Mexican Dining, Elevated: Santo Mezcal Opens on Santa Barbara’s Lower State Street

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/18/17

For several weeks, Ricardo Garcia put his clientele’s taste buds to the test.  The executive chef at Santa Barbara’s popular Los Agaves began offering daily specials – unique gourmet dishes that weren’t on the Milpas Street restaurant’s standard Mexican food menu, which draws a steady stream of customers daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  It was a culinary experiment, of sorts.

Pulpo a las Brasas
“The idea was to give him the ability to create dishes that are creative and that take extra time to prepare,” says his boss, restaurateur Carlos Luna.

The dishes that fared best – the ones that got the most raves from guests – now have starring roles at Santa Barbara’s newest restaurant, Santo Mezcal, which opened in early May on lower State Street.  The new project by Mr. Luna has been more than a year in the works and takes over the spot that has housed other buzzy restaurants in the past, most recently Nuance.  But the best timing for a hit eatery just a block from Stearns Wharf may be now.

“This area is finally revitalized,” says Mr. Luna, 36, during an recent interview.  It’s the lunch hour, and he’s sitting by a large glass door that opens onto State Street, sporadically welcoming patrons he recognizes in both English and Spanish.  “It’s all been construction here, but now – it’s the perfect time to open Santa Mezcal.”

Camarones al Mezcal
For years, the two blocks of State Street between the beach and Gutierrez Street have, in fact, been an area to avoid.  Street closures, construction crews and choppy street patterns have afflicted this zone, and many locals and visitors alike have opted to dine, shop and drive elsewhere.  But summer 2017 is the light at the end of the tunnel here, with the grand opening of a brand new luxury hotel.  Already, the highly-anticipated MOXI Museum, right next door to Santo Mezcal, is welcoming guests daily and several other eateries and wine bars have opened, or are about to.

So, Santa Mezcal becomes the latest fresh arrival in this newly imagined section of Santa Barbara, and its prospects hinge squarely on the dining experience it creates moving forward.

The name pays homage to one of Mexico’s most revered distilled cordials; mezcal enjoys widespread exaltation among its fans as a divine sipping spirit.  Born in the state of Oaxaca, it’s made from the agave plant, just like tequila.  But because it’s roasted in underground ovens covered by earth and rocks, it exhibits a distinctive smoky flavor.  The wall behind the bar at Santo Mezcal houses dozens of mezcal bottles, which are often identified by their village of origin or even the age of the origin agave plant.  Mezcal can be ordered by the shot or in a cocktail, like the Margarita Jamaica ($11), which features spiced hibiscus syrup and hibiscus flowers, or the Sant-Old Fashioned ($12), with add-ins like agave nectar, chocolate-mole bitters and burnt orange essence.  All the flavoring syrups and nectars are made in house by mixologist Sean Sepulveda.

The mescal and tequila selections at the Santo Mezcal bar
The bar also features a comprehensive lineup of tequilas.  The wine list is concise but varied, representing Santa Barbara, mainly, as well as Chile, Argentina and Spain.

The kitchen is enclosed in glass, allowing lunch and dinner patrons to watch the kitchen crew in action.  The focus is on ingredients that are locally sourced and seasonally available, and the menu leans toward the sea.

Margarita Jamaica
Appetizers include several ceviche preparations.  The Ahi Tuna Ceviche ($13.95 lunch, $14.95 dinner) features a tangy medley of cucumbers, jicama, cilantro and corn; the salsa that’s folded in gives it a refreshing edge.  The Ceviche Pulpo ($13.95, $14.95) features octopus meat that is remarkably tender, along with onion, cucumbers, avocado and cilantro.

The entrees, dubbed Especiales del Mar, include one of Mr. Luna’s favorites, the Pulpo a las Brasas ($22.95, dinner only).  Two grilled octopus tentacles, marinated in a housemade vegetable stock to ensure a tender bite, comes with a garbanzo bean purée; the chile oil drizzled on top as it’s exiting the kitchen offers each bite a spicy pop.  The Camarones al Mezcal ($14.95, $15.95) features several oversize Mexican shrimp sautéed in a velvety mezcal cream and comes with Mexican rice and salad.  And the Salmon Tropical ($19.95, dinner only) is served over grilled pineapple and topped with mango salsa and grilled shrimp.

House specialty dishes – the Especiales de la Casa – are hearty, like the veal osso bucco Chamorro ($18.95, $19.95) and the Cazuela Poblana, with grilled chicken and pasilla peppers topped with Oaxaca cheese.  Meat lovers will eye the off-the-grill specials, which feature ribeye steak in myriad preparations and served with sides like cheese-stuffed pasilla peppers and crab enchiladas. There are several taco and enchilada entrees on the menu, as well as one- and two-item combination plates.

Several of the dishes are vegetarian and gluten-free, by design.  “We really wanted to give those customers a lot of good options,” says Mr. Luna, “which is easy to do with Mexican cuisine, because it’s so fresh.”  Dishes will be rotated regularly, too, “to give customers more reasons to come back."

Ahi Tuna Ceviche
Food aside, the reason to return for many patrons will be Mr. Luna, himself.  The restaurateur who founded Los Agaves on Milpas Street just nine years ago and who’s grown the enterprise to four bustling locations (in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Westlake Village) is known as the consummate host.  His demeanor is understated, although the numerous interactions with patrons and even passers-by during this interview points to a personality that’s much larger.  Mr. Luna makes a point of mentioning his regulars.  “These are people who gave us a chance,” he says.  ““Local support is what keeps us going."

Dining at Santo Mezcal?  Look for free 75-minute parking at the city lot by the Amtrak station, just up State Street.

Santo Mezcal, 119 State Street, Santa Barbara. 805-883-3593. @santomezcal_sb on Instagram.


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