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Published: Sunday, 1/23/2005

California lunch stop brought back memories of Julia Child

Ordinarily, No. 19 would not have been such a memorable dining experience. After all, in some circles it would be nothing more than a bowl of pinto beans cooked with chorizo sausage and seasoned with chili powder.

But at La Super-Rica Taqueria on Milpas Street in Santa Barbara, Calif., No. 19 is very special. And Nos. 7 and 6 are not far behind.

La Super-Rica, in the heart of the Mexican district of the southern California city, was a favorite lunch stop of the late Julia Child, and I had to try whatever she had chosen.

Mrs. Child made us very famous, said Isidoro Gonzalez, owner, who has watched the crowds increase. The line of customers at the peak of the lunch hour often spills out the door and down the side street, and if there is a need for conversation between strangers it can start with Julia ate here.

Indeed, Julia did help to put the small cafe on the map. Word spread, not only throughout Santa Barbara, but also across the country. The woman who promoted French cooking in America had embraced Mexican food in her adopted city, and La Super-Rica was her favorite. Julia moved from Boston to Montecito, Calif., a coastal city within a few miles of Santa Barbara, in 2001.

The cafe is, plain and simple, a taqueria, a word seen in southern California that refers to a taco stand; it s part of the name of other eateries on Milpas Street. But famous Julia chose La Super-Rica, perhaps because of the tortillas, freshly made while you watch, or because of the quality beef.

Customers order their food at an open window by the numbers on a menu board at the entrance. No, I didn t stop at the No. 19 bowl of beans, but added Nos. 7 and 6 to my order. No. 7 is cured tri-tip beef cooked with bacon. No. 6 is a whole pasilla sauteed with onions. Pasilla is a chili pepper.

The food really is wonderful. I always knew Julia had good taste, but until I got off the train in Santa Barbara, I connected her with elaborate dishes made from recipes that often covered two pages in her cookbooks.

As delightful as she was on TV, explaining her cooking steps with a decided New England accent, it was often more entertaining to watch her than i to rush into the kitchen to make what she was demonstrating.

Despite a full life that lasted until she was 91 and doing what she liked most during those years, her death Aug. 13 at Montecito was sad. My fondness for Julia covered many years and conversations that fueled memories as I sat in the simple little restaurant eating the beans, perhaps at the same table where she once sat.

Many years ago, as one of about 20 writers, I was invited to her TV kitchen in Boston. It was definitely a career highlight. She and the late Jim Beard cooked together that day, which doubled the fun. Watching the two large, tall people navigate in limited space was amusing. That Julia always said what was on her mind was proved and will forever be remembered by her fans: Once on a TV show she dropped a potato pancake on the floor, picked it up, and advised home cooks to do the same. Who would know it had been on the floor, she reasoned.

I wasn t surprised that Julia had made friends with the staff and other regulars at La Super-Rica. Despite her fame, she was not vain or pompous. At a seminar about eight years ago at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Julia was billed as the celebrity on the program, but at dinner she was just one of us talking about many subjects. I cherish a photo of Julia and I that hangs on the wall in my kitchen. It was taken at the Greenbrier at a session when authors were invited to sell and autograph their cookbooks.

Julia asked to buy my cookbook if I would autograph it. I never found a pen so quickly. Do you suppose she ever tried the Toledo Tally Ho Tomato Pudding or the Erie Street Chili Mac?



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