Julia Child, ever-reigning goddess of French gastronomy in America, passed away in 2004 at 91 years of age. But almost a decade later she is still stirring food passion, and still stirring up food controversy.
Ask any Mexican restaurant owner in Santa Barbara, California, and you’ll get an earful.
Julia, who was actually born in Southern California (in Pasadena, in 1913), and who later lived, most famously, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, started gravitating westward, back towards the Golden State, in her later years. Her beloved husband Paul, with whom she’d taken the renowned Cambridge Victorian house in 1961, a short walk from Harvard Yard, had to move to a local nursing home in 1989 after a series of strokes, and Julia started splitting her time between coasts. Paul died in 1994, and, a few years later, Julia finally decided to spend all her time in Santa Barbara, when she moved to a posh retirement community, Casa Dorinda, in the tony suburb of Montecito.
There were food writers aplenty in those years stopping in to see Julia, or engaging her on the phone in pursuit of the living taste of our greatest food legend. And Julia, who was always intensely loyal to the things and people she loved, started telling everyone that her favorite place to eat in Santa Barbara was La Super Rica Taqueria, which had opened on Milpas Street, SB’s great Mexican food neighborhood, in 1996. She mentioned it in an interview with Bon Appetit, discussed it on Good Morning America, and even inspired an article in The New Yorker about La Super Rica Taqueria.
American foodies ate it up, savoring the wack factor: the tall, patrician, cultured, New-England-ish lady who introduced all of us to coq au vin, escargots, and French mother sauces was touting a down-and-dirty taco joint as her fave dining spot! The irony was irresistibly delicious.
From the beginning, however, Julia’s pick inspired controversy. If you roam the internet, you’ll find hundreds of posts proclaiming love for Super Rica, testimonies of miles driven, of annual pilgrimages from Ohio, etc. You’ll also find people calling Super Rica the most overrated restaurant on the planet, a place merely resting on Julia laurels, a secondary player in the Santa Barbara Mexican scene.
And yet, if you arrive at Super Rica today at noon, or at 6 p.m., you’ll find a line winding around the street — the very line upon which Julia stood! — that often requires an hour and a half of waiting time before you get to the hatch where the food is ordered.
I know. I was there last week.
I had some business to do in Santa Barbara last week, but, as an old friend of Julia’s, I felt it incumbent upon me to make my first visit to La Super Rica Taqueria. I hadn’t been to Santa Barbara, a gorgeous, upscale, seaside Shangri-La about 90 miles north of Los Angeles, for almost 20 years and, accordingly, had never experienced the relatively youthful Super Rica Taqueria.
It was high time to see for myself.
My big questions were:
1) What kind of Mexican food is this?
2) What might have made Julia such a believer?
3) Is it great?
The discussion begins with the word “taqueria,” as in “La Super Rica Taqueria.” When I was hearing these Julia Child/Super Rica reports for so many years, I assumed ol’ Julia had found herself a true taqueria, the kind of place that offers tacos exclusively. This is very common in Mexico: the only dish on the menu is a pair of soft corn tortillas that can be filled with maybe eight or nine different kinds of meat (plus salsas, etc.). One of these bundles, filled one way, is the classic taco. Furthermore, the word “taqueria” originally was reserved for a street vendor stand; only later did some taquerias move indoors to become a kind of restaurant.
This one most definitely moved indoors… and most definitely expanded the menu to serve all kinds of other Mexican dishes. Tortillas are central here, yes…but many things are served ON tortillas, along with sauces and garnishes, not IN tortillas; in sum, Super Rica is far from a taco stand.
There’s nary a taco to be had on Friday’s list of specials.
But though the menu sprawls, one of the things that keeps it all together is owner Isodoro Gonzalez, who launched Super Rica in 1996. He was there on the first day, working in the heat of the griddles and grills…and he was still there on Friday, doing the same exact thing.
And what a griddle he oversees! Bundles of sizzling meat are constantly moved on and off, keeping up with the orders that come in at the hatch.
The energy is palpable. The sizzling smells are pulse-quickening. The smiles on the faces of the lined-up regulars are real, and really infectious.
And the quality? Did Julia get it right?
I am assuming that one thing that has not changed in 17 years is the quality of the tortillas. The tortilla itself is my favorite thing at Super Rica…and it’s not unreasonable to assume that Julia, she of the French baguette sisterhood, responded to something as simple and technical as a superior tortilla, even if she wasn’t a tortilla expert; for me, it’s the best taqueria tortilla I’ve had in the U.S. for years. Wet, fresh masa is shaped into balls á la minute, pounded by the tortilla specialist on a tortilladora (tortilla press) into lovely, flat thinness, then griddled briefly to keep up with the orders.
These tortillas are exemplary: complicated with chewy, flaky, soft layers…lightly golden on the outside…exploding with the proper, earthy taste of lime-slaked corn. One of my tips at Super Rica is to seek those dishes that show you the outside of the tortilla: when it’s buried under other ingredients, the tortilla excitement declines.
A good example of the tortilla-face-forward tradition at Super Rica is the delicious Lomito Suiza, “grilled marinated pork with melted cheese between 2 corn tortillas.”
I also loved their small versions of quesadillas, particularly the chorizo one–which features chunks of Spanish-style chorizo, not the usual Mexican ground-meat routine. Of course, the tortilla shines through.
The quality of the corn kitchen also carries over to the corn filling of the fluffy, earthy tamales; different wrappers (corn husks, banana leaves) will show up as specials each day, along with different filling/saucing permutations.
Another great strength of Super Rica is the full flavor of the grilled green chiles used in many dishes.
Probably the simplest way to enjoy these chile flavors is to grab an order of the inexpensive Rajas–“rags”of green chile–cooked with long-melted onions and ladled over tortillas. Simple and sublime.
If you want to go all the way on some of Super Rica’s strongest categories–roasted chiles, corn tortillas–my choice would be #16, the Super Rica Especial. In fact, it’s my favorite dish at Super Rica.
The great thing is the front-and-center charred flavor of the pasilla chiles (same as the rajas chiles, but much less cooked)–blending perfectly with the marinated pork, and the integrating gooey cheese (of which, blessedly, there’s not too much).
Right. All that said, about a few particular dishes and themes…is Super Rica a killer dining experience?
I’m afraid I have to say, after two visits in May 2013…the answer is “no.”
Lovers of real Mexican food, from various Mexican regions, will notice right away a kind of blandness underlying many of the dishes. I hate to call it Americanization…but it must be at least a variation of that, which keeps bringing in the tourists.
Consider the very popular beans with bacon, which looks like a million bucks:
Where’s the bean flavor? For all that floating bacon, where’s the bacon flavor? It’s a watery barge, and a big disappointment.
Ditto the dishes loaded up with cheese and cream. Occasionally, a proper balance is struck–but mostly the cheese is too heavy as well as too bland, and the cream adds nothing but calories. I tried a chile relleno specialty, with cheese and cream…
…and came away knowing better!
Cream? Cheese? Of course, one could speculate that dear Julia liked the creamy-cheesy connection that might have put her in mind of French food. California girl at heart, she might also have liked the “vegetable transformation” dishes, where something traditionally made with pork now gets made with zucchini. I’m sure the locals and tourists are digging the “veg” themes here…though, truth, be told, they’re not awfully flavorful.
But whether Julia liked the vegetarian themes or not, I’m sure she like the visual analogues of them. This is no dark, porky, old-fashioned taqueria. This is a place with airiness all about it…and maybe a very old 1920s flavor of California.
Maybe young Julia, in the 1920s, after a week of food cooked at home, sped with her parents on the weekend to some “naughty” place like this…which would have etched an indelible memory, of course. Perhaps the gorgeous trees around Super Rica…
…helped her complete a nostalgic California fantasy in her mind.
Perhaps Julia’s love for Super Rica was not all about the food.
I spent the rest of my available Santa Barbara hours bouncing off Mexican restaurants, hoping to find something better. Intriguingly, almost all of them are “taquerias” which, like Super Rica, mostly focus on more complicated dishes than tacos (with the exception of Lilly’s, the one true taqueria in town). None of them has an airy decor like Super Rica; they go either for the gussied-up Mexican hacienda cliché, or the ultra-simple food counter (without the turquoise and the airy glass panels).
And…most important…the ones I tried erred like Super Rica in trying to present a softer, more mass-appeal version of Mexican food.
And that is why, after picking up a few whispered tips from local foodsters, I was delighted to find El Bajio–which, to my limited knowledge, is the best place in Santa Barbara to get tacos, and mucho more. It opened in the same year as Super Rica, 1996, so Julia had a shot at it. I don’t know if she ever went–and I don’t know if she would have preferred it to the airy turquoise home-away-from-home she adopted.
Most folks who told me about El Bajio said it’s their favorite breakfast spot in Santa Barbara, so I dutifully went at 8AM. But I discovered a huge board of breakfast and non-breakfast possibilities…
…most of which are available all day (until the typical 9PM closing time).
I did the breakfast thing by ordering chilaquiles–the classic Mexican-mama-leftover dish, in which last night’s broken tortilla pieces are soaked in sauce, sometimes mixed with eggs and proteins. The El Bajio chilaquiles–soaked in red chili sauce, not the more common green–was a standout:
For starters, these tortilla pieces hit the best combo of crispy and soggy that I’ve ever experienced in chilaquiles. Secondly, the red chile sauce was roaring with capsicum flavor (and of course heat)–an antidote for all the blandness I chomped through in Santa Barbara. Even the fluffy rice, and the pink beans, had tons more intrinsic flavor than anything else in the neighborhood.
Another breakfast specialty in Mexican restaurants, especially on weekends (for its hangover-cure value) is a red soup of tripe and chiles called menudo. I’ve eaten menudo all over the southwest on Saturday mornings…but this was the best one I’ve had in America:
The magnificence was in the tripe…the earthy flavor of which was just at the level most folks can appreciate…not too strong, not too weak. Not to mention the abundance of tripe! And the deep, capsicum flavor of the red chiles! Everything counted.
And I already was knee-deep in something other than chicken breast with cream. When I eat Mexican food, I want the underbelly–literally and metaphorically. Here’s news, folks: the underbelly in Santa Barbara ain’t at Super Rica.
OK. I was done with breakfast, even though it was 8:15. I had to move on to a few all-day items, just to see. I chose to roar into three conventional tacos with fillings I love. If El Bajio passed the taco test, this would become my place.
First the downside: El Bajio’s tacos come with only one tortilla, not the traditional two. Why? I speculate that the reason is the thickness of El Bajio’s tortillas. They are not supremely thin, and one tortilla does the job. Oh, if they only had Super Rica’s tortillas at El Bajio’s taqueria!
But what they do have at El Bajio are insanely flavorful, insanely textured, insanely great fillings. They had me at lengua…the tongue-y specialty that has always been my favorite taco filling. I went on to carnitas, supremely porky pulled pork, tender and delicious. And I concluded with chicharron (pig skin)–which, they warned me at the ordering counter, would be soft, not crisp.
Wow were the chicharron soft! They were goopy, even, stewed for a long time to bring out every sticky molecule, and every strand of porcine DNA. O Dios! this is not gringo food! This is the real thing!!!
Would Julia have preferred El Bajio to Super Rica? I’m not sure. Julia liked to do things and say things she wasn’t supposed to do and say. One of her dearest friends in the late Cambridge years, Dun Gifford, head of Oldways (a food think-tank in Cambridge), told me before his passing that bed-ridden Julia’s favorite treat was a bag of Big Macs and fries that Dun used to smuggle into her house. She felt so BAD eating those in bed, with the curtains drawn. I’m thinkin’ that Julia LOVED telling people about Super Rica because it was such a departure for her. But I’m also convinced she loved the feel there–which might have prevented her from plumping for the really bad boy in town, El Bajio, had she known it.
The last time I saw Julia we were returning to a downtown L.A. hotel, with a car full of acolytes after dinner on the west side of town. At about midnight, while we were driving through a sketchy neighborhood, Julia suddenly said “Stop at this gas station! I need to go!” We stopped–any order given in that voice had to be obeyed. But we didn’t like the idea of Julia walking to the back to use the facility. Every male in the car jumped out, insisted on escorting her, but she waved us all away. “Oh dear,” she said, “I’ll be fine.” We couldn’t figure out why, in her late 80s, she’d want to risk it.
Julia was a willful enigma to the end. What did she really think about Super Rica, and why? We will never know. But the good news is we can go there today–with only a little wait–where we can bask in her spirit.