I love tacos. Their small size means low commitment to a big meal, and the opportunity for more variety. Every taqueria in town has its unique selling point. It could be that they are cheap and fast. It could be that the tortillas are homemade. Perhaps one place has an utterly delicious mole, and another has a salsa that you can’t get enough of.
The Hidden Dolphin has recently popped up, related to the Altamirano’s shops on Milpas and Old Town Goleta, but this taqueria is simply tacos and hardly anything more, truly a hole-in-the-wall outfit without so much as a fresh coat of paint on the walls to spruce the place up prior to opening. But it’s easy enough to find, just look for the bright green steps at the entrance. It’s also the only restaurant on the block of otherwise industrial businesses.
The interior has perhaps four small tables which can be pushed together to accommodate a family, maybe. And its location is tucked far away, not only in the Funk Zone, but a rarely traversed path of it considering the deeper ruts have been driven by the steady path of people stumbling the Urban Wine Trail. No, this little shop is a secret little gem, currently prized by the devoted residents of the Funk Zone and a small population of the zone’s transitory workers.
I visited it on a weekend, sort of like a Sunday brunch. There was a family feasting there, one solo diner, and us, and the place was full. We noted that menudo was available on the weekend, but focused our attention on the tacos. And we ate!
Asada, carnitas, al pastor, lengua, cabeza, chicken mole, and one fish taco. Most tacos are $1.75 each, with the fish taco being the higher ticket at $2.25. The total bill, including a can of coke, came to $15-ish. Just look at the pile of wonderful tacos!
It’s hard to go wrong with asada and al pastor, they were fine. Favorites were the tender cabeza, and the fish taco. I really enjoyed the mole sauce, although the chicken seemed cooked separately and added, so the chicken wasn’t as tender as I’d wished. I did, however, love the boiled egg on top, which my companion mashed into the mole just prior to eating it.
The best part of it all? The sauces and salsas. There was the usual pico de gallo and tomatillo salsas, yes yes, we all like them. But we adored the peanut-based hot sauce, and then a sesame-based sauce, never had another sauce like it in this town. The man at counter was grinning as much as we were, delighted to see we were delighted. And then…we poked at a mysterious creamy sauce. What is it? “Hee hee! Guess?” We couldn’t and pried for information. Are you ready for it? Tomatillo aioli. A true aioli, being a simple emulsion of tomatillos, salt, and oil whipped into a creamy mass. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough tacos for all the sauce we wanted, and we didn’t have the stomach space for all the tacos we wanted. That does mean I need to return there soon. Just not on Thursdays. They are closed on Thursdays.
Also worth noting, the tortillas were factory made. They have plans to start making them in-house very shortly. Maybe by the time I get back there.
I was in the area running errands, noticed it was past lunchtime, and walked into Whole Foods for inspiration. I should point out here I was beyond hungry, the kind of hunger that makes me indecisive in the face of food.
I was deeply suspicious and talked to the man at the counter for a while. What’s the deal? What do you get? Is it already made?
No! It’s a freshly prepared burger, completely customized to your specs.
I selected ground bison, cooked medium, with grilled red onions, swiss cheese, toasted ciabatta and the regular fixings. Sure enough, about 10 minutes later, it’s ready, loaded into a little paper tray and packed neatly into a takeaway box.
The fries sit on the bottom, so they will get soggy fast, eat those first and quickly. The bison I selected is naturally low in fat, so I found that medium doneness tended to be more cooked than medium and will take that into account if I order it in the future.
Their deli offered other burger combinations, such as ‘cowboy’ style, or bacon, these cost a little more, like $0.50 or $1.00 more, still a very good price.
When Whole Foods first opened, there was an outdoor seating under an arbor. Now there’s indoor seating as well, just inside the entrance. At first I was worried that the baked goods and gelato that had been near the door was gone forever, but the good folks there pointed out it had moved to the back corner where the rest of the bakery was. Whew! I can still get my gelato fix. Oh, and one more thing. You know how McConnell’s is closed for remodel? Whole Foods has a small selection of McConnell’s ice cream.
There are more fantastic Korean or other asian places to eat at in the Clairemont Mesa Blvd or Convoy area that I am sure any one I choose will be satisfying. But Do Re Mi was such a good experience last night, with the owners so obviously proud of their hospitality, that I wanted to share it with my friends. After all, they have the ability to go back again and again, all I needed to do was get their ball of interest rolling.
We hit up Do Re Mi before an evening party, in hindsight it probably wasn’t necessary to eat before the party, but since it was a dessert party, we thought we needed to eat something savory on our own beforehand.
On this night, I discovered the unbridled pleasure that is dol sot bibimbap. I’d never had this version in the stone pot before and I. Loved. It. But let’s start at the beginning.
While I had walked in with my heart set on dolsot bibimbap, Valerie and Rob had to explore the menu, and meanwhile we were plied with all the yummy banchan Do Re Mi’s so good at providing.
Compared to last time, the custard was more eggy, less spring onion-y, and it collapsed quickly. But it came to the table still bubbling, and was good.
Valerie selected a pork, tofu and kimchee dish. Now, based on the photos of the menu, this dish looked moderately sized, but in reality that photo was terribly misleading because it was 30-50% bigger than we were expecting. So much food. Too much! It was good, but we had to take home a lot of it. The tofu’s very thickly cut and was quite filling, and then there’s all the pork and spicy cabbage kimchee piled up in the middle. I barely ate any of it, actually, I was too excited about the bibimbap.
Rob ordered a broiled black cod. It was simply prepared, no big bells and whistles, which was great because black cod is sweet and heavenly on its own. It did have some bones, which required a little concentration on eating, and it was a thankfully small dish, because we had so much food on the table that we probably could have skipped this dish altogether.
And here is my new love, the dol sot bibimbap. Like fried rice dialed up to 11. The bowl was burning hot, which roasted the rice at the bottom to give it a crisp crust. Those are the morsels you’re after. The top is loaded with goodies like pork, green sauteed vegetables, spicy sprouts and a raw egg, which gets quickly stirred into the hot rice and scrambles itself from the residual heat. Each bite was heavenly, and my friends and I ate up every last bite, scraping the bottom of the pot. I still think about eating it.
Do Re Mi House (Kearny Mesa)
My final food destination on the birthday food tour.
This time I got my desserts. There was time to spare between the SBIFF 1129 after party, and the late night showing of local short films at the Metro 4.
Cafe Luck’s just around the corner, and I know for sure I can get dessert in and out in half an hour. This time I had two companions, all sitting at the bar, eating ice cream.
The bartender was kind enough to put a candle into two of the scoops of ice cream, so thank you for that. But the winning items came later.
The other big winner is Cafe Luck’s Floating Island dessert. This is heaps fancier than I ever had in France. Just look at it!
A stout column of meringue topped with a great ball of spun sugar, all in a bowl of lavender creme anglaise. And for $7!! Is it even legal to have such a great dessert for such a small price?
And yes, it was delicious.
Roy was one of those places that popped up on my radar after I’d returned to Santa Barbara from school. It was one of the first, in my mind, that seemed approachable and affordable to a joe average person, and that sourced much of its produce from the farmers market long before it became trendy to do so.
Roy has always been an artist hub as well, drawing in local musicians, painters and the like. I run into art curators, art gallery staff, music writers, all sorts of artisans winding down their days, and they sit alongside happy hour office types, birthday parties, tourists and everyone gets along. I gotta give the place props for always having a local feel to it, from the old Jolly Tiger neon sign, to Brad Nack’s annual reindeer art show that sells out every holiday season. He and musician Spencer Barnitz (Gobble Song, anyone?) are often assisting with table service, too.
In recent times and recent economic downturn, Roy made adjustments to the menu to make smaller meals more affordable. At the worst of economic times, the restaurant offered a “soup kitchen” special at lunch, with soup and freshly baked bread for just $5. Now, there’s a $10 menu that’s good for dinner. The food on the menu isn’t necessarily different, it just offers the ability to mix and match the menu to suit your hunger level and the price you can afford. The prix fixe is still great, but I admit it’s too much food for me, especially if it’s late. For the most part, the $10 menu is the main course of the prix fixe meal, skipping the soup and salad.
The Nymphaea art installation gang and I headed over to Roy around 10 pm last week, after we’d all attended an art exhibition opening, and we explored some of the $10 options. The menu is still hand-written, as I’ve always known it to be.
The meal started out with the usual hot bread we’ve always had at Roy. It’s a whole wheat sliced loaf, served with butter. Fresh, nutty, delicious and so good we had two rounds of it before our main dishes even arrived.
Robin and Jon got the pork chop. It’s a thick cut of pork topped with sauteed apples, and served alongside market vegetables and Roy’s signature potato pancakes and creme fraiche. Roy’s also used fresh rosemary sprigs as garnish for as long as I’ve been eating there, so expect there to be a lightly infused flavor of rosemary to everything on the plate.
A favorite dish from the $10 menu is the mussels in a white wine sauce with housemade fettuccine. I’ve had this several times, although not tonight, Ted got it. I don’t know how Roy does it, but these mussels are some of my favorite in town. Each time I’ve had them, they’ve been plump and tender, almost buttery. If you can, save some of the bread to sop up the juices of dish.
My dish was chicken marsala with lots of tender mushrooms in the sauce, and the usual vegetables and potato pancakes on the side. Yummy. Another good item to save a little bread to soak up any remaining Marsala wine sauce.
The ambiance is dark and eclectic, with candles at the table and arty lamps spread throughout. The people who eat there run the range of young and old, hip and mainstream. I generally like to eat at the bar and chatter with friends who can come and go as they please, but it’s sometimes nice to sit farther back in a booth along the wall and enjoy a little privacy. Tonight we had a booth, with Nik and his visiting family in the booth next to us.
A friend passed along an enthusiastic heads up that Su Casa was now his favorite taqueria, thanks in part to new lower prices on their tacos. They’re now $1.50 each. Check out their big announcement!
Ok, so the poster may have been done by a nonprofessional poster-maker, and it’ll probably fall off the wall after a few days of variable weather due to the scotch tape going brittle, but the effort’s there. And yeah, I’m now aware of their new low prices, so the job’s effective enough. How were the tacos?
We got one each of lengua, asada, carnitas and adobada. They all came pre-loaded with cilantro and onion, and we could pour on whatever salsa we wanted. The original taco price was $2.50, which did make them a little pricey compared to many other taquerias in town. The new price puts them in the cheap eats range of competitiveness. The tortillas were factory made, which was fine for the price. The taste was satisfactory.
My friend who’s the Su Casa champion also has a gluten allergy, so I’ll also say this is a good option of gluten-free folks.
Really, how could I drive through Avenal and not stop here? Even the guy working there recognized us.
It’s the annual roadtrip to Nevada!
The first leg is driving to Sacramento and pitstop at my brother’s. I used to drive via the bay area, but the last few years have been taking I-5, by cutting over around Hwy 41. Winding through the area, one city I pass is Avenal. Last year I finally stopped there for tacos and loved it. Now, it’s an expected stop to get some cheap tacos.
Ooooh, lovely $1.50 carnitas tacos.
We also stocked up tortillas, chiles and dried beef for camping. And we got a popcicle for the road, because that’s how we roll.
Does anyone remember the “secret” restaurant in the Calle Real shopping center that was a French deli during the daytime, and at night became a wonderful little Korean restaurant, with a sweet grandmother patiently cooking and chopping all sorts of fragrant kimchi, soups, short ribs and plates of banchan? It was sometime in the late 80s or perhaps early 90s. My family loved it. It was before the internet went mainstream so I guess the secret truly remained a secret and the restaurant eventually closed.
These days, Santa Barbara’s version of Korean food comes from businesses that offer a general range of asian food or cater to poor, hungry students. Or both. What I’m getting at here is that the offerings are limited.
Korean food…tacos. Hmmm.
Well, down in the LA area, a fellow named Mark Manguera hit upon an idea to offer a fast food option by fusing Korean with Mexican food. Korean food flavors, wrapped up in tacos and burritos, sold from roaming food trucks and called Kogi BBQ. It’s insanely popular and helped blaze the trail for an explosion in gourmet food trucks. I once spied the Kogi truck at a park in LA and the queue was several hundred feet long, even with other trucks parked nearby offering good cheap eats as well. I didn’t have a spare three hours to stand in that queue, but I have thought about what I missed.
Anyway, with few exceptions, food businesses in Isla Vista come and go. Located at 956 Embarcadero is…I can’t even keep track. Berrilicious, then Sushilicious? Well, it’s Kogilicious now. In the same building is another eatery called Korean BBQ. At the Korean BBQ window you can get the bowls of meat and vegetables over rice, or as combination plates including some greens and macaroni salad. But that’s a different story. The Kogilicious side is a separate section of the building with a very simple menu. Korean style chicken, pork, beef and tofu, offered in a burrito or a taco. Easy. Handy. Fast.
AJ tipped me off that Kogilicious was offering a grand opening special so I went to check it out with McMarko. I ordered one each of the chicken, beef and pork tacos, and a spicy pork burrito.
If you eat to live (rather than live to eat) you might stuff the food in your mouth and not notice the difference between this and any other burrito or taco, because there’s still rice included in the flour tortilla wrap, and there’s still onions and cilantro and “salsa” on the corn tortilla. But the thick sauce seasoning is different and there’s a crunch to the cooked kimchi inside. They’re also very juicy. I liked it!
Their grand opening special was that all burritos are $4 and all the tacos were $1. The deal wrapped up this Sunday, 8 August, so if you go before then you’ll get the introductory prices AND you’ll avoid the Fiesta crowds while still getting to eat a burrito or taco. After Sunday the regular prices are $6.25 for the burritos and $1.45 per tacos. Still a good deal.
Kogilicious – riding on the coat tails of the Kogi BBQ craze, down to the flame in the logo, but a unique offering in this town.
Our desire to come here was driven more by our hunger than our desire for another cocktail. What are we on, a pub crawl? No.
Sabrina had planted the seed when she thought Coast had $2 tacos on Tuesdays. At the time I thought she was confusing it with Sharkeez’s tacos on Tuesdays (no thanks). But then I spied on the Canary Hotel’s twitter that there was a taco deal, all day on Thursdays. So she was close.
It was getting late, and this is a great option for a cheap and cheerful meal, while in an elegant surrounding. Of course this doesn’t beat the whole-in-the-wall taquerias on price and street food authenticity, but for a higher end hotel, I thought it was great.
There are very few hotels I dine in, mainly because I don’t ever need to stay in a hotel in Santa Barbara, but this is one I’ve been to a few times now. The chef participates in many food and wine fundraisers, so I get the skinny on his passion and creativity from there. I still can’t say I feel entirely comfortable there, I think that may be part of the hotel atmosphere where most people are passing through. The bartenders do double-duty as psychologists or buddies, with a patient ear for travellers’ woes. When the bill comes, the staff seem surprised to learn I’m actually just here for the food or a drink, I’m not staying at the hotel.
Still, I like it. It’s nice to detach myself from being a Santa Barbara local and drop into an interzone of sorts. And at $2 a taco, the price is right.
First, a beverage. The happy hour menu on drinks ran until 9 pm. We walked in with about 5 minutes to spare and got a pineapple margarita, $6. This was on the menu, but the bartender could have made one other flavors. Top shelf cocktails were $8, by the way, not including the fancy scotches.
The choices for tacos were chicken tacos, pork tacos (top row), and steak tacos and snapper tacos (bottom photo).
They are amply portioned, served on two large-ish corn tortillas with salsa and guacamole on the side. I thought the fish, beef and pork ones were delicious, while the chicken was okay. Really, that’s the chicken’s fault for being chicken. My top pick was the pork, which resulted in us ordered a second one, but the fish and beef were by no means worse. I really liked that the steak was clearly cooked as a larger piece beforehand to medium – with lots of pink in the middle – and then chopped for the taco filling. They were good mouthfuls and remained juicy and tender.
Each taco had a slight variation in filling, other than the meat obviously. The pork had grilled onions and corn, the snapper was creamy and topped with shredded cabbage. The chicken had grilled peppers and tomato, while the steak was garnished simply with fresh pico de gallo.
The taco deal is all day Thursday, from 11 am – 11 pm. It was a great way to end the evening. If only I lived downtown, I could spontaneously saunter over here for a late night snack more often. Maybe even dress up!