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'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.