La Cocina Opens with Focus on Historical Cuisine
Price Range: $12 avg app / $20 avg main course
By Lauren Bray
La Cocina restaurant opened last month with a unique menu inspired by indigenous foods of the Central Coast, emphasizing Santa Barbara's Meso-American, Spanish, and Mexican-Californian cuisine.
The location at 7 East Anapamu Street is well-known to residents. It formerly housed the Sullivan Goss art gallery in the front part of the building and the Arts & Lectures Cafe on the idyllic patio that became a go-to lunch spot for locals for 20 years.
Designer and now restauranteur Steve Hermann purchased the building in 2015 and embarked on an extensive remodel. He launched the short-lived restaurant named Somerset then re-branded it into Smithy's Kitchen + Bar which closed in early May of this year. Third time must be the charm as La Cocina is the latest upgrade that opened on June 28.
“I love this city, and am so excited to offer a unique experience with wonderful Mexican food [...] We hope this will quickly become a local favorite and offer the community a place that pays homage to our local Santa Barbara food and culture in a relaxed and casual setting,” said Hermann.
The core design elements have stayed the same as the previous renditions: indoor seating, a large bar with a lounge area, a fun yet subtle floor design, consistently sleek and tasteful. There are a lot of wicker accents that play well with the overall motif, however, I didn't quite understand the hanging indoor wicker baskets, unless I can fill it with chips and salsa to take home. Overall, the showstopper will always be the patio with the olive trees, lavender bushes, and bistro lights, making any small occasion feel special.
La Cocina does not take reservations and since we dined within their first month of re-opening, the front of house was a bit chaotic. If you have your heart set on the patio, be prepared to wait. Thankfully, there's a full bar just inside with a distraction of comfortable seating and exotic cocktails.
The variety of house margaritas and signature cocktails are dangerously delicious. The "Uno Mas Margarita" includes grape, sage, lemon zest, elderflower, and simple syrup that tastes like the fanciest juice I've ever had. Perfect for those looking for something sweet and fruity. For a more smoky flavor try the "Picante de las Casa" with mezcal that's nicely balanced by cucumber and jalapeño. For whiskey lovers, the Pisco Sour is a must-do. Pisco is a non-aged Peruvian brandy which isn't as harsh as whiskey but has a slightly similar aftertaste.
Even if you're not in the mood for a full meal, the patio is perfect for a cocktail and a few light appetizers. La Cocina's version of ceviche includes the catch of the day, which was yellowtail on this day, chile de arbol, roasted corn, and puréed avocado. I usually find ceviche to be rather tart but this one had a nice balance of flavors with the corn adding a nice sweetness and a solid crunch.
All of the food is homemade daily using organic, non-GMO and sourced locally whenever possible from the farmer’s markets. The dishes aren't huge but perfect to share with a guest to try more options.
Another reason to arrive early, the oysters. We missed out as the last one was ordered just as I sat down. Naturally, I glared at the fellow diners from across the patio but the oysters looked delicious. Instead, I ordered the Cesar salad and fried olives. The salad has a beautiful presentation with tasty cream dressing. The fried olives are an ultimate guilty pleasure paired with whipped crema and chipotle salsa. The flavors reminded my guest of her Mexican grandmother's Fideo sauce.
We then ordered the beef enchiladas and the lamb birria tacos de guisado. Both types of meat tasted as if they were slow-cooked all day, essentially melting in our mouths retaining flavor and moisture. The lamb especially tasted like a refined stew and paired with pickled vegetables, the complementary flavors were compounded. The tacos also included deep-fried tortillas, an interesting choice and I would have probably preferred a standard tortilla, but it wasn't a major distraction.
Now dessert is usually my favorite course. Even if I'm stuffed full of food, I can somehow make room for a piece of cake. However, I'm also more critical of desserts since I love them so much. So, it means quite I lot when I say La Cocina's tres leches cake is the best I've ever had. The cake was light and not too dense, the strawberries were summer fresh, and the crema was airy with possible citrus or lavender flavor that tied it all together in a perfect bite. If anyone thinks I'm wrong about this being the best tres leche cake, I'll happily taste test other options and write another article comparing them all.
Who's behind all these flavors? It's Chef Mario Alberto who as a child spent hours with his mother in the kitchen preparing traditional Mexican cuisine. “I want to offer locals food that is flavorful, clean and light, as an ode to our favorite Mexican dishes, but with a subtle and unexpected twist. This may be with a flavor or spice, or how the dish is presented," he said.
While La Cocina is still in its growing pains as a new restaurant, the food and ambiance provide leverage for it to be another Santa Barbara mainstay.
Lauren is a member of the dedicated staff of edhat.com and is anxiously awaiting tres leche cake challengers.