By Jason Chin
The Economist occasionally publishes a Big Mac Index, which follows the retail price of a McDonald’s Big Mac in several countries charted against current exchange rates. In theory, the price of this most prominent of hamburgers provides some indicator of the actual purchasing power of the local currency. However, I would submit that in Southern California, the cost of a taco will tell you a lot more about a town.
It is no secret that Santa Barbara is a rather affluent community, simultaneously serving as a college town, a retirement community, and a weekend getaway for the rich and famous. None of these groups are especially strapped for cash, and therefore all are apparently willing to pay a lot for a taco, a fact that has resulted in extreme taco-flation. For instance, take the venerable Taqueria in downtown Santa Barbara, La Super Rica. Their chewy handmade corn tortillas and nicely seasoned meats draw lines of customers nearly every day. It is no surprise that this was Julia Childs’ favorite place. But at $2.75 a taco, it can add up to an expensive obsession. Now that is not expensive in the absolute sense, but there is just something implicitly, gut-wrenchingly aversive about paying over $10 for three tacos and a drink.
Another factor contributing to taco-flation, in addition to the population’s willingness to pay, is a lack of specialization. The culinary foci of so many taquerias in town go way beyond tacos. Where are the taquerias in Santa Barbara that focus just on slinging tacos, but do it well and on the cheap? Until one fortunate night, I thought such a thing did not exist here.
Stumbling around an area of downtown Santa Barbara marked more by posh spas and trendy yoga studios, the last thing I expected to find was an authentic taco joint. I was lured over by a neon sign declaring “tacos,” to a building that screamed bourgeois, faux-run down mediocrity, serving Pabst Blue Ribbon and Pinot Grigio to wash down overpriced hemp tacos. Fortunately, my apprehensions were misguided. I found myself staring slack-jawed at a large overhead menu simply stating: “Authentic Tacos, $1.40, Beef, Marinated Pork, Steamed Beef, Head, Cheek, Lip, Tongue, Eye.” Okay, I’m in.
Lily’s Tacos, tucked in next to the 101 highway at the very end of Chapala Street, arrived on the scene about five years ago. It started as a small storefront and expanded three times, and is now the size of a proper restaurant. The menu, as reproduced above, can get adventurous. On account of their reasonable prices, I have been lured back many times and, well, it’s all pretty good. While the tortillas are almost certainly not made in house here, the open kitchen adjacent to the register assures that almost everything else is. Freshly steamed and grilled meats between tortillas are rarely unpleasant, and the same goes at Lily’s. Among my favorites are the steamed beef (maciza), marinated pork (adobada), and yes, the eye (ojo), chopped up and cooked so you don’t even really know, except of course that you know. I would, however, avoid the oft-dry grilled beef (asada).
Half the fun of tacos is the customization aspect, and Lily’s plays this card quite well. Tacos come bare, coaxing patrons to the excellent salsa bar. One nice touch is that the salsa bar offers cilantro, onions, or a mix of the two. Tacos will often come with cilantro and onion included, but the current set up allows maximal customization (and the chance to avoid onions if you are on a date!). The adobada taco recommended above does not really need sauce as it is quite heavily spiced, and is instead best spruced up by a squeeze of lime. On the other hand I find the fatty, glutinous meats like ojo are cut well by the tangy green sauce and a healthy dose of onion and cilantro. That having been said, there really are no right or wrong answers at the salsa bar. But with these upgrades you might forget you’re eating chopped up eyeballs and can instead appreciate the unparalleled moistness of this hard to find protein. Oh, and regulars request free fried onions and peppers on the side.
When operating a business based on volume and turn over, it is often easy to fall into a pattern of cold, businesslike service. This is not the case at Lily’s, as customers can expect warm greetings at the register. But business does move quickly, with staffers buzzing around clearing tables and freshening the establishmentâ€™s two salsa bars. The d’cor at Lily’s is typical for a taqueria, with light colors, open spaces, and new age posters hung around as if someone trying to complete the hole-in-the-wall feel of the place.
So it seems there is at least one taqueria in Santa Barbara that has resisted the urge to inflate prices and managed to offer terrific value to customers. It is unfortunately the exception to the rule, as the cost of living here, measured by tacos, is certainly still quite high. But restaurants like Lily’s offer a welcome respite and a valuable formula for success. How do they do it? I asked Lily’s owner, Jose Sepulveda, and with a proud smile he responded, “Working hard and doing just one thing.” I got the feeling he had been asked that before.
Address: 310 Chapala Street
Hours: Mon 11am-9pm
** and 1/2 (of four stars)