Imagine Julia Child in her 80s, all six-feet two inches of her, standing in line to get tamales outside a worn-out white shack with teal trim in Santa Barbara. If you think of Julia Child as the grand dame of culinary sophistication in the United States, this may seem hard to imagine. But if you think of Ms. Child as a true foodie, ready to seek out and experience cooking in its essence in the most unlikely of places, this image makes perfect sense.
There is some disagreement, however, as to whether or not the beloved Julia was right about the taco shop itself -- La Super-Rica Taqueria. There are some out there who say its fame is undeserved. To them I say bah. Julia Child was as discerning an eater as she was a cook. Her love of La Super-Rica was warranted and that long line out the door is worth standing in.
The dilapidated appearance of La Super-Rica may turn off some, but it is fine with me. I grew up in San Diego and am used to frequenting run-down taco shops, so the décor of plastic tables and chairs in a dining area that looks more like a car port than a restaurant doesn't bother me. What does impress me, however, is the woman with the grandmotherly appearance who makes handmade tortilla after handmade tortilla behind the counter. Standing steadfastly a few feet behind the cash register -- grabbing wads of fresh masa, rolling them into a ball, smashing them between a tortilla presser and finally grilling them on a primitive stove next to her -- her hands never seem to stop. And those tortillas are just one of the reasons La Super-Rica deserves its fame. They are crisp on the outside but with a center that tastes gently steamed. Freshly cooked just moments before they are eaten, they are sublime.
My favorite dish, however, is the tamale, and rumor has it this was Julia Child's favorite menu item as well. While most tamales are densely packed with coarse masa and pork, the tamales at La Super-Rica are tender and almost velvety. I don't know what they put in their masa, but its buttery texture and gentle corn flavor melts on the tongue. Stuffed usually with vegetables in a mild sauce, it is the ultimate comfort food. When I was there last week, I had the daily tamale special: masa stuffed with chayote, corn, zucchini, potato and chile strips topped with a mildy-spiced crema. Wow.
The tacos are simple and straightforward: seasoned and grilled meats on those amazing handmade tortillas. That's it unless you order something like the Super Rica Especial, which is a combination of roasted pasilla peppers, cheese and pork. This is one of my favorite tacos. If you are looking for a traditional crunchy taco with lots of cumin, cheddar cheese and sour cream, this is not the place for you. But if you want a taco that is uncomplicated and unaffected, simply grilled meat atop a lovingly made tortilla, you're in luck.
There are many other items on the menu, such as the gorditas -- masa stuffed with spicy refried beans and then grilled -- as well as a variety of different types of tacos and quesadillas. La Super-Rica also offers daily specials, and I think those amazing tamales are only available on the weekends, so plan your trip accordingly if you want to try them. I hear they serve pozole on Sundays, but have never been there that day, so am not sure of this. Keep in mind this place is in no way fancy. The seating is backyard chic and the food is served on Styrofoam throw-away plates (yes, I know, Styrofoam!). It is, however, very family friendly and also pretty inexpensive. I bought plenty of food for the four of us, plus drinks, and spent only $28.17.
I realize that La Super-Rica is a five-hour drive from the Bay Area, but if you're visiting Santa Barbara and in the mood for wonderful homemade Mexican food, I highly recommend this small taco shack. I think Julia recognized that it's the sort of place where the owners take pride in what they do, and I couldn't concur more.
La Super-Rica Taqueria
622 N Milpas St.
Santa Barbara, CA 93103