If it weren't for the line spilling out its door, passersby might not even notice La Super Rica. The humble taco stand on a residential street in downtown Santa Barbara doesn't have a sign. Its turquoise trim is starting to peel. And parking is nonexistent. But none of this matters to the taqueria's patrons, who insist there's no better spot for an authentic Mexican meal.
Some fans of LSR, as it's affectionately called, drive from as far south as Los Angeles and as far north as San Luis Obisbo for the eatery's warm, velvety soft, homemade corn tortillas, which are served with succulent grilled meats, tangy guacamole, and fresh salsas.
Among the most recognizable fans of La Super Rica is none other than Julia Child. She put the Mexican hot spot on the map when, during an appearance on "Good Morning America" in 1985, she praised its food.
"My business doubled," recalls modest owner Isidoro Gonzales, during a break just after the lunch rush. "Who needs a sign after that?"
Mrs. Child, now a permanent resident of Santa Barbara, remains loyal. "Isidoro is such a dear," she told me during a visit to the area. "He is a careful and serious student of Mexican cooking, and his food is so authentic."
For Mr. Gonzales, that's the ultimate compliment from the ultimate fan. When he opened La Super Rica 22 years ago, he was driven by a desire to share his love for his country's cooking not only tacos al carbón, but also such dishes as sopas, chilaquiles, chile rellenos, enchiladas, and corn-husk tamales.
"I wanted to teach people that fast food can be good," he says. "I expected my clientele to be mostly students, and was surprised when grown-ups appeared."
Gonzales began cooking at age 3 with what he says were "dishes designed for girls to play house." Because this was considered odd for a boy, he was teased, and he abandoned the kitchen for the sports field. It wasn't until the early 1970s, when Gonzales left Jalisco, his hometown in central Mexico, to "discover his roots" in Mexico City, that he also found his fondness for Mexican flavors.
He went there to learn more about his native country, its culture, and its people, he says, but he left bursting with passion for his native country's fresh, honest, home-style cooking.
Arriving in the US, Gonzales pursued a degree in Spanish linguistics at the University of California's campus in Santa Barbara and made plans to become an academic. But his heart was elsewhere.
"I eventually realized that cooking was my calling," he says. "I need to interact with people and food. To this day, I get a high when I taste my cooking and say, 'Oh, yes, that's good!' "
Clearly, it brings Gonzales tremendous joy when others react the same way and not because he sees dollar signs. Prosperity appears to be the furthest thing from his mind.
Despite the crowds that pack his place daily and place about 300 orders on weekdays and 350 on weekends, Gonzales has no plans to expand.
"I don't want to get bigger," he insists. "I plan to keep doing 90 percent of the cooking myself."
He dreams instead of redesigning his tiny kitchen to look more like those he visits in Oaxaca, the area in southeastern Mexico known for its colorful culture and longstanding culinary traditions. Gonzales returns there for inspiration as often as possible. "A Oaxacan-style kitchen would take me there in a happy way," he says, smiling broadly at the thought of it.
But for now, Gonzales is content to put that dream on hold. He stays focused on his calling, even if his refusal to take shortcuts means putting in 17-hour days. "We make everything ourselves, we use only the freshest ingredients, and we don't save a single step."
The "we" Gonzales speaks of includes his younger brother, Marteen, his parents, and a few other Mexican cooks, whom he has trained himself.
Through the windows where customers order and pick up food, they can watch the kitchen crew grill chicken, fry beans, and roll out those beloved corn tortillas.
Gonzales typically arrives at 6 each morning and leaves at about 11 p.m. His 85-year-old father beats him to work each day, arriving at 4 a.m., and his mother dons her apron a couple of hours later.
Despite the demanding schedule, Gonzales couldn't be happier. "Working with my family, cooking my country's food, and pleasing so many people," he says, "this feels like the most comfortable thing I've ever done in my life."
For 20 years, this spicy bean dish has been a favorite at La Super Rica in Santa Barbara, Calif.
1 cup (8 ounces) dried pinto beans (or 3 cups canned)
1 teaspoon salt
slices bacon, chopped
1/2 pound chorizo sausage, chopped
1 poblano chili (also called pasilla), rinsed, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
If using dried beans, sort and rinse them and put them in a 5- to 6-quart pan. Add 2-1/2 quarts of water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for about 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours, stirring occasionally, until beans are tender to the bite. Add salt. If using canned, cooked beans, skip the previous steps. Don't discard the liquid in the can, however, after opening beans.
Meanwhile, in an 8- to 10-inch frying pan over medium-high heat, stir bacon frequently until browned, about 3 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a bowl.
Remove and discard chorizo casings. Chop sausage, put it in the frying pan, and cook over medium heat for about 3 minutes, stirring often, until browned. Add chili and stir until limp, about 3 more minutes. To sausage mixture, add cooked bacon and 1/2 cup of the liquid (or juice from the can) in which the beans were cooked; stir occasionally for 5 minutes. Stir cooked beans into sausage-bacon mixture and simmer to blend flavors, about 5 minutes. Add salt to taste. Makes 4 to 6 servings.