View from a Taco Stand

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Santa Barbara, California
By Heather Irwin

I look forward to traveling about as much as I look forward to going to the dentist—that is to say, not much. Both have a pesky habit of happening more often than I’d like and at totally inopportune times.

A couple weeks ago I got an unexpected invitation to visit Ojai, California. Like a loose filling, it wasn’t something I could politely ignore. So with deadlines unmet, a house badly in need of cleaning and children unceremoniously dispatched to grandmas, I made my way south. Driving in the middle of the night, five hours behind schedule, the world around me was cloaked in black--not nature's most flattering color. Whether I was in Monterey, the lush Central Valley, along the Santa Barbara coast or coming into the small village of Ojai, it all looked pretty much the same shade of dull. There was a point around 1am (and I’m not kidding you) where I started wondering whether anything beyond the light spray of my headlights existed at all. That in itself is a warning against mixing microwave burritos and 80 oz. of Diet Pepsi while driving.

But in the morning, as the first light came through the window of my Ojai hotel room and the soft-drink and burrito hangover began to wear off, I could see that I was in an altogether unfamiliar landscape with craggy brown mountains all around and the bluest sky imaginable. Palm trees, pretty much a novelty in my northern California neck of the woods, were everywhere. It was breath-taking.

Where I'd woken was about 40 minutes east of Santa Barbara, in a quiet resort town best known for catering to massage and weight-loss needs of those with far more disposable income than myself. With barely three stoplights to its name, there wasn’t much to do besides, well, relax and enjoy the quiet and the view—a view very unlike the one from my own bedroom window. And though I’d much rather be at home with my kids and my familiar schedule, there’s something about breaking free of familiarity that makes the world suddenly come into brilliant focus. Perhaps the work-a-day grind makes the mind a bit dull, auto-piloted down the same roads, padding through the same routine day after day. I mean, or so I've heard.

Driving through Ojai and Santa Barbara with my rose-colored "I'm somewhere new!" glasses on, the world shone and glistened. Palm trees swayed along the warm and sunny beaches, streams trickled through scrubby canyons and birds chirped with--and I could be imagining this--a distinctively SoCal accent. Oh, it was grand.

All this observation, of course, made me very, very hungry. Hungry enough to ask--out loud--where I should eat. This may have been a mistake. My reason for being in Ojai was to attend a food writing conference, which of course means there were a number of food writers within earshot. Suggestions came forth geyser-like and with as much unrestrained enthusiasm as you might imagine from a room full of people who eat for a living. I now have enough infomation about dining in the region surrounding Santa Barbara to fill a short book. The one recommendation that stood out, however, was La Super Rica (622 N Milpas St., Santa Barbara, California, 805.963.4940). This local tacqueria was a frequent hang-out for local resident and chef Julia Child. That in itself was enough reason to go. Looks of unbridled longing, and several concurrent, “Ohhhh, yes!” “Oh you must go!” that came flooding my way sealed the deal. I was on my way.

Now, La Super Rica is nothing much to speak about—it’s a fairly shabby tacqueria with plastic tables and chairs, newspapers scattered about and hordes of families sharing their plates with a horde of toddlers scampering at their feet. On the patio, the ceiling at one point nearly meets the floor, not out of purposeful design, but due to a severe case of sagging. And the view? Lovely, if you have a thing for four-lane urban intersections and Mexican supermarkets. This is not the kind of place one might imagine a Grande Dame of French cooking gathering up her plastic silverware and cups of salsa verde.

But I vowed to go forth and experience something new--something extraordinary perhaps. This, despite a rather inauspicious start. From a window in the kitchen, finished orders are shouted in Spanish—a source of extreme concern for myself, a gringa who speaks barely ten words of Spanish (all of them menu items). With a growing sense of panic over how I’d figure out when my number, 79, was called (nueve, I thought, something-nueve), I watched the window, filling with plates of tacos and homemade tortillas. I was not, apparently the first obviously-can't-speak-Spanish girl to visit the Super Rica. “Sebenty niyne!” the man from the window shouted in heavily-accent English. Okay, blood-pressure may now return to normal.

Now, what I was expecting to find waiting for me at the window , I have no idea. I knew it would be--possibly extraordinary--but beyond that? When ordering, I simply regurgiated the numbers my friends had recommended: #1, #6 and #7 knowing not at all what they were. But (hooray!) on the paper plates before me were piles of freshly made tortillas filled with homemade guacamole, beef, pork, onions and peppers comingling in ways that might make a lesser woman reach for a breath-mint before *and* after the meal. Not me.

More aware of my surroundings than ever, the food sizzled with the heat of chiles and flooded my senses with its pungent Latin flavors. Sitting at the table, alone, I savored each and every morsel, mopping up the brown gravy, beef and avocados in heaping bites. It was in a word, extraordinary.

But not just for the food. What was beyond the ordinary--even magical--was sitting in a place and eating where Julia had once eaten. It was about being somewhere so very different than the places that I usually am—and that I often take for granted. It was about seeing the world from a totally new perspective; tasting, smelling, hearing and seeing everything that a new environment offers.

Like an annual dental exam, I'd put off my appointment with the extraordinary for far too long--cancelling again and again, but meaning to someday get around to it. You know, after the deadlines and grocery store and picking up the laundry. But suddenly, it had found me at a taco stand four hundred miles from home. Talk about a view.

La Super Rica (622 N Milpas St, Santa Barbara, California, 805.963.4940)

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