Creation and Evolution at Augie’s of Santa Barbara 

From Montecito Mudslide to Mezcal and Mexican Food on State Street

From left: Pulpo a la Crema Diablo, Tres Moles, and Mole Amarillo | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of this article originally published on Independent.com on December 14, 2022


It took a nightmare for Berkeley “Augie” Johnson to turn his “childhood dream” of owning a restaurant into reality. The night was January 9, 2018, when the wildfire-scorched mountains above his Montecito home liquefied under torrential downpours, crushing hundreds of homes and killing nearly two dozen residents. 

“We lost everything that morning,” said Johnson. “We came out of the mud and we had no house, no wallets, no passports, no photos, no computers, nothing. Our whole family was literally muddy.”

The Johnsons knew tragedy, having already lost their son, Nick, to a drowning accident during water polo training in 2014. This was different. 

“You start rebuilding your life — you get passports; you get driver’s licenses; you just start collecting the debris of life again,” said Johnson, who’s been a financial executive at engineering companies for most of his career. “It gave me a new perspective on the last part of my life. Why not do things that are interesting and creative? In some way, it liberated me.”

The Agave Opening

THE AGAVE WAY: Berkeley “Augie” Johnson became fascinated with agave following wildfires and the Montecito debris flow, and followed that path into making tequila and opening his own restaurant | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

While attending wildfire planning meetings, he learned that agave — the succulent-like species of lily traditionally used to make tequila, mezcal, and alcoholic beverages in Mexico — was considered an excellent firebreak. He offered to plant agave in anyone’s yard for free. “People raised their hands,” explained Johnson, who’s since planted thousands of agaves in backyards from Carpinteria to Buellton.

Naturally, Johnson became fascinated with the plant’s cultivation and uses, traveling to the Mexican states of Oaxaca (the epicenter of mezcal) and Jalisco (home of tequila). After visiting countless distilleries, Johnson’s engineering experience made him realize that there was an opportunity for more stringent quality control in the tequila-making process. He partnered with a like-minded distillery called Casa Aceves and began producing a reposado called Augie’s Tequila.

That was the easy part. Now he had to sell it, and he thought that opening a bar or restaurant would be the most direct strategy.

Johnson took baby steps in that direction, first backing Los Agaves founder Carlos Luna as a silent partner on Flor de Maiz in 2019. “That was an easy opportunity to get my feet in the restaurant business,” said Johnson, who then invested in the operations of Chris Chiarappa, owner of Mesa Burger, Lighthouse Coffee, and Corner Tap. 

“Those guys have been mentoring me over the last couple years,” he said. By 2021, Johnson was ready, explaining, “I finally thought that I had enough understanding to open a restaurant under my name and have it be what I envisioned a restaurant to be.”

Spirits & Service

To make his dream come true, Johnson enlisted David Peszek, a ski industry veteran who turned to hospitality following a 2011 knee injury. Together, they opened Augie’s of Santa Barbara at the corner of State and Ortega streets in October, with the shared goals of quality cuisine, “depth of dining experience,” and solid service. “The number-one thing that was important to me is to have friendly service so that the locals feel comfortable,” said Johnson. 

The spirit selection was another priority, as evidenced by a bottom-lit bar of hundreds of bottles that nearly scratch the ceiling. This is Johnson’s ode to the old-school San Francisco bars that he frequented as a Berkeley-raised, fake-ID-toting teenager, where a knowledgeable barman would access the shelves by ladder. 

“It was important to have a biblioteca feel to the place, where people could come in and learn about agave spirits that maybe they never knew about,” he explained. “But it can be overwhelming when they see that wall. Our challenge is to break that down and get people to share the passion we have for learning about new products and new agave and new ideas.” 

The selections, which can be explored in flights, extend past tequila and mezcal into more obscure spirits like sotol, raicilla, bacanora, and, of course, the emerging class of California-grown agave beverages. Curious customers can ask to peruse “the bible,” a one-foot-thick collection of tasting notes that dwarfs the already daunting menu of agave options, many of which are very difficult to find anywhere else in the country. 

Within the next few years, Johnson plans to turn his own agaves into pulque, a slightly sweet, somewhat funky beer-like fermentation that must be served fresh. “It’s something the Maya drank thousands of years ago,” said Johnson, who wants to hoist a white flag outside of Augie’s to announce when the latest batch is being poured, like is done in Mexico. “I want to find a horse and buggy and bring pulque in from the field in a ceremony coming down one of the side streets if I can.” 

But Augie’s isn’t just about agave, as the bar curates rare, top-shelf bottlings from across the distilled universe. “If your buddy is a Scotch lover, they’ll find something too,” said Peszek, before he left the restaurant at the end of December. As much as it looks like a tequila place, he explained, “We want everyone.”

Born Here, Raised There

CA TO MX AND BACK: Born in Santa Barbara but raised in Guadalajara, Chef Eduardo Gonzalez wants to teach California that Mexican food can be just as elegant and creative as the finest cuisines in the world | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Though not as bibliographic as the beverages, the food at Augie’s is equally well-considered under the direction of Chef Eduardo Gonzalez, who was born in Santa Barbara but raised in Guadalajara. The grandson of a seafood restaurant owner, Gonzalez instantly realized he loved the business while working as a dishwasher in his teenage years, so attended culinary school and then ran his own Italian establishment in that Mexican metropolis for two years. 

Seeking a more promising place to raise a family —which includes his wife and two daughters, one born just as Augie’s opened — Gonzalez returned to Santa Barbara a few years ago and found work at Honor Bar, the Four Seasons Biltmore, and Caruso’s. When he saw that Augie’s was looking for someone to run the kitchen, he realized, “I’m Mexican; I’m a chef; I am the person for this restaurant.” 

His résumé and charisma were immediately impressive. “He’s operating at another level,” said Peszek, who felt a similar buzz when scouting for elite alpine racers.

Anyone familiar with global dining trends realizes that Mexico is home to many of the world’s most celebrated chefs and restaurants, including places like Pujol in Mexico City and Alcalde in Guadalajara, which competes for international standing against the finest establishments of Paris and New York City. But the concept of elevated Mexican cuisine remains foreign for many Americans, so Gonzalez wants to change that. 

“Many Californians are more familiar with burritos and tacos, or plates with beans and rice and salsa,” said Gonzalez. “But we can have fine dining with Mexican food. My goal is for people in Santa Barbara to know that it’s possible.” 

To do so, Gonzalez is melding traditional Mexican preparations and heirloom varieties of corn and beans with the seasonal produce of California. To best understand this story, Gonzalez encourages diners to order multiple courses, progressing from fresh fish and salads into savory hand-held dishes before the entrees.

My own Augie’s experience last fall began with a Hemingway cocktail, a mezcal-powered riff on the author’s beloved daiquiri, and then shifted to the extensive array of Mexican wines — which are trending wildly but hard to find here — as my dishes arrived. First up was a truly palate-refreshing amuse bouche of guanabana sorbet with mango and papaya followed by tuna tiradito, in which firm, rectangular cuts of belly were awash in a ginger soda-like mousse alongside crispy plantain chips.

For my second course — “I call this the taco course,” said my informed, attentive server, Carina Rivas, who recently became restaurant manager — I opted for the pastor negro, as Augie’s is one of the only places I’ve seen with this black sauce. It was served on a thick, just-made tortilla and topped with a sweetly herbal mix of epazote, pineapple, avocado cream, onion, and radish. 

This exact taco is no longer on the menu, which was just refreshed in January. In its place is an octopus version, the pulpo al pastor in a recada negro. The popular duck carnitas remain on the new menu, as do the shrimp, and they’ve expanded to a two-taco serving rather than just one. 

My entree of tres moles featured three tiny pork chops, one in the familiar mole poblano, one in more a nuttier pipian verde, and the third in a bright pink mole rosa, which sported unique peppercorn and cinnamon flavors. I couldn’t come close to eating it all, in part because those hearty tortillas on the side were so fulfilling. Other entrees on the new menu include beef barbacoa, spicy octopus, cauliflower and mushroom in yellow mole, and steaks grilled in an Guadalajara style. 

Dessert was Gonzalez’s ode to his former home, jericalla, but he takes the flan-esque custard to gastronomic extremes, serving it beneath a sugar globe that melted when Rivas poured the accompanying sauce atop the glassy sphere. As I polished that off, the team showed off the end-of-evening beverages, including a clay-pot-aged sticky wine from Villa Creek, an herby agave liqueur called Xila made in Mexico City, the coffee-agave sipper Cantera Negra, and the traditional Mexican coffee cocktail called carajillo, which I opted for shaken in the Guadalajara way. I’m not sure I want to finish a big meal with anything else now. 

Adjusting All the Time

Opening in a long-vacant downtown building that opinionated Santa Barbarans have watched for years like bloodthirsty hawks, Augie’s prominent perch on the corner of State and Ortega streets was destined to draw an initial wave of complaints, even with the look handled by design darling Jeff Shelton. It’s too expensive, said some, or hard to get a table, said others, or too constrained by rigid rules. 

In a direct response to that initial feedback, the Augie’s team revamped the menu and chilled-out the vibe earlier this month, in preparation for the official grand opening on February 2. The menus were simplified a bit, the lighting was warmed up, and even the napkins got less formal, explained bar manager Ryan Linden, who’s softening the restaurant’s initial hard push on fine dining. 

“We want to be a tequila library and modern Mexican restaurant that is equally fun and approachable but refined and flavorful,” said Linden, who attended SBCC 15 years ago and worked for a decade in San Francisco restaurants before coming back to town last August to open Augie’s. “We really want people to have fun.” 

He even enlisted Shelton the architect to draw designs on the new dessert menus. “Whether you get a dessert or not, you’re gonna wanna look at this menu,” said Linden. “It’s part of the experience.”

700 State St.; (805) 664-0516; augiessb.com 

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