Santa Barbara Taco Tour

Michael Bauer visited five of the most popular taco spots in Santa Barbara—including Julia Child's favorite, La Super-Rica.

Tasty tacos from El Bajio, top to bottom: fish and al pastor.
Tasty tacos from El Bajio, top to bottom: fish and al pastor.

Thanks to Julia Child, many people who’ve never been to Santa Barbara know about La Super-Rica Taqueria. The restaurant was a favorite of hers, and the image of this six-foot, two-inch woman known for French cooking lining up for tacos was so appealing that it was documented by publications like Forbes and the New Yorker in stacks of articles about Santa Barbara and its taquerias. Today, there are many from which to choose; I visited five of the most popular—including La Super-Rica, to see how it’s fared since Child passed away in 2004.


This creative taqueria serves one of the best fish tacos I’ve ever had. The fillets of lingcod are embraced by a crispy batter and served with shredded cabbage, mayo-lime crema, and salsa cruda in a housemade corn tortilla. The chicken taco is smothered in black almond mole; the seafood taco consists of a mélange of octopus and shrimp with avocado and Anaheim chiles. Taco prices range from $5 to $8. 38 W. Victoria St., 805-845-0282


This is the go-to place in the Funk Zone, a former warehouse district now full of tasting rooms, microbreweries, and restaurants. The chefs griddle tender tortillas and dish up precisely chopped fillings topped with equally exacting dices of onions and cilantro. The lengua, or tongue, has a blackened exterior that accentuates its richness, and the carnitas are expectedly fatty with crunchy surprises. The chicken asado taco was a tad overcooked, but after I doused it in the smoky tomato salsa, it didn’t really matter. At $1.95 each, these tacos are a good deal. 217 Anacapa St., 805-895-2978

Interior of El Bajio.
Interior of El Bajio.


Only a few blocks away from the more famous La Super-Rica, El Bajio stands on its own. While most taquerias fold taco fillings into two tortillas, here you get one, seductively spongy and sturdy enough to hold at least three times as much filling as expected, for the reasonable price of $4.25. The asada (marinated beef) and the smoking-hot salsa are a perfect combination. The carnitas are just as good, and the chicharrón taco, red from spices, with a rich, flabby texture, might not appeal to everyone but will resonate with connoisseurs. 129 N. Milpas St., 805-884-1828


With at least 25 people waiting outside, I wondered whether I would love the food as I did a decade ago. Once inside, I gave my order to the same guy who had taken it 10 years back, setting the stage for a great experience. The pork tamales are made with masa that barely holds together, and the beef that goes into the tacos ($2.50) has just a hint of pink. One popular item is the Super Rica Especial #16: spice-coated meat, cheese, and strips of charred pasilla chiles over two tortillas. Excellent, but my favorite was and still is the raja taco ($3.95). The filling is so hot and gooey from cheese that it spills out of the tortillas. Bring cash; no credit cards are accepted. 622 N. Milpas St., 805-963-4940


By the standards of most cities, Lilly’s tacos are very good; given the competition in Santa Barbara, they fall short (just barely). However, the $2.18 price tag is adequate compensation. The menu consists mostly of tacos: grilled, steamed, or veggie. The grilled chicken fajitas are the best item, but other grilled options are marinated pork, asada, and adobada. The steamed selections incorporate most types of beef offal, including tongue, lips, eyes, and cheeks. The veggie offering features a mix of green beans, squash, and corn that has spent too much time over the fire. 310 Chapala St., 805-966-9180

Michael Bauer has written about food for nearly four decades at the Kansas City Star, Dallas Times Herald, and for more than 30 years for the San Francisco Chronicle where as Executive Food and Wine Editor, he led the food and wine team to four James Beard Awards for outstanding coverage.
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