It would be nigh impossible to follow in the culinary footsteps of Julia Child. The French cuisine visionary is one of America's most beloved kitchen treasures, and her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking won the hearts and stomachs of millions of housewives when it first debuted in 1961. While we may not be able to adequately step in the shadow of Child's longstanding legacy, it is actually still quite possible to follow her lead on a few of Southern California's best eateries.
Perhaps no restaurant does more with the Julia Child unofficial seal of approval than La Super-Rica in Santa Barbara. As the legend goes, Child singled out the boxy Mexican joint as one of her favorite places to eat, and soon after the swell of fans eager to take her advice came crashing in (we love it as a Hangover Helper, too).
To this day, La Super-Rica often has a line out the door, which actually isn't that difficult given the tight entryway and sparse patio seating. And what exactly do folks line up for? A bit of nostalgia, perhaps, but also some seriously good Mexican food.
Ordering up through the glass partition couldn't be easier, as the large hanging menuboard carefully lists the stable of choices and includes their ingredients. La Super-Rica is certainly a 'share and share alike' sort of spot, with no real platters or overbearing single dishes in sight. Instead, the priciest dish - the Super-Rica Especial (more on that in a moment) - prices out at around $7, while most items hover under $4. That means for around $12, you can order up three completely different items, where the only thing they have in common is the tortilla. That's not a bad deal, even by Julia Child 1961 standards.
So what should you order? First, try giving the Tacos de Bistec a shot. What passes for a carne asada taco here is actually about the size of an old 45 record, with massive chunks of thin beef pounded and salted right into the griddle. The pile rests atop a perfectly round hand-pressed tortilla made just as you order it, so the simple single taco is actually a much warmer, more complex affair than it seems at first glance. Of course, a hit of the well-balanced salsa roja certainly helps to finish off the taco.
You may also find yourself toying with the idea of ordering the chorizo quesadilla, but buyer beware. The chorizo here come as tightly pressed rounds, freshly chopped from their link but seriously lacking the depth and spice that chorizo normally delivers. Instead, audible at the window for an al pastor quesadilla, and you won't be disappointed. The thick chunks of pounded pork cutlet don't hit the citrus-y high notes of, say, Tacos Leo in Los Angeles, but it is warm, salty and slightly spicy nonetheless. In fact, when padded together with the gooey globs of mozzarella cheese and tucked inside a couple of thick tortillas, it's one of the best single items you can order.
The top spot, however, is reserved for the Super-Rica Especial. Hefty chunks or the al pastor are tossed together with a pile of roasted chile pasilla that has been stuffed to the brim with gooey mozzarella. One bite of the crispy, fried cheese edges and the fresh chops of perfectly spicy poblano peppers, and you immediately understand what Julia Child was talking about.
This is simple, sturdy Mexican food that bursts with flavor and gives your mouth a little kick in the process. Some might argue in favor of the fork-tender tamales, but I'll spend my road trip dollars on the Super-Rica Especial any time I'm passing through.
There's still something undeniably quaint about La Super-Rica. It's off the main Santa Barbara drag but sits proudly on a neighborhood corner, teal blue accents beckoning in the local surfers and the out-of-towners alike. Sure, the dishes here are simple, but that's sort of the point. La Super-Rica existed at a time when Mexican food was still gaining national popularity, and their menu reflects their age. Thankfully, like the legacy of Julia Child herself, the place only gets better with time.
622 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara, CA 93103 (map)