You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Few have digested this old maxim quite like the loyal fans of Super Rica Taqueria, Santa Barbara's legendary Milpas Street magnet for D.F.-style Mexican cuisine and regional specials. More than ever, Isidoro Gonzalez's restaurant enjoys a swollen crowd of eager diners queuing up at its door. Unfortunately, few of them seem to be enjoying the trip very much, with a minimum, best-case-scenario wait of 20-minutes in direct sunlight, feeling like a rube on line at Disneyland before being granted the chance to utter an order. Through the years, nothing has really changed at Super Rica to alleviate these pains, leaving many a local and longtime devotee to avoid it entirely, though not without regret. Fortunately, there's a new dog in town. Though it may never succeed Super Rica in terms of fame, it's definitely the most exciting alternative we've experienced in years.
La Colmena (The Beehive), a rootsy taqueria housed in the old Pavlakos diner space, where the rounded block juts backward like a confused, small town Flatiron Building, opened in early 2010 to serve superior tacos in handmade tortillas under the direction of chef Alvaro Abrego, whose catering outfit preceded his taqueria. In addition, the restaurant has great gooey quesadillas, choriqueso, burritos, and at least one special per day. But more importantly, the restaurant serves alambres, the D.F. street grill staple of mashed-up grilled meats and vegetables that's forms a signature draw at Super Rica. More importantly, they are excellent at La Colmena and there's not even the threat of a wait.
We've long wondered why The Southland isn't chock-a-block with alambre spots, given the ceaseless cash-generator that Super Rica appears to be, as well as what we perceive to be their relatively simple preparation. At La Colmena, they somehow make it look even easier, grilling together a great mass of thin onions and pepper strips in a blanket of Ranchero queso fresco with crispy adobado. The lomito, a peppery, garlic-slicked soft and salty pork, comes in a rich gravy, soaking up a simple prep of mushrooms and cheese, the spice on equal footing with the sweetness found in a scattering of red onions. Solid asada bearing the grill's irresistible kiss is found in a similar sparse arrangement of shrooms and cheese. These gloriously messy, tangled alambres ($7.95) come with four tortillas on the side, which are made on the spot and land hot on the table with a roughly-hewn beauty.
Rather important to a taqueria, the tacos here are similarly a cut high above the norm. A supreme selection of meats includes lomito, tripas, cabeza, and higado de res (smothered beef liver, which they've been out of every time we've ordered it), along with the usual suspects like asada, shrimp, adobado, barbacoa, tilapia, chorizo, and chicken.
The tripas are deliriously crunchy, crisp, Combos-shaped cylinders with the creamy texture of marrow and a nice slight bitterness, quite unlike the broth-saturated soft stuff you get in so much menudo. The lomito is slippery and needs no more than a few shards of onion to shine. The tender cabeza is rich and smooth enough to stand up itself with scant adornment. The adobado is sublime, with a perfect balance of ululating spices. The lightly seared tilapia is earthy and buttery in turns. Despite the high standards for meat and tortillas here, all tacos come in at only $1.65.
Like Super Rica, La Colmena is also a house of specials, with daily dishes beyond Saturday and Sunday menudo (which they have too). You'll find huaraches and sopes on Tuesday, pork spare ribs on Wednesday, white and green pozole on Thursdays, and the Yucatan pork signature cochinita pibil on Friday, while the kitchen is capable of surprising with the sudden appearance of cecina or tasajo, as well as other specialty plates, on occasion. And speaking of specials, every week night, tacos are just $1.00 from 4:00-6:00 P.M.
On the weekend, the taqueria also carries tacos de canasta (basket tacos). Like huaraches and alambre, tacos de canasta are a more common sight in Mexico City. These tacos are steamed and wrapped together in a bunch to stay luke-warmish, often sitting for a long spell before getting snatched up from a street vendor or stand, where they are typically cheaper than a standard taco ($1.00 here). Where taco ingredients are typically bulky, chunky, vivid things, the contents of tacos de canasta are typically more like spreads. The potato taco holds a smear of red-toned mashed potatoes , while the chicharonnes are pastey in texture, ground to the point of near ether, with a nice taste of chipotle mingling with roasted meat. The tacos, likely because of the time they sit stored on each other, get delightfully permeated with juice and grease, though they might take some getting used to for taco hounds expecting something different.
One of our favorite things at Super Rica are the crispy, fricco-like cheese bits that coagulate on the sides of certain dishes, like in the Super Rica Especial, the tiny quesadillas, and the tacos de rajas, those thin strips of slightly-scorched chili peppers in cheese that we count as a favorite. It's one of many small details that has long convinced us there's a magical power built up in Super Rica's plancha. La Colmena's rajas are another big score, a nearly shatter-able batter of cheese, caramelized onion, and dark green peppers that looks like it could have been conceived by Dale Chihuly before expiring in a soft pool of cheese. Quesadillas similarly could make Lidia Bastianich proud of their fricco-like qualities, with a rich cheese stiffening around the soft edges of a perfectly scorched tortilla served hot.
It's details like the beautiful rajas that propel La Colemena into our highest affections. Ditto the salsa bar, with its cooling avocado sauce, pickled peppers and roots with bay leaves, and an orange peanut-habanero salsa that bears a slightly Asian flavor. This salsa is not very common, but it's a wonder that you want to throw on everything. Bright aguas frescas and café con leche are sufficiently up to snuff in appearance and spiced nuance.
This Is Only A Test...
Before we tried to lead Super Rica's line away like pied pipers of pozole, we figured a highly controlled experiment was in order. So we hit Super Rica for a comparison of the analogous dishes that we'd been eating at La Colmena. After all, we've worshiped the famous restaurant ourselves since youth and thanks to a shady domestic practice, seemed to have a waxed water cup full of the restaurant's salsa fresca in the family fridge at all times. And really, who are we to argue with the honorable Julia Child and the great Ruth Reichl, two noted fans who helped put Super Rica on the map.
At first, we thought La Colmena might lose points for a sloppy, less nuanced alambre or something along those lines, but surprisesurprise, we actually found we preferred their food to Super Rica's, as blasphemous as it sounds to our own ears. Arriving at the famous taqueria at its 11:00 A.M. opening time, it was still 20 minutes to order (the younger Gonzalez, Martin, was extremely friendly as always,) and another 20 minutes to eat. So it's not a total surprise someone appears to have put a small pellet hole in the glass at some point or other. We admit, the wait was frustrating, well before the line starting snaking ever north.
Our bacon-studded alambre ($5.80) with top round turned out dry and rather bland without a mass of cheese (we'd normally remedy that with the cheesey Super Rica Especial, but we were being all science-y). The sweetness of the bell peppers, as opposed to the darker, richer peppers of La Colmena, felt a cloying, watery distraction rather than a crucial complement to the dish. Our adobado taco ($2.00) went heavy on a nutmeg or clove taste, and was less than satisfactory in its sparse layout of just meat on a tortilla. The quesadilla had the heavenly crispy edges we adore, but the Monterrey Jack cheese was runnier than what we found down the street and a bit of a mess, with the small circle split unevenly and one tortilla sliding off center. We came expecting affirmation of Super Rica's superpowers and greatness, only to find ourselves befuddled at a sudden, alarming mediocrity we're never noted before.
Back at La Colmena the same day, the food tasted even better than before, without the wait or sunburn or exasperated grumbling from our peers. The room felt so much less tense than Super Rica. Instead of moneyed matrons and expectant tourists hovering nearby, ready to chase you from a table you've just waited a good part of your morning to obtain, you get a neighborhood crowd watching booty-shaking and futbol on Univision, along with an attentive, eager waitress. We sat down instantly, were served our food quickly, and for less than $20, feasted royally between two people.
While La Colmena is a thrilling rookie in Super Rica's turf, the elder taqueria doubtless need worry about feeling any heat. Nearby Taqueria El Bajio is an absolutely excellent place to grab a gourmet, fresh Mexican bite and the street's newer, fancier Los Agaves has stacked up a lot of local hype (we've not been) without ever shortening the wait at its more famous competition. In fact, Santa Barbara is full of great Mexican restaurants offering different choices, but La Colmena is one of the few to compete with many of the same items. So for those long-term or long-gone Super Rica fans who avoid the restaurant at the cost of denying themselves a great Mexican meal, Taqueria La Colmena is the perfect place to consider as your new alternative.
La Colmena, 217 Milpas St. Santa Barbara. 805-845-6970.