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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
LATEST VISIT: 19 June 2014
1st VISIT: 21 July 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Pork Carnitas Taco, Chorizo Taco, Grilled Steak Taco, Frijol Super Rica, Super Rica Especial