Alambres La Unica | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

In yet another sign of the upward trajectory of Santa Barbara’s food scene, the upper State Street building which once held Taco Bell is now home to Taqueria La Unica, the latest restaurant from the Los Agaves Restaurant Group. 

Speaking of signs, the one for Taqueria La Unica says, “Est. 2021,” the birthplace of the concept, say the owners, but the actual venue at 3771 State St. has only been open a few months. Launched this spring as an outpost for traditional Mexican street tacos and other taqueria favorites, the restaurant took a while to find its footing. Starting with the fact that the neighbors in nearby San Roque and Hope Ranch were eager for a new fast casual concept, but needed a menu they could understand — the first rendition of the rather extensive menu was in Spanish only, which slowed down the line because people had a LOT of questions. 

The outside of Taqueria La Unica | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Now happily translated — with additional explanations for some of the less familiar items — the menu and kitchen of Taqueria La Unica are quickly becoming a neighborhood mainstay under the guidance of Chef Gerardo Marin, one of three chefs (the others are Richard Garcia and Danny Reyes) who oversee all of the cuisine for the Los Agaves group. That enterprise now includes five locations of the flagship Los Agaves (the original Milpas Street, De la Vina Street, Marketplace Drive in Goleta, Westlake Village, and Oxnard), as well as Flor de Maíz on the waterfront, and Santo Mezcal on lower State Street. 

The notion of elevated Mexican food is the primary throughline for all of owners Carlos and Christian Luna’s concepts, and despite the name, the emphasis at Taqueria La Unica is more on meats (al pastor, skirt steak, sirloin steak, chicken, strip loin, tongue/lengua, head/cabeza, picanha steak, short rib, cheek, lip, rib eye, bone marrow, beef birria, suadero, chorizo/longaniza, tripe, and campechana/seafood) than it is on tacos. 

Chef Gerardo Marin | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

These are the flavors of street food you’d find in Mexico City and Guadalajara, shared Chef Marin. He recently walked us through some of the menu highlights, all of which were new to me, despite the fact that I had been to Taqueria La Unica a few times before, which gives you some idea of how extensive the menu is.

For starters we tried the house made guacamole with tostadas with a generous portion of chips. Then there was the Elote De Pueblo, which is their version of the popular corn on the cob with mayo, fresh cheese, sour cream, and pequin pepper. It’s not easy to eat gracefully — or to share — but this take on authentic Mexican street corn is definitely tasty. This was followed by pinto beans with cheese, an elevated version of the refried bean dip my mom used to make when I was a kid. 

Next up, the Taco Al Pastor, garnished with pineapple, onion, and cilantro. “Everyone loves and knows Al Pastor,” says Marin. “Al Pastor is king because Al Pastor is very familiar in all parts of the world.” Wanting to expand our horizons further into what he calls “the real cuisine and flavors of Mexico,” the Mexico City native then had us try the Costras with tongue, which has a cheese crust wrapped around the tongue (it tastes like, uh, meat, and was well seasoned — if I didn’t know it was la lengua I wouldn’t have given it a second thought) on top of a corn tortilla. It was tasty, but a bit difficult to eat with a plastic fork and knife, which is all they have available.

“Alambres La Unica is our most popular menu item,” says Marin, as he had us try this fabulous (and huge) combination of sirloin steak, picanha steak, chorizo, onion, anaheim chili, mushrooms, and deliciously melty cheese. No surprise that this was probably my favorite item of the night. The shrimp alambres are my go-to order at Los Agaves, and even though the flavor of the La Unica Alambres — also available in variations with skirt steak and bacon (Norteno), and al pastor, chicken, and picanha steak (Que Me Ves) — is a bit heavier and heartier, the winning combination of savory meats and melty cheese is tough to beat. 

The Skirt Steak Volcanes, served on a corn tostada with refried pinto beans, were good, but definitely needed salsa — and luckily there is plenty. Each of the Los Agaves’s group restaurants has its own extensive variety of salsa. The Salsa Puya, with puya-dried chile sauce, is my favorite of this bunch. It’s a bit similar to guajillo but has a bit more kick to it. The Tacos Santa Barbara — a house specialty, made with grilled anaheim chili, al pastor, cheese, and avocado on soft corn tortilla — were quite good as well. I loved the bright crunchiness of the radish garnish. 

Clockwise from top left: Tacos Santa Barbara, Tacos El Pastor, Pinto Beans with Cheese, Burrito Del Rey, Alambres La Unica, and Costras La Lengua | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Even with trying small bites of everything I was stuffed at this point, but Marin brought out the Burrito Del Rey, made with al pastor, chihuahua cheese, refried pinto beans, rice, pineapple, onion, and cilantro, a clever concoction which stayed intact as I dug in to try a bite (one of my pet peeves is exploding burritos). I took it home for lunch the next day and it was just as good reheated. We didn’t even get to the Tortas, Mexican sandwiches available with a variety of meat options, including al pastor, suadero, head, campechana, birria (braised beef), and milanesa (breaded beef).

I had the quesabirria (beef birria with cheese tacos) on a previous visit and enjoyed it immensely — the birria torta is definitely on my list for next time. Marin also encourages the desserts, which include strawberries with homemade whip cream and cookies and traditional Mexican rice pudding. Mostly though, he just wants people to, “Come to the taqueria and try the real flavors of Mexico and the best taqueria in town.”

“Where our family is from in Jalisco, some of the very best food can be found right on the streets — it’s amazing, there’s nothing else like it!” said owner Carlos Luna when Taqueria La Unica first opened. “We wanted to recreate the experience that transports our guests to the streets of Mexico, where the flavors are bold, the spices are fiery, and the tacos are always fresh.” 

I don’t know about the streets of Mexico, but on the uptown streets of S.B., Taqueria La Unica is definitely on its way to popularity: I saw five people I knew in line during my visit! 

With a lively open kitchen concept, plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, and a beer and wine license in the works, there’s no reason not to think that Taqueria La Unica is well on its way to becoming as much of a mainstay as the Los Agaves Group’s other restaurants. My only complaint: the plastic silverware doesn’t quite cut it (literally) with this level of cuisine. That one fix and they’ll have a clear winner on their hands.



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