business up, and we want to keep it up,” he said. The fact that Capitol Hardware will soon transform into new housing —something Santa Barbara is starving for — is also a coincidence that borders on the divine as homelessness has been an issue near and dear to Bleecker’s heart for many years.
Capitol Hardware is open Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. —Tyler Hayden
Classic Barber Shop
One of the oldest operating barber shops in Santa Barbara, Classic Barber Shop now sits on the corner of Milpas and Bond, where it has been since 1944. The spot was previously known as Joe’s Barber Shop, then Scott’s before that, and its origins can be traced across the street, where it was originally opened in 1929. When George Trujillo took over in 1998, he decided to pay homage to the “classics” with a new name. “It’s an old classic shop, and I like classic cars, so I kind of implemented both of them and called it Classic Barber Shop,” he said.
The small shop, with its checkered floor, is old-school incarnate and one of the few places where you can get a scissor cut from a barber who’s been in the trade for decades. The prices, like the vibe, remain unchanged for years, despite a trend that has seen haircuts reach an average of $40 in other shops. Trujillo says he disagrees with the add-ons, massages, and extra charges for appointments. “I don’t understand that,” he said. “We’ve always been fair-priced, and we’ve always been able to make it.”
Trujillo owns the shop, as well as the two houses connected to the property, which he purchased later in 2010. He says the income from those properties and a new candy business has allowed him to keep prices low. He sees everybody from neighborhood kids to Montecito regulars to NBA superstars — who will remain unnamed — pop in for a clean, affordable cut. He says he has cut “generations of hair,” with parents bringing their kids years later. Now with his other business, 805 Classic Michelada, taking off, he is passing the barbershop on to his son, manager Raymond Trujillo. “I’m still here every day. I’ll guide him, but I let him make all the decisions,” he said.
He can be found there almost every day, scissors in hand and chatting up another customer, enjoying the view from the panoramic shop window, which he says is like his own TV screen where he sees it all. Classic Barber Shop is at 519 North Milpas Street and open every day except Sunday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. —RPC
Though not technically on Milpas, the hole-in-the-wall Deux Bakery is just about 100 feet off the street on Reddick and provides the Eastside community with some of the best baked goods available. The spot opened when owners Wendy and Maurice Fleming’s daughter, Crista, opened her restaurant, Scarlett Begonia. “She said, ‘I want you to be my pastry chef. Will you do that until I can afford one?’”
Now, nearly a decade later, Wendy is still providing the pastries for Scarlett Begonia’s now-booming business. Their signature cinnamon rolls are by far the favorite and were the work of months of reworking the recipe using a secret ingredient: mashed potatoes. Crista wanted something “healthy and organic,” and Wendy had the idea for a potato bun. “We started doing real mashed potatoes, and it didn’t work out at first,” she said. After a few months, they found the perfect dough for “nice, soft” cinnamon rolls. The rolls were featured by Food Network legend Alton Brown on the show The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and Wendy eventually found the space on Reddick and turned it into an industrial bakery. She took a three-week “intense baking course” with a master chef and built on her decades’ worth of bread-baking experience at home. “I have a sourdough starter that is probably 30 years old,” she said.
People walking by would pop in, drawn by the smell of freshly baked goods, and eventually, she decided to open a storefront for real. “With word of mouth, we just got busy,” she said. “We really like it. I love the people here. Everybody’s so nice,” she said. The bakery now sells their signature cinnamon rolls, breads, and pastries four days a week at 824 Reddick Street, Wednesday-Saturday 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m. See deuxbakery.com. —RPC
Opened in 2000, Milpas Motors has long been providing eye candy for gearheads driving by the corner of Milpas and De la Guerra, with a seemingly endless supply of classic and foreign cars rotating on display. The location — formerly an industrial manufacturing space for Steve Handelman, who runs a studio nearby — was a bit of a risk, owner Steve Hartman said, since there wasn’t an obvious demand for a car dealership in the area. But after some thought, he said, he had a good feeling. “I stood on that corner for about an hour and a half, and I just watched. There’s an incredible amount of traffic on this corner; I just knew it would work.”
Hartman was in his thirties at the time, and even though he had never been in the “car business,” he decided to take the spot. “I was just a car enthusiast,” Hartman said. His inventory — a revolving door of classic muscle cars, retro imports, and sometimes a whole row of Porsche 911 Carreras — reflects what a “real car” is in his mind. “Everybody’s interpretation of what makes a nice car is different,” he said. “Pretty much everything here appeals to me on some level.”
He’s created a car lover’s haven for himself: his clean white showroom packed with vintage auto memorabilia; his desk just a few feet away from a ’70s-era Dodge Charger; and the shop dog, Teddy, bouncing around the office. He said he would take it any day over selling “new toasters” at a big-box dealership. Milpas Motors is located at 725 North Milpas Street and open every day except Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. See milpasmotors.com. —RPC
It was 1981, and Bob Schoppe was figuring out his next move. He was living in San Jose, where he grew up, and surfing in Santa Cruz when a friend at Brooks Institute of Photography suggested he check out Santa Barbara. Schoppe was working at an equipment rental yard and heard about a similar shop on Milpas Street, so he headed south “with a month’s worth of rent and not much else” to try his luck. He put in an application and was hired the next week.
Over the next two decades, Schoppe would earn his way up the ladder from yardman to Milpas Rental’s general manager, ultimately buying the business from the family of its late founder, Pete Smaniotto, and running it alongside Smaniotto’s niece, Carol. Schoppe credits Carol for being “the rock” in those early years by helping him stay organized as he grew the company and started a family. “She was always so reliable and so honest,” he said. Schoppe’s wife, Theresa; son, Justin; and daughter, Megan, all now run the yard and its satellite location on upper State Street, and he even brought his dad on board.
With 14 employees and more than 200 pieces of equipment — everything from lawn mowers to air compressors to heavy-duty tractors and trailers— Milpas Rental has the biggest and best inventory anywhere in Santa Barbara, good for the homeowner embarking on a weekend project or a contractor needing a big piece of gear. Schoppe trains his employees to greet and help customers as soon as they arrive at the yard— “We’re not Home Depot,” he said — and makes it a point to stay involved in day-to-day operations.
Maybe one day he’ll take a step back and pick up a hobby, Schoppe said. But for now, he’s happy to keep the family business humming along with three generations of Schoppes at the helm. “This has been my life,” he said.
Milpas Rental is at 6 North Milpas Street and 4321 State Street and open Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. See milpasrentals.com. —TH
Shang Hai Chinese Restaurant
Nestled in the small shopping center at Milpas and Canon Perdido, Shang Hai Chinese Restaurant has been serving Santa Barbara for nearly 40 years.
Multiple generations of families, along with students from the nearby Santa Barbara High School and other Eastside community members have counted on Shang Hai to get their Chinese food fix. Some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes include orange chicken, beef with broccoli, and Mongolian beef.
Now, however, restaurant co-owners Kevin Yin and his wife, Yvette Yin, are ready for their next chapter: retirement. “It’s hard to say,” Kevin said, “but we’re looking for a good person to take over.” Kevin took over the restaurant from his father-in-law in 1990. Since then, Shang Hai has become known as a go-to spot, especially for tasty vegetarian dishes, one of their specialties. Kevin hopes the restaurant’s next owners continue providing healthy food options for the neighborhood, with a robust variety of vegetarian meals.
“It could be any type of restaurant, not necessarily Chinese [food],” he said. “But because we have a lot of vegetarian customers, we’re looking for new ownership that will offer something healthy, maybe vegetarian food.”
During the pandemic, the eatery transitioned to a takeout-only format and has remained that way ever since. They’ve still been getting steady business and are keeping an active eye open for their spot’s potential next owners. “It’s possible it could be months, or even one or two more years [before we retire],” Kevin said, “because we’re looking for a good person, the right person.”
It’s a bittersweet moment, Kevin said, since at Shang Hai, he and his family have watched the community evolve and neighbors grow up. “I’ve seen lots of these [customers] for years,” he said. “We have three generations — even four — of people still coming together and buying food, and we hope people keep coming.”
Shang Hai is at 830 North Milpas Street and is open for takeout Monday and Wednesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m. and 4:30-8 p.m., and on Saturday-Sunday, 4:30-8 p.m. —Camille Garcia
Taqueria El Bajio
If you’re from Guanajuato, México, “el bajio” might sound familiar to you. At least that’s what Taqueria El Bajio owners Santos and Gloria Guzman were aiming for when they established their Mexican-food restaurant at 129 N. Milpas Street.
Both from Guanajuato, the Guzmans wanted to bring a little piece of home to Santa Barbara, so they named their eatery after the Guanajuato International Airport, popularly known as “El Bajío.”
“We opened [the restaurant] on October 16, 1996, at the same location we have today. At that time, there were not a lot of Mexican restaurants around, so it was pretty good business for the Eastside neighborhood,” Santos said. “And then El Bajio started to get more [customers], from Montecito, from the Riviera. Thanks, honestly, to my wife, because she’s a very good cook. So we’ve been keeping the business together, and we make a good team.”
For Santos, the true magic lies in their recipes, which he and Gloria developed and perfected more than 15 years before opening the restaurant. Savory tacos dorados, menudo, caldo de pollo, caldo de res, gorditas, chile rellenos, and tasty beef tacos are some of their most popular dishes, all containing “our own touch, our own flavors.”
“You have to trust in what you’re doing,” Santos said, “and if I’m not serving good food, I don’t feel like a professional.”
Gloria and Santos are in the restaurant seven days a week, and their four daughters are also well-versed in the operations. The family’s commitment to the business can be felt in every detail, from the thoughtful recipes to the stellar service and spotless dine-in experience. Over the years, people from all over the world have come to eat at El Bajio, Santos said, after hearing recommendations or seeing it mentioned in various magazines.
Business isn’t always easy, he added, but overall it’s been pretty good. What’s been the highest marker of success? Happy, returning customers.
“Everybody’s always looking for money. But in this case, for the restaurant, what I’m looking for is the satisfaction of the customers,” Santos said.
“I feel very fortunate to have a lot of friends in Santa Barbara due to El Bajio, to have this opportunity to show people here that we exist with an original menu from Mexico. “I feel like I’m dreaming.” —CG
Tacos Pipeye thrives in the middle of the Milpas Street hustle and bustle. The smell of savory taco meats, fresh onions with cilantro, and corn tortillas hechas a mano, lure hungry passersby to its open doors. The staff’s friendly greetings provide confirmation: If you’re hungry, you’ve come to the right place.
Owner Felipe Mariscal and his wife, Hortencia Mariscal, started Tacos Pipeye as a food truck outside Prestige Car Wash on Milpas in 2013, later moving to its regular location in the Big Brand Tire & Service parking lot. “At the beginning, [Hortencia] was the only cook, so she is responsible for the recipes and the flavors that have always tasted so good,” Felipe said. “And we got a good response — the people loved [our food]! So we said, ‘If people like it, let’s not change anything.’”
Originally from Guadalajara and Morelos, Mexico, Felipe and Hortencia weren’t sure how successful they’d be in the local restaurant business. After gaining a loyal clientele through their truck, they still felt anxious four years ago, on opening day of their triangular-shaped brick-and-mortar location, across from Trader Joe’s. But to their surprise and delight, the family was greeted on opening day by a long line of hungry customers stretching down the block. “You couldn’t even walk [on the sidewalk],” Felipe said with a smile.
Tacos Pipeye has turned into a thriving family business, with son Mauricio Garces, born and raised on Santa Barbara’s Eastside, working full-time alongside his parents and several other employees. “We’re so happy and grateful; it’s like a dream,” Hortencia said. “And the intention is always to grow more — poco a poco.”
Tacos Pipeye is located at 217 North Milpas Street and is open Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m.-9 p.m., and Sunday 8 a.m.-8 p.m. —CG
For nearly 40 years, Kris Lertchareonyong and his family have watched Milpas Street’s evolution through the windows of their business, Your Place Thai Restaurant.
As the restaurant’s owners and operators, the family has witnessed numerous businesses come and go along the bustling thoroughfare since 1983, when they first opened Your Place at 22 North Milpas, Ste. A, where it’s always been.
“My parents told me that when they first opened the restaurant, Thai food [in Santa Barbara] wasn’t that popular yet,” Lertchareonyong said. “People didn’t eat a lot of it because they thought it was too spicy.”
But Your Place helped expand local taste palates and cravings, and today it’s a classic Milpas staple for traditional, cooked-from-scratch Thai cuisine. Spicy drunken noodles, green and yellow curries, and Tom Kha soup with seafood are just a few of the most popular dishes Santa Barbara locals have been ordering at Your Place over the years.
“We still do things the old-fashioned way: Every dish we make, we cook from scratch,” Lertchareonyong said. “I notice with new restaurants, sometimes they have pre-made sauce they use because it’s easier to train [cooks] that way. But sometimes if you do that, you end up with everything tasting so similar; if you cook things from scratch, it’s gonna be different.”
Lertchareonyong came to Santa Barbara from Bangkok, Thailand, when he was 15, four years after his parents arrived and opened Your Place.
He first worked as the restaurant’s busboy and worked his way up in the ranks until he and his four sisters fully took over the restaurant after their parents passed away a few years ago. They’ve continued using the same family recipes and décor to keep things consistent and delicious for their multi-generational customers.
It’s this continuity that, along with the food, has kept many Eastsiders coming back to the restaurant as kids, teen s, and eventually as adults with their own families.
“Some people come here saying that they came here when they were a student at UCSB, or they had their first date here at the restaurant,” Lertchareonyong said.
“We have customers bring their kids in and then they say to us, ‘You know, my parents used to take me here when I was little, too!’ So, we’ve seen several generations of customers, and it’s been really nice.” —CG