Decades ago, I read a “Two for the Road” article in Gourmet Magazine by the Sterns that really got to me. For the first time in my life, I drove over 100 miles, expressly to try a small restaurant. The drive was to Santa Barbara and the restaurant La Super Rica. Since then, I’ve taken many people there, and always enjoy the reaction to the food and place when I bring new people there.
La Super Rica looks much the same as it did all those years ago. The plastic sheeting enclosing the dining area has been replaced by glass, but the small almost non-existent sign is the same, as are many of the people cooking the food. The line hasn’t changed much either, varying only from just around the corner to halfway down the block—all hungry people waiting for their turn to order. That’s pretty simple—you wait in line until you enter the door and are a few people away from the order window. You look on the handwritten menu, make your choices and place your order. As you do, you can watch the woman making tortillas behind the gentleman taking your counter. She takes a ball of cornmeal masa dough, presses it flat and tosses it on the flattop grill; all so fast you can barely see one put down before the next goes on. You then go around the corner, make a few cups of pico de gallo plus red and green sauce and find a table. A few minutes later, your number is called and you pick up your order, sometimes needing a few trips since there are no trays. You then proceed to eat some of the the most amazing Mexican food you’ll ever had. A suggestion—-bring a group so you can order more and share—it’s really fun!
The tacos are very basic, either grilled carne asada or top round beef, chicken, marinated or grilled pork, or handmade chorizo. The meat comes on two of the tortillas, unadorned and on a paper plate. My favorite is the Taco de Chorizo, a cut up and grilled sausage much more similar to a fine Spanish Chaurico than the usual chorizo you find at most places. It’s flavorful, a meaty but not greasy delight. I also always get the Rajas, strips of fresh-roasted pasilla pepper sautéed with onions and melted cheese and then placed on the tortillas. It’s flavorful but not hot, the pasillas adding a mild but tangy taste to the mix. Pasillas are found in many of the dishes there including the Super Rica Especial, the pepper stuffed with cheese and served with the marinated pork and tortillas. Altogether, there are 20 combinations of meat, vegetables, cheese and tortillas, more than enough variety and each with its own distinct flavor profile. Both carnivore and vegetarian can walk away happy.
A word about the sauces and pico de gallo. The pico de gallo is a simple blend of fresh jalapeno, onion, cilantro and tomato. It looks innocent, but has an awesome kick to it. It is the best pico de gallo I’ve had, and I’ve had a lot, from small taco carts in Mexico and East Los Angeles to fancier places throughout the country. The other sauces are a nice accompaniment to the meat and tortillas, adding the kick that so many people like.
This is not Sonora, Jalisco or Oxhacan style, (or Cal/Tex Mex either). No massive burritos, no crispy taco shells or yellow cheese, no baskets of chips and no huge plates of rice and beans. This is Mexico City style food, as fresh as you can get and with flavors you will find nowhere else.
Some daily specials are available most of the time and others only on occasion. Whenever I can get the Tamal de Verduras I order that first. It is a unique tamale, filled with chayote squash, corn, pasillas, zucchini and potato. It’s covered with a delicious white cream sauce and served on the corn husks it was cooked in. The taste is nothing short of extraordinary, the fresh veggies tender and complemented by the sauce. Another must-have for me when it’s available is the Posole Estilo-Jalisco. This soup/stew takes a rich red broth and fills it with chunks of tender pork and hominy. Topping it and adding a nice contrast is raw red cabbage, onions and avocado. By adding a liberal dose of fresh squeezed lime, some fried tortilla and some of their special hot sauce you can definitely have it “your way”. Even in the paper bowl, the presentation could pass muster at any high-end restaurant. Another special is the Tamal de Pescado. They take Dover Sole, wrap it in the tamale dough with the pasillas and potato and cover it with the cream sauce. Delicious! Beer and sodas are available, as are aguas frescas such as Horchata and Jamaica, made from Hibiscus flowers and very refreshing.
I can think of very few places that have I have been going to for 20-plus years and still enjoying them as much as the first time. Julia Child once proclaimed it was her favorite Mexican restaurant; and she could often be found waiting in line just like everyone else. The Sterns have included it in some of their books, a testament to their opinion of it. And for that, I thank you, Michael and Jane. Not only did you get me excited in the first place about the small place worth a long drive, you gave me one of my favorite places that I’ve been enjoying every time I pass through Santa Barbara—-and many times when I just have to make a special drive to have some of the best Mexican food around.