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The Turquoise Room – Winslow, Arizona

The fabulous La Posada

The fabulous La Posada

The concept of “fast food” had a far different connotation during the Southwest’s Frontier days than it does today. This is especially true if one traveled via railroad through hundreds of miles of desolate, open country. In the more densely populated and genteel east there were often several cities between most destinations. This allowed for frequent rest and refreshment stops. Passengers rode in relative comfort in Pullman cars with dining cars.

In the wide open west, only twenty minutes were allowed during each of the infrequent stops. Further, the food was as miserable as the travel conditions. According to Keith L. Bryant’s History of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, “meat was greasy and usually fried, beans were canned, bacon rancid and coffee was fresh once a week.” No doubt it was gastronomic distress that prompted the following ditty documented on the book Hear the Lonesome Whistle Blow by Dee Brown: “The tea tasted as though it was made from the leaves of sagebrush. The biscuit was made without soda, but with plenty of alkali, harmonizing with the great quantity of alkali dust we had already swallowed.”

The welcoming interior of the Turquoise Room

One man, an English emigrant named Fred Harvey was determined to change the deplorable railroad travel conditions in the west. With a background as a restaurateur and later as a railroad employee, he brought good food at reasonable places served in clean, elegant restaurants to the traveling public throughout the Wild West. Historians agree that he also introduced civility and dignity. The Fred Harvey Company’s expansion included hotels, restaurants and lunchrooms throughout the Southwest (Arizona, California and New Mexico) as well as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and eventually anywhere the Santa Fe railroad system had major terminals including Chicago and Saint Louis.  By the late 1880s a Fred Harvey dining facility existed every 100 miles along the Santa Fe line. Meals at a Harvey establishment epitomized the highest standards for cleanliness and fastidiousness. Fine China, crystal, Irish linens, sumptuous portions and great value were hallmarks of a meal at a Harvey facility.

In the 1920s, the Harvey Company decided to build a major hotel in Winslow, the Arizona headquarters for the Santa Fe Railway. Being centrally located, Winslow was thought to be ideally situated for a resort hotel. No expense was spared. Construction costs for grounds and furnishings have been estimated at $2 million or about $40 million in today’s dollars. La Posada, the resting place, was the finest hotel in the Southwest during the railroad era. Today it remains not so much a re-creation of the great railway era, but an accumulation of memories and treasures in the form of exquisite art, history and beauty. Its opulent flow includes arched doorways, hand-painted glass windows, glittering tin chandeliers, Southwestern hand-hewn furniture and whimsical art. It is a magnificent complex, one of the finest hotels in the entire West.

Heirloom Squash Blossoms

Heirloom Squash Blossoms

It is only fitting that a hotel with the grandeur and splendor of La Posada have an elegant area set aside for the finest in dining. That would be the Turquoise room which has been recreated to reflect the ultimate in stylish railroad dining. The Turquoise Room is indeed a fabulous restaurant, viewed by experts as one of the very best in the Four Corners region. The braintrust behind the restaurant is chef and owner John Sharpe, an Englishman like Fred Harvey with a similar commitment to outstanding food and impeccable service.  That commitment was  recognized in 2011 when Sharpe was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as the best chef in the southwest.

Sharpe is committed to using only the finest and freshest ingredients possible, many of them grown locally. An avid gardener, he also grows heirloom vegetables and herbs for the restaurant, including the giant squash blossoms that appear on his menu on occasion. Every once in a while Sharpe also pays tribute to the great days of the Fred Harvey Company with retro dishes from the great railway era, but for the most part his cuisine might best be labeled as regional contemporary Southwestern. An even better label would be fabulous!  Several items are menu mainstays: roast prime rib, grilled steaks, fresh fish, pasta, elk, quail, pork, chicken, lamb and a vegetable platter. Desserts are made in-house on a daily basis.

Porterhouse Steak

The Engineer’s Porterhouse Steak

24 August 2008: Sharpe’s giant squash blossoms are things of beauty! Piped into each beer battered squash flower is a tamale-like concoction of corn meal and two types of cheeses topped with a corn salsa and drizzled with fresh cream. You will savor each bite and mourn the last one. It is one of the best appetizers we’ve had in any Arizona restaurant. An excellent pairing with many Turquoise Room entrees is the Don Juan Sangria cocktail made with red wine, port, sherry, brandy, triple sec and citrus juices served over ice. Sliced oranges, lemons and limes float on the sangria and add to its full-bodied, hearty flavor.

If you’ve ever lamented the lack of game gracing menus at restaurants throughout the Southwest, you’ll be thrilled to see several game favorites featured at the Turquoise Room. Better still, some entrees include more than one game favorite. One sure to please entree for the gaming gastronome is the Native Cassoulet with Churro Lamb, Duck Leg and Elk Sausage. Cassoulets are generally rich, slow-cooked bean casseroles containing meats (typically pork, sausage, mutton or goose), but Sharpe takes some liberties with that definition.

Prime Rib au jus

Prime Rib au jus

8 September 2007: Sharpe’s version starts with Tohono O’odham (a Native American tribe formerly known as the Papago who reside primarily in the Sonoran Desert of the Southwest United States and Northwest Mexico) grown tepary (a drought-resistant bean grown in the Southwest) beans cooked with locally raised Churro lamb, chilies and spices. The Turquoise Room’s Churro lamb chop is fork tender and absolutely delicious with nary a hint of gaminess or fat. In fact, the meat is very distinctive for lamb with a subtle wild flavor likely resultant from the Churro breed’s diet of shrubs and herbs in the sparse deserts of the Southwest. This is some of the best lamb I’ve had anywhere!  The duck leg confit is similarly wonderful–a duck leg seasoned and slowly cooked in duck fat. The Turquoise Room’s rendition is sinfully tender and moist with a crispy and golden brown skin.  The spicy smoked elk sausage may surprise you because it actually lives up to its billing. The sausage’s pronounced smokiness quickly gives way to a spiciness that will play a concordant tune on your taste buds. It is slightly coarse as sausage goes, but is tender, moist and delicious.

8 September 2007: Another dinner entree featuring game is aptly named the Wild-Wild-Wild-West Sampler Platter. This entree features grilled quail with prickly pear jalapeno glaze, seared elk medallion with blackcurrant sauce and a cup of chunky venison, buffalo, wild boar and scarlet runner bean chili served with sweet corn tamale and fresh vegetables. Every item on this entree is stellar in its own right, but together they put to shame just about every combination meat platter you can think of.  The seared elk with blackcurrant sauce edges out the grilled quail with prickly pear jalapeno glaze as the best of the lot, but not by much. Both are absolutely delicious, prepared to absolute perfection.

Cream of corn and smooth black bean soup

Cream of corn and smooth black bean soup

24 August 2008: If you’re of a carnivorous bent but don’t necessarily desire an entree with multiple meats, the purist in you might prefer The Engineer’s Porterhouse Steak. This is a one-pound Sterling Silver center-cut Porterhouse you can cut with a dinner knife. That’s how tender it is. It is served with a spicy (perhaps chipotle infused) steak sauce that is actually worth using on this slab of meat.  Prepared to your exacting specifications (medium is my recommendation), it is juicy and delicious on both the larger short loin side and the more tender and flavorful tenderloin side. Some restaurants call this cut of meat the T-Bone, but by any name, it is often a challenge to prepare correctly because of the uneven temperature distribution in preparation. The Turquoise Room obviously has mastered the art of preparing this delicious cut.

24 August 2008: Another fine meat option is the Premium Angus Prime Rib Roast Au Jus served with horseradish cream, a medley of fresh vegetables and a choice of baked potato or red caboose mashed potatoes. This cut is available in an eight-ounce or fourteen-ounce cut. Prime rib is not for the faint of heart. For optimum flavor, it’s best served at about medium rare, a degree of “doneness” which may give the appearance of bloodiness that turns off the queasy diner. Preparing prime rib at anything above medium is sacrilege and detracts from this flavorful slab of meat.  Needless to say, the Turquoise Room knows how to prepare prime rib. Cut into it and the succulent juices (albeit a bit red) flow onto your plate. Bite into it and you’re in heaven. A little bit of marbling goes a long way on this cut of beef and that’s what you’ll get–that and a whole lot of flavor. If you’re an aficionado of prime rib, this one will please you.  You might not be as pleased with the baked potatoes which are on the small side and may not be completely heated all the way through. While most of the potato is tender, some is just a bit tough, an indication of inconsistent baking. Still, you add a little butter and a little sour cream and you’ve got a nice dinner accompaniment.

Double Chocolate Grand Marnier Souffle for Two

Double Chocolate Grand Marnier Souffle for Two

24 August 2008: All dinners include your choice of Caesar salad or the restaurant’s signature soup, a cream of corn and smooth black bean soup served side-by-side in one bowl and topped with a red chile signature. As impossible as it may sound, the chef actually managed to keep separate on a bowl two very distinct yet very complementary soups as warming and comforting as the definition “comfort” soup itself. The Caesar salad is magnificent! It includes roasted red peppers, pumpkin seeds and Parmesan crusted tepee of the restaurant’s red chile cracker bread.

24 August 2008: The restaurant’s desserts are decadent and delightful, none quite as much as the Double Chocolate Grand Marnier Soufflé for Two. It takes 25 minutes to bake this extravagant treat, but it’s worth the wait. A rich dark chocolate soufflé is baked to order and served with whipped cream, dark chocolate Grand Marnier sauce (poured into a cavity atop the soufflé) and whipped cream. It’s a nice way to finish a meal.

Arizona Green Chile Eggs

Arizona Green Chile Eggs

Portion sizes at the Turquoise Room are generous but you’ll still be tempted to lick your plate so as not to waste a morsel or dribble of your entree or dessert. Fortunately dinner is followed by breakfast only a few hours away and breakfast, though not quite the equal of dinner, is an extraordinary event at this terrific restaurant.

9 September 2007: One of the breakfast entrees that makes it so are the Baked Beef Machaca Chilaquiles–shredded beef machaca with tomatoes, peppers, onions and spices, scrambled with two eggs, smoky red chile tomato sauce, crispy red and blue corn tortilla chips and jalapeno jack cheese. This entree is topped with crema fresca and roasted corn salsa and served with black beans. What a wonderful wake-up call. For most New Mexicans the smoky red chile tomato sauce would barely register on the piquant scale, but that’s okay because this breakfast entree is so replete with flavors competing for the rapt attention of your taste buds. Every ingredient plays on its partner ingredient and the resultant tune is a masterpiece.

Baked Beef Machaca Chilaquiles

Baked Beef Machaca Chilaquiles

9 September 2007: The best part of waking up, however, just might be Arizona Green Chile Eggs– creamy polenta in a pool of green chile, tomatillo sauce topped with two eggs, covered in melted jalapeno jack cheese and garnished with roasted corn salsa and diced fresh tomatoes, black beans and served with warm corn tortillas.  I’m somewhat loathe to credit anything in Arizona that includes salsa or chile, but the Arizona Green Chile Eggs have me issuing an apology to the Grand Canyon State’s use of ingredients New Mexico restaurants do best. This is an outstanding breakfast entree! 

22 June 2014:  Perhaps only in Italy is polenta used on breakfast entrees more than at the Turquoise Room.  Chef Sharpe’s rendition of polenta will remind you it’s so much more than “Italian grits” and can be made more sophisticated and interesting than simple coarse yellow cornmeal.  In addition to the aforementioned Arizona Green Chile Eggs entree, polenta also graces a breakfast entree called The Corn Maiden’s Delight, a bowl of warm yellow corn polenta topped with fire-roasted tomatoes, fresh spinach, two poached eggs, jalapeño jack cheese and fresh roasted corn salsa.  The very best qualities of this dish are showcased in the combination of its individual components, the more the merrier.  Alas, there is so little of the roasted corn salsa (onions, green peppers) that you’ll have to use it sparingly.  My preference would have been to cover the entire dish with this salsa.  All breakfasts save for waffles and pancakes are served your choice of La Posada’s blueberry muffin, bran muffin, cinnamon roll, English muffin or white, wheat or sourdough toast.

The Corn Maiden’s Delight

9 September 2007: Traditionalists might instead order something like the Silver Dollar pancake entree which includes two eggs, three pancakes and your choice of bacon, sausage or ham with spicy green chile breakfast potatoes. Rather than have your pancakes with maple or blueberry syrup, douse them liberally with prickly pear syrup. Prickly pear syrup has a higher fruit to sugar ratio than most syrups which is something you’ve got to appreciate if you don’t want a major sugar rush first thing in the morning.

22 July 2012: The lunch menu includes one of the most unique dishes I’ve seen on a restaurant menu anywhere, piki bread with hopi hummus. It’s a dish you might order for the experience of eating something so authentically Native American and uniquely different, but probaly not because someone has told you it’s a great tasting dish. The most unique aspect of this entree is the piki bread, finely ground blue corn blended with burnt juniper berry ash. Ash, in fact, is texturally what the bread resembles. This bread is crumbly (as in blow away light) and won’t stand up to the lightest portion of the bad-dap-suki, the “Hopi hummus” with which it is served. Hopi hummus is also unique, but its greatest resemblance to hummus is textural.

Piki Bread with Hopi Hummus:

22 July 2012: Much more traditional is the crispy pork carnitas platter, large pieces of crispy pork with red and green salsas, white tortillas, black beans and sweet corn tamale.  The carnitas are tender tendrils of pork perfectly made for the smallish corn tortillas.  Add a bit of the red or green salsa and you’ve got very good tacos.  The sweet corn tamale is essentially two scoops of a sweetened corn masa without any of the pork.

Breakfast, lunch or dinner, one of my favorite items at the Turquoise Room is the Late for the Train Coffee, an organic Turquoise Room blend.  It’s a mellow, rich coffee with a delicate roasted flavor.  Since our first visit to the Turquoise Room in 1997, it’s the only coffee we’ve had at home.

Crispy Pork Carnitas Platter: Large pieces of crispy pork Carnitas, with red and green salsas, white tortillas, black beans and sweet corn tamale

Fred Harvey would undoubtedly be very proud of the La Posada Hotel and the Turquoise Room, its fine, fine-dining restaurant.

The Turqouise Room
303 East 2nd Street (Rte 66)
Winslow, Arizona
(928) 289-4366
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 22 June 2014
1st VISIT: 8 September 2007
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 24
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Silver Dollar Pancakes, Baked Beef Machaca Chilaquiles, Arizona Green Chile Eggs, Native Cassoulet with Churro Lamb, Duck Leg and Elk Sausage, Double Chocolate Grand Marnier Soufflé for Two, Crispy Pork Carnitas Platter, The Corn Maiden’s Delight

Turquoise Room (La Posada Hotel) on Urbanspoon

Geoffrey’s Malibu – Malibu, California

Geoffrey’s Malibu, one of the most spectacular restaurants in California

The walls at Geoffrey’s Malibu are festooned with copies of whimsical framed “doodles” created by Hollywood celebrities and movie stars who have dined at the posh seaside restaurant. Most are tongue-in-cheek self-portraits which probably speak volumes about the glitterati themselves–and not just whether they lack or are blessed with an artistic talent beyond their particular medium. Thematically, all the portraits include a heart.  That’s because Harvey Baskin, the restaurant’s previous owner asked the artists to donate originals for publication and sale in support of a charity for children with heart disease. 

Jane Russell’s heart forms her shapely derriere at the terminus of legs which would otherwise go on forever.  George Burns’ bespectacled heart puffs on one of his beloved cigars.  Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but at Geoffrey’s Malibu it reputedly spans the Brooklyn Bridge.  Geoffrey’s neighbor Johnny Carson, obviously knowing his limitations, drew a simple heart and signed his name beneath it.  Woody Allen was clearly in his trademark dispirited disposition when he drew a broken heart

The view from the patio at Geoffrey’s Malibu

The fact that guests can dine at Geoffrey’s Malibu and not even notice the celebrity caricatures is a testament to the spectacular beauty surrounding the cliff-side restaurant which overlooks the churning Pacific.  In essence, Geoffrey’s is a curvilinear patio carved out of a Malibu hillside.  There’s an actual restaurant beyond the patio, but most diners want to imbibe the breathtaking scenery while enveloped in idyllic marine weather.  Virtually every table on the premises has unobstructed views of the ocean (unless it’s obfuscated by fog).  

There’s much credence to the argument that the drive to Malibu is even more jaw-dropping than the destination, especially if your route takes you through the Santa Monica Mountains on Kanan Dume Road. Even while the precipitous, winding road demands caution, you’ll ogle rocky promontories, verdant vineyards on steep angular hillsides and palatial estates rivaling French palaces.  You’ll drive through a series of double tunnels cut into the very rock itself.  You’ll marvel at every turn.

Caricatures of some of the many celebrities who have dined at Geoffrey’s Malibu

While the trek to Geoffrey’s Malibu may call to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote “life is a journey, not a destination,” the destination itself is absolutely magnificent.  Geoffrey’s is located mere feet from the Pacific Coast Highway which traverses the city affectionately nicknamed “the Bu” by locals.  It may as well be miles away from the rest of civilization.  Geoffrey’s has the preternatural ability to transport you away from your cares and toward a better self.  It’s al fresco dining at its very finest, a venue to be shared with loved ones. While our oft-recalcitrant dachshund child Tim dined with us, our good friend Sandy couldn’t make it.   

To ensure you’re not winded by a potentially long walk, you’ll definitely want to avail yourself of the valet parking services.  Geoffrey’s parking lot belies its daily guest list; it’s not nearly big enough to accommodate the fleet of BMWs, Mercedes Benzes, Silver Phantoms and the like driven by guests.  If you don’t want to witness the Jenga-like skill of the valets being played out on your vehicle, you can park instead on the shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway.  Some diners even park where signs indicate “No Parking.”

Rosemary bread and butter

Seating is in personal space proximity and the crashing waves a hundred feet away don’t muffle conversations very well. It’s easy to distinguish locals from tourists. Tourists gawk at their surroundings with an awestruck reverence while locals schmooze with the wait staff, an amazingly attentive phalanx of servers at your beck and call. Geoffrey’s is known to be a magnet for the well-heeled: celebrities, politicians, executives and the like, some of whom brandish a copy of the day’s Wall Street Journal and deliberate the financial section.

Shortly after you’re seated and menus are gently placed in your anxious hands, a server uses silver tongs to extricate a single bread roll from its warm repository.  Just out of the oven, it’s a rosemary foccacia from which wisps of steam escape when you cut into it.  The steam is redolent of rosemary, just enough to be discernible.  The foccacia is golden brown on the outside with just enough crust to hold in soft, tender and delicious innards.    It’s served with butter that’s easy to spread.

Sauteed Maine Mussels: Nueske’s Bacon, Whole Grain Mustard and Ale Butter Sauce, Grilled Bread

While no menu could possibly match the venue with its million dollar per square foot views, Geoffrey’s menu will elicit a few oohs and aahs–and not just because of the price point.  It’s an extravagant fine-dining menu even during lunchtime.  Segmented like most menus–Appetizers, Soups and Salads, Salad Entrees and Lunch Entrees–it’s rather seafood centric, fitting considering the milieu.   Just as many elements combine to create a classic restaurant, multifarious ingredients hallmarked by freshness, are needed to form an interesting and inviting menu.  Geoffrey’s has done this.

Save for an artisan cheese plate and baked brie in puff pastry, every item on the eight item appetizer menu showcases fresh seafood.  Sauteed Maine mussels are an outstanding option.  The broth is amazing, an ambrosia of Nueske’s bacon, tomatoes, whole grain mustard and ale butter.  If you’ve never had Nueske’s bacon, you’re in for a treat.  Nueske’s bacon is applewood smoked perfection which might just spoil all other bacon for you.  The salty smokiness permeates the broth and impregnates the briny mussels.  Two slices of grilled bread are available for dredging the broth, but a spoon works just as well.

Maine Lobster Cobb Salad

Nueske’s bacon finds its way into another entree, this one from the Salad Entrees section of the menu.  The Maine Lobster Cobb Salad demonstrates the versatility of lobster which is equally delicious steamed and served with melted butter or served cold as in this Geoffrey’s masterpiece.  A full pound (pre-cooked weight) lobster replete with knuckle and claw meat sits atop an otherwise standard Cobb salad with tomatoes, avocado, hard-boiled eggs, blue cheese crumbles and a lettuce mix drizzled with a honey Dijon vinaigrette.  It’s a beautifully composed salad with elegant twists sure to please the most discerning diners. 

Predictably, my entree featured two of my very favorite items-Maine lobster risotto and day boat scallops.  The term “day boat” indicates boats harvesting the scallops return to shore to at the end of each day, rather than spending days at sea.   It translates to much fresher, more delicious scallops.  Three large sizes scallops are perfectly seasoned and prepared, seared on the outside and medium-rare on the inside.  Characteristically sweet and thoroughly delicious, they exemplify freshness.

Sauteed Day Boat Sea Scallops: Maine Lobster Risotto, Pomegranate Reduction

The lobster risotto is perfectly prepared. A basic risotto requires a round, short grain, high starch rice.  From there, it’s a blank canvas for a wide variety of flavors, among them Maine lobster.  To be honest, there wasn’t much lobster in the risotto, nor was there enough risotto for that matter, but then there never is for me.  Geoffrey’s risotto is superb, but it was encircled in a pomegranate reduction that was perhaps too much of a flavor foil.  The pomegranate reduction’s tangy-sweet profile didn’t complement the risotto very well; a savory or cheesy reduction would have worked better. 

The dessert menu lists seven items including the same artisan cheese plate found on the appetizer menu.  In a rare feat of willpower, I eschewed the warm brioche bread pudding with a bourbon sauce and opted instead for chocolate hazelnut crunch bars with creme Anglaise and strawberry coulis.  It’s a very rich dessert showcasing a creamy wafer-like crust topped with a layer of even richer hazelnut (basically Nutella).  The strawberry coulis provides a tangy-sweet contrast to the nutty, crunchy and cloying crunch bars.

Chocolate Hazelnut Crunch Bars With Crème Anglaise and Strawberry Coulis

Dining at Geoffrey’s Malibu is feasting with your eyes in every sense of the term.  It’s one of the most amazing restaurants in California, a true pot of gold at the end of a truly spectacular rainbow.

Geoffrey’s Malibu
27400 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, California
(310) 457-1519
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 June 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 24
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Maine Lobster Cobb Salad, Sauteed Day Boat Sea Scallops, Chocolate Hazelnut Crunch Bars, Sauteed Maine Mussels

Geoffrey's Malibu on Urbanspoon

La Super Rica Taqueria – Santa Barbara, California

Two minutes before opening, lines have already formed for the world-famous La Super Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara

Truly legendary restaurants, those which can legitimately be called institutions–and there are very few of them–don’t just inspire return visits; they inspire pilgrimages. Institutions have generally stood the test of time by remaining consistent over time, thriving even against the onslaught of more polished and pristine interlopers.  Institutions are beloved beyond the communities they serve, their fame and acclaim growing with each satisfied visitor, many of whom make pilgrimages from hundreds of miles away. One restaurant which has earned the distinction of being called an institution is La Super Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara, California.

Hungry patrons line up half an hour before the restaurant opens because they know that very shortly the waiting time to place an order will be an hour or longer. While they wait, they swap stories about their favorite dining experiences at La Super Rica Taqueria, usually recounting in epiphany-like loving reverence, their first visit or favorite entree.  They talk about how far they’ve come either to revisit previously experienced deliciousness or to find out for themselves if the experience matches the hype.

The super clean dining room at La Super Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara

You can’t be in line to place your order without someone mentioning that La Super Rica Taqueria was the favorite Mexican restaurant of chef, author and television personality Julia Child, herself a living institution.  It’s one of the restaurant’s biggest draws as well as one of those inane bits of trivia only someone who’s lived under a rock doesn’t know.  It’s the reason most newcomers visit.  We all want to compare our palates with the very pedantic, very sophisticated palate of the legendary French chef–either to validate that we have comparable tastes or to decry her as a fanatic Francophile who didn’t really know Mexican food.

What is more surprising to me is not that Julia Child loved La Super Rica Taqueria, but that someone of her stature–both literally at 6’2″ and figuratively–would stand in line with dozens of other patrons.  Then again, the grand damme was a true gastronome with an adventurous spirit and willingness to experience foods where they are most respectfully and authentically prepared.  I also suspect that Julia may have received special treatment befitting her celebrity and age (89) when she moved to a retirement community in Santa Barbara in 2001. In any case, she enjoyed La Super Rica Taqueria until just months before her death at 92.

The Super Rica kitchen is a very busy place

A relatively nondescript white with teal trim shack, no more than a proverbial hole-in-the-wall belies the worldwide fame of the taqueria it houses.  There is no signage letting you know you’ve arrived.  In fact, where it not for the perpetually long queues of hungry patrons waiting to place their orders, you might pass it by.  There’s also little parking to be found, save an occasional  open space on the mostly residential street.  La Super Rica Taqueria is most assuredly on the map because Julia Child proclaimed its greatness during a 1985 appearance on Good Morning America.  It begs the analogy “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The answer is most resoundingly “yes” because of intrepid foodies who boldly go where normal diners don’t to find the best and most authentic cuisine available.  Foodies like my friend Sandy Driscoll who drives from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara (no easy feat in heavy traffic) every year to visit La Super Rica Taqueria have our own networks of fellow gastronomes with whom we share outstanding new finds.  It’s not likely the taqueria would have achieved its fame without the endorsement of a legendary culinary figure, but rest assured, if a restaurant is worth visiting, the world will eventually find out about it.

Aguas Frescas de Sandia (Watermelon Fresh Waters)

You might assume that because the French food Julia Child loved and wrote about so much is so rich, heavily sauced and seasoned, the food at La Super Rica would also explode with rich flavors ameliorated by heavy sauces.  To the contrary, the food is much more subtly flavored though it can be spiced up a bit with the addition of pico de gallo or one of the complimentary salsas.  By the standards of New Mexico’s piquant Mexican cuisine, La Super Rica’s food is comparatively bland.

There are few Mexican restaurants in New Mexico which prepare and serve tortillas nearly as wonderfully fresh and delightfully delicious as La Super Rica.  Through the windows which you pass by while in line, you’ll have the opportunity to observe the well-practiced hands of a tortillera as she deftly makes easy tortilla by hand, lovingly shaping the masa into a ball, shaping it on a tortilla press then grilling them on an archaic stove.  Each tortilla is as tender as your mother’s heart and has a pronounced corn taste.  Pay special attention as the tortillas are engorged with grilled and lightly seasoned meats.  It’s love before first bite.

Guacamole, Pico de Gallo, Tomatillo Salsa and Red Chile Salsa

21 July 2012: These tacos are the antithesis of the Taco Bell travesty on a hard-shell.  There’s no crunch to the tortillas nor will you find oodles of cheese, fields of lettuce and a surfeit of sour cream on these tacos.  They’re straight-forward, simple, uncomplicated…pretty basic stuff, but basic can taste pretty darned good.  Cash poor (the taqueria doesn’t accept credit cards) during our inaugural visit, we managed three tacos each: chorizo, grilled steak and pork carnitas.  The temptation to hold up a bank and return for more was pretty strong. 

While the tacos were memorable, my every instinct as a gastronome told me we (actually my Kim ordered while I waited in the car with our four-legged children) ordered far too safely.  The consequences of unadventurous ordering were a disappointing “so what” feeling that tacos may not necessarily be what this legendary taqueria does best.  During our second visit two years later, nary a taco was on our order.

Top: Frijol Super Rica: Cooked pinto beans with chorizo, bacon and chile. Bottom: Super Rica Especial (Roasted pasilla chile stuffed with cheese and marinated pork. Three tortillas.

19 June 2014: Faithful readers recommended the Super Rica Especial, a roasted pasilla chile stuffed with cheese and marinated pork bound together with three tortillas in a Big Mac fashion.  This is more like it–more of what has made La Super Rica Taqueria an institution.  In terms of piquancy, the pasilla ranks just above the Big Jim, Anaheim and New Mexico chiles with a Scoville index of 1500-2500 units, so it’s not especially hot.  Its roasted olfactory-arousing flavor is very reminiscent of New Mexico in autumn, while the pasilla’s flavor is more subtle.  The marinated pork is porcine perfection.  It’s moist, tender, superbly seasoned and marinated in a heavenly sauce that brings out the salty, fatty flavors of an otherwise mild meat.  Gooey globs of queso and tortillas redolent with the aroma of corn complete the explosion of flavors.

19 June 2014: The sense of smell, more than any of our other senses, influences our ability to recall past events and experience. It’s very well established that aroma is one of the most potent mediums for conjuring up a memory and for tugging at the heart strings. The aromas emanating from the  Frijol Super Rica transported me back to my mom’s kitchen in Peñasco where the most magnificent beans in the universe are cooked.  At Super Rica, the beans are cooked with chorizo, bacon and chile and are so good you might just imbibe the bean juice.

Chorizo Especial (melted cheese and chorizo between three tortillas)

19 June 2014:  The menu offers three “con queso” type entrees, all of them showcasing the grandeur and splendor that is the corn tortillas.  The Chorizo Especial features melted cheese and chorizo between three of those corn-flavored orbs.  For New Mexicans, the chorizo isn’t in ground form as we’re used to, instead resembling chopped wieners.  No matter.  They’re smoky, fatty and delicious, a perfect foil for the melted white cheese.  The Chorizo Especial pairs especially well with the guacamole and the pico de gallo.

La Super Rica Taqueria is a humble, but truly wonderful institution worth a pilgrimage or ten from anywhere in America.

La Super Rica Taqueria
622 N Milpas St
Santa Barbara, California
(805) 963-4940
LATEST VISIT: 19 June 2014
1st VISIT: 21 July 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $
BEST BET: Pork Carnitas Taco, Chorizo Taco, Grilled Steak Taco, Frijol Super Rica, Super Rica Especial

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