When most people rave about Mexican food in Santa Barbara, they are usually referring to one of the excellent tacquerias such as La Super Rica or Los Arroyos that serve authentic street food, where one stands in line and orders at a counter. But how is the flavor meter at Mexican restaurants that provide a bit more of a dining experience with table service? To answer that I went on a week long Mexican food odyssey in search of the best.
First stop was Left at Albuquerque, a Southwestern flavor chain restaurant with an emphasis on tequila. Surprisingly, for all those tequilas, the Margaritas were watered-down and less than stellar. The best dish was the sombrero sized plate of nachos ($8.99). The tacos may fall apart, the guacamole may have been made eons ago but those colorful chips lasted for days.
From the beaten track of lower State Street, I went to the other end of town, to the sequestered El Mercado Plaza to find El Rincon Bohemia for an early lunch. Most dishes seemed to be cheese, with cheese, with cheese. The one departure from this was the guacamole taco ($5.99) which was served in a crispy tortilla shell, shredded lettuce, gooey guacamole … and yes, some sprinkled cheese.
On Monday I drove to Carpinteria to check out Delgado’s which, it turned out is closed on Mondays. So cruising down Linden Avenue I spotted Oaxaca Fresh. Bright yellow walls and tight booths made me hold my breath. The salsa seemed to be mostly watered down onion flavor and the Coctel de Camaron ($8.75), a luke-cool soup of tomato, avocado, cilantro, onion and of course, shrimp swimming through the sea of mediocrity. But when the special arrived with one taste I said, “Holy mole.” Indeed this chicken mole was some of the best I’ve tasted. Although not a regular menu item, it is regularly on the specials and worth the visit. Generous pieces of white chicken breast were smothered in the rich, deep chocolate smoked flavors which take several days to create from scratch, I’m told.
Montecito’s Cava on Coast Village Road has the honor of the best mango Margarita ($8.00) for sweet tooth drinkers only. Cava also served up the Cava combination ($17.50) which includes a crispy flavorful beef taco, distinctive beans, rice and rib sticking cheese enchilada. Reflective of their sister restaurant, Carlitos on State Street, just a bit pricier, probably because of the higher rent district.
Mexican food and Milpas Street is almost synonymous. Besides the legendary tacquerias, there is Julian’s, Altamirano and the newly open Las Brisas. The former Hibachi location has been brightened up and filled with electric blue wood tables and creatively carved chairs. The chile relaneo ($3.25) was one of the best I’ve tasted with a light frying and oozing with a savory cheese and a tasty dollop of chilled guacamole. The red salsa was sheer heat. The cheese enchilada was perfectly prepared with authentic enchilada sauce and with the right amount of melted cheese ($4.75). But I should have split before ordering the banana split ($4.50) granted an unusual Mexican dessert the ice cream was bland and the toppings even blander.
So far, I had been spared from Star Wars in my stomach. My last supper, at least in the Mexican food arena was at the El Paseo. Here at the home of the superb El Paseo Margarita ($7.95), I settled into a cozy booth at the back of the historic room and started crunching on perfectly crispy chips with a spicy red salsa, sweet tomatillo salsa and enlighten pico de gallo. The chile rellaneo combination ($13.95) was particularly excellent with pinto beans, Mexican rice livened up with corn and peas and served on festive plates. And the greatest guacamole these taste buds tried was the table-side guacamole ($7.95) which is prepared with fresh avocado, tomato, onion, cilantro, and a myriad of ingredients.
The fabulous flavors of Fiesta can be found in a few restaurants but one needs to avoid stumbling into the pedestrian places.
Left at Albuquerque
El Rincon La Bohemia
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