I'm on the search for the best tacos in Santa Barbara, and I started my quest at two of Santa Barbara's favorite taquerias: Lilly's Taqueria on Chapala Street and La Super-Rica Taqueria on Milpas Street. Both popular taquerias (you'll often find a line out the door at both) serve their tacos on soft corn tortillas, but I think that's where the similarities end. But who has the better taco in Santa Barbara?
Unlike many taquerias, Lilly's Taqueria only sells tacos. Their tacos feature meat options that may seem exotic to some eaters: cabeza (head), cachete (cheek), lengua (tongue), labio (lips), and ojos (eyes, but really its the muscles around the eye). They also have more familiar options such as chicken, beef, and veggies. I ordered the cachete (cheek) because beef cheeks are a delicious cut of meat that goes relatively unloved by the public; Al ordered the steamed beef because he's not as adventurous as I am.
Let's start with the tortillas. To be perfectly honest, they were a little on the stale side. When you're working with a purely meat and tortilla concoction, your tortilla needs to be good. I was disappointed. They were sturdy enough to hold up the filling with salsa and did not disintegrate. The flavor of the tortilla wasn't bad, but it wasn't anything to write home about.
The filling, on the other hand, melted in my mouth deliciously. If you've never had the opportunity to eat beef cheeks, please go out and do so. It's not a scary meat! Because the cheek muscles get a daily workout chewing cud, they contain a lot of connective tissue. When this connective tissue is braised or stewed for long periods of time, it breaks down into a rich, flavorful fall apart cut of meat. Topped with spicy salsa verde to cut through the richness, this filling was excellent.
Al liked his steamed beef taco just fine. I tasted the filling, and I definitely chose well with the cachete filling.
Service was quick here and when we arrived there was no line. But just as a warning, it can be difficult to find parking here, and you may need to circle the block several times.
Cost: Under five dollars for two tacos.
La Super-Rica Taqueria
La Super-Rica Taqueria on Milpas has a reputation. It's known as Julia Child's favorite taco joint. Perhaps less inspiring is a referral to it in a Katy Perry (former Santa Barbara resident) song. People comment on the white and turquoise concrete exterior referring to it as "unassuming" and belying the deliciousness within. These people have obviously never had an amazing taco from the laundromat taqueria. This is Santa Barbara, but I digress.
Like Lilly's, they keep menu fairly simple here focusing on tacos and quesadillas. Their tortillas are made by hand, and you can watch the women form the masa mixture and slap them on the plancha. The service is friendly and when we went early on a Saturday, it wasn't particularly busy. Do expect a bit of a wait for your food since they are making things fresh here.
So let's start with the tortillas. The freshly made tortillas here were vastly superior to the stale ones at Lilly's Taqueria. They were soft and a little chewy with good corn flavor. Personally, I found them a little thick with two tortillas per taco, especially with the filling I got. I think they would have been perfect with only one tortilla or with a saucier filling.
For the filling, I ordered the taco de chuleta (grilled pork steak). The filling portion is too ample for the size of the tortillas; I ended up eating about a third of my filling with a fork. While the pork was cooked well, the flavor was immemorable and needed the addition of salsa verde for any flavor. Al ordered the chorizo taco and loved it. I tried a piece of the chorizo, and I didn't think it was anything special.
One standout at La Super-Rica is the horchata. If you're not familiar with horchata, it's an agua fresca often made rice (it does depend on which country you buy horchata in), vanilla, and cinnamon. It's a creamy concoction that tastes like a mix of almond and chai. It was deliciously refreshing and the best part of the meal.
Cost: under $10 for two tacos, an horchata, and a bottled coke.
I would choose Lilly's Taqueria over La Super-Rica Taqueria. While La Super-Rica taqueria had superior tortillas, this did not make up for the bland filling. The flavor of the filling and quality of salsa verde at Lilly's Taqueria edged it into the winning position. The ideal would be a combination of Lilly's filling and the tortillas at La Super-Rica Taqueria