Eating La Vida Loca: Santa Barbara's New Loquita Restaurant Draws Inspiration from Spain

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/6/16
updated October 27, 2016

Chef Peter Lee
Executive Chef Peter Lee doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. It’s on the plate.

“I’m here to please,” says the man who runs the kitchen at Santa Barbara’s newest dining hotspot, Loquita.  That’s why, after he deliberately adorns a dish, “I like to follow the plate all the way to the table, until the serves sets it down, and watch for the guest’s reaction.”

That’ll be even easier for Chef Lee to do now, since the exhibition kitchen at Loquita – which is framed by a walnut-wrapped picture window – is wide open.  Diners at the six-seater Chef’s Counter get premium views of cooks working on state-of-the-art equipment.  But the kitchen action is easy to watch from main dining room, too, which is adorned with brass trims, vintage light fixtures, cozy banquettes, white-wash brick walls and Nicaraguan cement floor tiles.  The doors are salvaged from an old German monastery and the 19th century oil painting of St. Barbara on the wall once hung in a church in Argentina.  A stand-up counter separates the main room from the large walnut bar, with its 12 leather-tufted stools and framed mirrors.  A vault door leads outside to a white stucco patio decked out in wrought-iron chairs, jacaranda trees and stringed lights above.

Like the restaurant he’s helming, Chef Lee, 30, is new to Santa Barbara.  “I moved here three months ago,” says the Bay Area native who was at foodie-friendly Eldorado Kitchen in Sonoma and celeb-friendly Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles before working, most recently, at award-winning Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas.  Loquita, located right on State Street at the threshold of the Funk Zone and just two blocks from the ocean, opened in late September.

Loquita – the Spanish word refers to a young, jovial young girl – pays homage to Santa Barbara’s colonial history and youthful vibe with food and drinks inspired by Spain.  For Chef Lee, Spanish cuisine “always makes you feel like you’re at somebody’s home.  So our concept is to keep it as authentic as possible, but with a California twist to tailor it to our tastes.”

The Loquita menu is diverse yet refreshingly succinct.  The star dish here is the paella, the traditional slow-cooked rice dish that’s simmered in broth and festooned with add-ons like chicken, sausage, seafood, vegetables and spices.  The key to great paella is the rice, says Chef Lee, who field-tested several imported brands before settling on the Santo Tomas brand from Valencia.  The menu offers three paella preparations ($23-$41).

Finger-friendly items include the short “pintxos” skewers ($2 each) that are prepped with a variety of cured and pickled items “for pops of flavor” and “maximum one-bite impact,” says Chef Lee.  The “Date” features a Medjool date stuffed with the Spanish blue cheese “valdeon” and wrapped in thinly-sliced chorizo.

The charcuterie and cheese selections ($7-$21) include Spanish staples like Serrano and Iberico hams, 12-month old manchego and the delectably sweet quince paste known as “membrillo.”  The dozen-or-so tapas dishes ($4-$17) are meant for sharing.

Most of the main dishes come off an impressive wood-fire grill and include Spanish octopus in a black garlic aioli with potato and red onion ($21), Sonoma Valley lamb chops with eggplant and tomato ($34) and a 16-oz. prime ribeye with a traditional chermoula marinade ($47).

And among the early dessert favorites: the homemade churros ($9) served with chocolate, raspberry and dulce de leche dipping sauces.

Loquita's exhibition kitchen
Chef Lee says the menu will certainly evolve, driven by the seasons as well as customer response.  The key to successful service won’t change, though: “We show up early, prep, prep, prep and talk a lot through the process,” says Chef Lee.  His 10-member kitchen staff includes three sous-chefs he hand-picked from his previous restaurant jobs in L.A. and Vegas, including his longtime girlfriend, 26-year-old Chef Felicia Medina.  “I have the utmost confidence in my team,” adds Chef Lee.

The bar menu is worth noting, too, for its impressive lineup of Spanish and Santa Barbara wines and a cocktail list heavy on Spanish staples like gin-and-tonics, vermouths and farmers’ market sangrias.

Loquita is the latest offering from Santa Barbara-based Acme Hospitality, which also owns award-winning local establishments like The Lark, Les Marchands Wine Bar and the new Helena Avenue Bakery.

Loquita, 202 State Street, Santa Barbara. 805-880-3380. Open from 5pm daily.  .


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