Good Head: Eating Barbacoa at Lilly's Taqueria
For decades, Angelenos have been making the 90-mile drive up to La Super Rica, the Santa Barbara taco shack that is invariably identified as Julia Child's favorite Mexican restaurant. The food was like nothing in Los Angeles. And while many of us began to realize that the gorditas, alambres and quesadillas that we had assumed were La Super Rica inventions were in fact minor variations on Mexico City-style street food, we continued to travel up to Santa Barbara for the food, possibly because the drive was nice, and possibly because the cooking, wherever it was from, continued to be pretty good.
Still, if you blow into town on a Wednesday, the one day of the week that La Super Rica is closed, you either look for alternatives or starve. And if you should wind up at Lilly's, an insanely busy storefront tucked up against the 101, you will also experience something that you have never run across in Los Angeles: a taqueria specializing in the various delights that can be extracted from a well-steamed cow's head. In parts of northern Mexico it's what goes by the name barbacoa, and it's not hard to find in Arizona, but the delicacy has never really caught on in California.
Tacos are $1.40 a shot, which includes grilled peppers and as much brick-red salsa as your pain receptors are capable of handling, and if you are so inclined, in less time than it takes you to dig the money out of your pocket, somebody is handing you a plate including tacos made of lip, cheek, forehead, tongue - and eye, which is probably something you'd like to work up to. By the time you put chile on your tacos, find a table, and take a long, obliterating swig of the apple soda Sidral, you will have quite forgotten which meat is which; each is warm, steamy and brown. The tongue, you can tell - mmmm, delicious. Cheek, a little fibrous, plump. That glistening one - it must be the cabeza, slippery... unless that was the eye, unless it was the labia, lips. If this were a medical school exam, you would have failed miserably. But Lilly's is a taqueria. You have just had lunch.
Lilly's Taqueria: 310 Chapala St., Santa Barbara; (805) 966-9180.
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