Tuesday, December 30, 2008

La Colmena

If you drive down Milpas just past Montecito Street there's the obvious 'weird' building sitting between two equally weird streets. For many years it was the home of Pavlako's, a Greek restaurant which I never saw anyone eat in, never ate there myself and was fully convinced was a front for some sort of large narcotics operation. Well, eventually Pavlako's went under and The Cajun Kitchen moved in, under the guise that what this neighborhood really needed was a restaurant that has no parking and serves really, really average food. Not surprisingly, there weren't enough cops in the neighborhood to keep the place up and running so it went under rather quickly. The building then sat empty for a while until a couple months ago when La Colmena opened it's doors with a small menu of tacos, alambres and quesadillas.

Now I was pretty happy about this place opening up, mainly because it would be the closest Mexican food to my office that's not El Bajio. You see, somehow I ended up with a job just off the Mexican food haven of Milpas Street but 200 feet away from this fine city's worst over-priced taqueria. (This posting isn't about El Bajio so I'll bag on them another day). But the idea of a new place that was almost the same distance away was very exciting. So I went a few times right off the bat and unfortunately, it just wasn't anything great, although definitely not bad, and a shitload better than El Bajio at a fraction of the price. I've been sticking with the tacos, trying different styles, but it's so hard to rave on a place that's obviously trying to be a sort of "East Side Lily's" and is so far from it. The tacos at Lily's are like a gift from the gods, sent down to the mortals and blessed by Argentinean supermodels. The tacos at La Colmena aren't really a gift from the gods, they're just a gift from whatever animal sacrificed their flesh for me to get some calories at lunch.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Gift of the Maestro

I wasn't supposed to be working today, but I had to take care of a couple things and then swung by the office when I was done. It turned out to be one of the better decisions of the waning year as when I was heading back to my car Felipe came up to me with a plastic bag in which there was something heavy and hot wrapped in tin-foil. Felipe is again on the list of favorite people for the coming year. Tamales...chicken mole. Usually Felipe makes his tamales Oaxacan style (the state where he's from), which are wrapped in banana leaves. These tamales, along with beer and a set of 34Cs are amongst the greatest things ever created on Earth. Lacking in banana leaves this time of year, Felipe opted to make his Christmas batch of tamales in the more common corn-husk style, still fantastic. But of course, you'll have to take my word for it, cause you can't have any.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas To Me

We do most of the Christmas celebrating at our house on Christmas Eve, so Christmas Day is usually spent not doing much of anything. This year, I got up late, had some coffee, and headed down the hill to El Buen Gusto for some breakfast. Unlike a lot of the taquerias around here El Buen is always open Christmas Day, I know this because I'm often dining there. It's always packed and this year was no exception. I had a burrito, not what I generally get for breakfast, but I was feeling like a special treat. It was so good I went back with Deb later that afternoon and we ate again, this time I had a few tacos al pastor, which are one of my favorite things to eat on the planet. So really, while most of the gifts were exchanged the night before, I kept getting them all day.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Chef de Hierro

I've eaten a lot of Mexican food in a lot of different places around this country (and others) and I can honestly say that my hometown of Santa Barbara has some of the best grub that there is. What a lot of people don't know though, is that Santa Barbara is also home to the finest Mexican cook that I've ever come across, a guy who's food is so good it defies description with mere words, generally because I'm too busy shoving it down my throat as fast as I can before anyone else can get their grimy hands on it. Unfortunately all two of my readers, you'll likely never get to taste this fine cuisine (unless you decide to somehow make a career change and become a plumber), because he doesn't own a restaurant.

Felipe Carmona Diaz knows plumbing supplies like Donald Trump knows bad combover haircuts, but more importantly he is a fuckin Iron Chef times a thousand, and twice a year at work we host huge barbeques where this master of fine food gives everything he has to make sure 30-40 plumbing industry honchos are well fed with carne asada tacos. This is hands down the BEST carne asada anyone will ever eat, complete with homemade pico de gallo, guacamole, rice and beans, etc. etc. Felipe marinates the meat in some sort of magic potion (a secret recipe that I'm sure will be buried with him) and when you put it on a warm tortilla and take a bite into your mouth it tastes like the taco version of what a Victoria's Secret model orgy looks like...that is, there's a lot of shit going on here, and every single bit of it is really, really good.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rudy's - Upper State

I had some business to take care of on Upper State this afternoon so I swung into Rudy’s Taqueria which happened to be a couple doors down from my meeting. For the uninitiated, Rudy’s is one of two local chains, along with El Sitio, that has small burrito shacks scattered around SB/Goleta. I tend to like El Sitio more than Rudy’s, but that has more to do with my preference for a less gringo-ized meal than what Rudy’s has to offer, which is more along the lines of what people think of as “Fresh-Mex” (the literal translation of Fresh-Mex is: “Mexican food that white people from Cincinnati like”). That said, whenever I go here, it’s never a bad experience, never a great experience, it’s not even an experience. Just pretty good food. I had a chicken burrito that was totally fine, the salsa bar is totally fine, it’s not ridiculously overpriced. But I just can’t rave about the place because if it wasn’t next door to where I was already, I’d never go there.

In a nutshell, you go to the place because it’s there, you don’t go there because it’s the place.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Triple Play

“The month of Decembre means bueno food!”

La Gloria Taqueria
I hit up one of my semi-regular lunch spots, La Gloria this afternoon, mainly because I ran into the lovely Bridget at Trader Joe’s the other day and she remarked how she and Micah had not had such a great food experience here a few days before. Now let me clarify that La Gloria is a place that several years ago I did not care for at all. My main memories of it from way back when were primarily of the biggest Mexican dude I’ve ever seen that they had working behind the counter (picturize Andre los Gigante) and the excellent verde sauce they had at the salsa bar. The rest of the joint was take it or leave it. But in the last year or so, I’ve found myself at La Gloria quite often since it is one of the many burrito joints within a block or two of my office (how lucky am I?). And I have to admit I like it a lot more than I used to, even though there’s no longer a gi-normous Mexican and the salsa verde isn’t quite what I remembered.

What I don’t like about the place is that they are slow. And when I say slow, I mean, if you’ve got something to do, make sure you do it first. Generally, I’ll avoid the lunch rush, go a little after 1pm, order my meal, sit down for a while, watch my nails grow, trim them, then pick up my food and take it back to the office. If you go during lunch, bring a shaving kit and some deodorant, you're in for the long haul and these people take their time. Which, I have found is a good thing. My burrito today was outstanding. I got the chicken super burrito, and the beauty of La Gloria is that they fill it up with fresh veggies along with meat, salsa, sour cream, cheese, avocado, etc. This is a QUALITY burro, and quite a step up from the basic Super Burrito you’ll get at a lot of other places. And today, I was sitting there waiting, got out my nail clippers….and my food came out before I could get started. I was back at the office in no time. And a final note to Bridget and Micah, give it another try.

Lilly’s Taqueria
I swilled some beer last night with my good friend Jesus and since I always rave about this joint we decided to rendezvous tonight for a quick taco session after work. He hadn't been here before and when we walked in the door he immediately started laughing at the menu when he noticed you could eat everything on it for about 10 bucks. I got my usual adobada tacos, because I’m a creature of habit and think they’re some of the best things I’ve ever had, but Jesus strayed out and scored himself some adobada, asada and ….cheek. I haven’t had cheek before, but I had a bite of his and it was quite tasty. I’ll certainly order one up in the future.

Jesus gave me some good natured ribbing for writing a food blog while being such a conservative eater (at a place that has a fuckin eye taco)….and he’s right. I gotta start branching out. But the truth is that when I find something I love, like say, Lilly’s adobado tacos, it’s damn hard to see anything else on the menu, in fact, I don’t even look at the friggin thing.

Los Agaves
So less than 2 hours after leaving Lilly’s, I find myself pulling up a chair at Los Agaves again with Deb. PACKED on a Friday night, as it rightfully should be. I pass by this joint every day numerous times and every night this week it has been filled up, but when I talked to the owner at the register tonight he said, “Oh,. It’s been so slow this week except for tonight.” I call bullshit on that. This guy’s drumming up support for his tip jar I think. More power to him, cause he deserves it. I'm still loving this place.

Anyways, we got the Tacos de Tingas and a chicken Molcajete….oh yeah, that’s right, you remember the molcajete. My Lilly's companion tonight, Jesus, a native English/Spanish speaker told me that ‘molcajetes’ is the word for the volcanic type bowl that the food comes in, but I assure you that he is 100% wrong. I don’t know who the hell taught him Spanish, but ‘molcajetes’ means: “Super Fucking Hot”. People probably thought I was exaggerating on the last posting about this dish, but let me tell you this: when we left the restaurant tonight with a little food still in the bowl, it was still boiling, and it's not like we were there for 15 minutes. We ate a friggin full meal. Regardless, I liked this version better than the sea and land one we had last time, but I think Deb would disagree, as it was quite a bit spicier (even I was beading up on the browline). The chicken was excellent, and I’m pretty sure thast they just throw a live chicken into the vat, the feathers melt away, the meat breaks into chunks and it cooks perfectly on it's way to table.

But I figured out that the strategy in eating this dish is to scoop it out on top of a tortilla laying on a bed of dry ice, order up a sixer of Corona, drink it, then eat your taco. Repeat. You’ll be righteously full of seriously tasty grub and seriously hammered by the end of the next night when you finally stumble home with sweat dripping form every pore.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Rose Cafe - Haley Street

Everything about The Rose Cafe on Haley looks old.

They painted the exterior and re-vamped the interior last year and it still looks old. On top of the physical aspects of the structure, they generally keep at least 3 servers on the floor that started their careers serving enchiladas to Julius Caesar. All that aside, this might be the smartest family-run business in town because they know that any drastic changes would likely cause an avalanche of protest. Many loyal Rose-ists (myself included) worship this fine establishment in ways that only Tom Cruise and Xenu can understand and there simply aren't that many places in Santa Barbara that can boast such a fervent band of loyalists. My girlfriend's brother lives in San Francisco now but he grew up here and whenever he comes back to visit, his first stop is usually to The Rose for mole'. Personally, I distinctly remember when Jimmy's Oriental Gardens closed a couple years ago, I was devastated (like so many others) and my first thought was that if The Rose goes too, I leave town. And I still think that today. Losing both of them would be too much, and they'd in all likelihood get replaced with the usual Santa Barbara ass-tastic fancy food that sucks....if you want a description as to what "ass-tastic fancy food that sucks" is, walk around downtown and step into practically any of the restaurant choices that'll serve you over-priced food that often sucks ass. At the Rose, you get a non-pretentious atmosphere and inexpensive heavenly Mexican Grub that most assuredly does not suck.

Anyways, back to Friday's meal. It came up as jaunts to the Rose usually come up. I pick up Deb from work, it's rather late, we want something simple, quick and good. Nine times out of ten we end up at The Rose. I had the combination plate with a chicken taco, cheese enchilada and chile relleno. I get this often. Anyone who's had the relleno at Rose usually comes away loving it...a super tasty food item coupled with one of the finest sauces in town...elegant and simple. I'm also partial to their tacos (always chicken)...and usually I don't dig on fried tacos. Deb got the Ablondigas, which was just ok. My opinion over many years of eating here, is that there are certain things that they don't do as well as they could...beef is one of those things (tamales are another, so be aware), so we weren't digging on the meatballs, but it was a perfectly acceptable soup. Nothing at all compared to their chicken soup, which they don't make every day and is so fucking good I've heard that top scientists at Stanford are looking to it for a possible cancer cure. Then there's the other all-too infrequent special Mole', the best spicy chip salsa in the state....but we'll cover that in another visit, because there will be many, many more.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mi Fiesta #4

"He's talking to you man!"

I've been meaning to hit this place up for a while and only didn't go here for lunch on Tuesday because I didn't want to spend the rest of the year walking to work before Santa brought me a new fucking bike. So I cruised back over today, chained my bike to a lightpost and wandered in. This is the classic Santa Barbara Mexican market...it's mostly frequented by neighborhood Mexicans, most of the staff speak poor English and one gets the idea that gringos don't step inside that often. I wound my way through the aisles to the back corner of the place where the carniceria is with a small deli menu scrawled up high. The lady behind the counter gave me a look that I translated into Spanish as, "You take a wrong turn white boy?" and ignored me for a while. When she finally realized I wasn't going away she walked up and I said "Uno adobada burrito." She clarified "adobada?" for me with a raised eyebrow. "Si. Si." She rolled her eyes like I was ruining her day and went back to the kitchen to presumably tell the cook to clean up the feathers and put the chicken carcass down, you gotta cook something for this dipshit white guy that got lost on his way to Westmont.

Now I have to tell you, I've always felt comfortable in places where they want me to feel uncomfortable. I don't know why. Visits like this remind me of when me and Manny went into The Copacabana on Milpas many years ago. The Copa was a place where gringos weren't exactly invited and didn't hang out, for whatever reason. Probably the same reason that the patrons of the Copa didn't hang out at The Santa Barbara Brewing Company. Purely cultural. But we went in, ordered our beers, got leery eyes and blatant stare downs from the locals, but 20 minutes later we were shooting pool with a couple other locs and laughing it up getting hammered. So this visit to Mi Fiesta was perfect, and the burrito was pretty good as well. And she'll remember me next time. And one day she might even smile when she takes my order.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

El Buen Gusto

I went into El Buen tonight and the young girl behind the counter read back my order in flawless English. First time this has happened in countless visits for over 10 years. Very, very odd.

I'm still a little bit shell-shocked.
Umm, the burrito was outstanding.


I had every intention of going to Mi Fiesta #4 over on Haley and Nopal this afternoon for lunch. I hadn't been there since it changed names (formerly Villareal Market) and got remodeled several months ago. So I got on my bike, pedaled the two blocks over from the office and pulled up.

As usual, there was a Haley bag-man with a train of shopping carts sitting out front, but not as usual, I had forgotten the lock for my bike. Second thoughts about my meal choice began instantly. Two young thugs appeared from inside the market carrying 2 twelve packs of Pepsi, a can of sliced peaches and a copy of High Times. One had a t-shirt that said "Robo Bicecleta". Better luck next time sucka, I'm moving up the street, where the counter is closer to the kickstand.

So I hit up Lito's, leaned my bike up against the row of newspaper stands like I always do and ordered up a chile verde burrito. I get this one often and it's always great, but not the best chile verde in town (a title that belongs solely to La Carreta up in Goletia). Also, I generally don't do lunch at Lito's because their breakfast is so damn good, having the finest breakfast burritos this side of Isla Vista. But in emeregency situations, hungry people must adapt. The best part about Lito's though is that you can walk out of there stuffed to the gills with a soda for less than 10 bucks, a feat which is getting harder to come by these days.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Lily's Taqueria

I'm hungry.
Let's get a taco.

Cozied up next to the freeway like homeless person, Lily's has been around at least 2-3 years now and from the moment I first stepped in the door I knew it was something especiale. The mere fact that it not only still exists, but has thrived enough to expand into the empty spot next door is a testimony to how great this place is.

Take this into consideration: This is a restaurant that has one item on the menu. And that item costs $1.35. You'll pay more for your fricking water at 99% of other restaurants in town. So in a nutshell you gotta sell a lot of tacos for $1.35 if you're going to survive downtown rents in Santa Barbara. And judging by the regular Super Rica-style line of customers snaking out the door and down the street every day, they do sell a lot of tacos. Not to mention, I love this place even though they don't serve beer, which would normally eliminate me from ever setting foot in the door. That alone should tell you something.

It's a simple place, just the way I like it. There's a menu scrawled in erasable pen with 8 meats to make your taco. And yes, you can get ojo (eye) . Don't see that one everyday. I'm partial to the adobada....might be the best in town, but I often change my mind depending where I'm eating. But it was the best in town this afternoon.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Los Agaves

I know what you're thinking...

The last thing that Milpas Street needs is yet another establishmente that serves up greasy Mexican fare.

But that, my friends, is not true. The last thing that Milpas Street needs is another atrocious Chinese buffet. One is more than enough. Mexican establishments, here in my beloved part of town at least, we can deal with. For when it comes to Mexican fare, Milpas, which in 10 short blocks has a current total of 11 life support systems, is Darwinism in restaurantism. Only the strong survive. Which brings me to one of the newer establishmentes, Los Agaves, a swankier than the norm joint at Cota and Milpas that has been open a couple months now and which I’ve now eaten at enough times to give a clear view of what we’re looking at. But let’s start off with the most recent visit.

First off, I don’t like their ordering system. They’re obviously trying to go for the taqueria style of things by having you order at the counter, but you’re obviously not in a taqueria. You’re in a restaurant where a service person brings out chips and salsa as well as your food. They need to get over the identity crisis, cause it’s annoying. Anyways, that complaint aside, Deb had heard good things about a dish called the Molcajetes. So we ordered that and the Enchiladas Guadalajara, which were good enough on a prior visit that I ordered them again. The enchiladas were fantastic: perfect chicken and outstanding verde sauce. I could ask for nothing more, but really, it's a basic Mexican dish and if you can't do this one right you can kiss your ass goodbye in this part of town, no?

Well, on to the Molcajetes. We got the “sea and land” version, and what is it really, you may ask? Yeah, I hadn't heard of it either, which is why I was excited to try it out. In short, it’s a bunch of fish, shrimp, chicken, beef and spices cooked up bouillabaisse style to a resting temperature of 9 million degrees. A more in-depth explanation is that it is a boiling, bubbling, mass of goodness that goes straight from the pot into an equally hot bowl formed from volcanic rock that has been mined from the depths of the earth and kept under constant heat since Krakatoa exploded. Sitting at a table front and center to the kitchen I swear I saw a tiny Indonesian midget emerge from a mineshaft in the back corner, wipe some black soot from his brow, hand the bowl over to the cook, and then jump into the oven to cool off. Right then I should have known something was up.

But alas, I was clueless and watched carefully as the always friendly proprietor of Los Agaves brought over the boiling bowl cradled in only his bare hands and set it down on the table. Struck by paralyzing fear, I could only stare dumbly at its gurgling redness. It looked good, yes. I took a swallow of Modelo. But it was obviously…..well, really fucking hot. I stuck a fork into the broth and watched the tines disappear as much molten steel. Luckily I had carried along with me a set of titanium tongs which I dipped in and scooped some grub onto the waiting corn tortilla. Via some chemical reaction that I can’t possibly begin to understand, the tortilla did not shrivel up and combust as expected. Things were going my way. After another swig off the Modelo, I anxiously closed my eyes, lifted the filled tortilla to my mouth, prayed to the rosary and every pagan idol I could think of..........and then bit in.

Remember when you get that pizza straight out of the oven with the scalding hot cheese and are so hungry you chomp right in, only to have the cheese sear the roof of your mouth leaving not only pain but effectively ruining the rest of the meal and leaving you with a flap of skin hanging from your mouth for the next 3 days? Child’s play, friends. That’s like chomping into an ice-cream sandwich compared to this. Food does not need to be this hot. In fact, unless you are Heidi Klum or an 8th century Japanese ninja forging a sword, nothing should be this hot. Ever.

We decided to let the dish cool a bit before we ate it, ended up spending the night with everyone else in the restaurant who’d ordered the same thing, and devoured it the next evening when it was merely scorching. And it was really good. Not to mention that as far as I know, and what I don’t know about Mexican food in this town ain’t worth knowin’, you can’t get anything like it anywhere else in Santa Barbara.

The final verdict on Los Agaves is it ROCKS. Probably my favorite new place to open up in town since Palapa on upper State broke tortilla. I think we’re four for four on satisfactory visits, which don’t happen often in my world. Furthermore, the style of the food, the curiosity of the menu, and the manner of the service can really only mean that they're gunning for the high-falutin' (is there a Spanish translation for that?) Super Rica crowd who've grown tired of waiting in line all day. They won't be disappointed.