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Carpinteria Crisp

Mexican antojitos and tasty soft tacos in non-restaurant settings offer some of the best reasons to make the drive up the coast--almost to Santa Barbara.

May 22, 1997|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Carpinteria, that pokey little beach town just south of Santa Barbara that's been wandering into resort town status of late, has only a handful of restaurants you're at all likely to have heard of. There's the Spot, a couple of blocks from the beach, where there's always a line of people ordering the excellent hamburgers, ultra-crunchy crisp tacos and big, untidy burritos with red or green chili fillings. The Palms is more like a sociological phenomenon. Sooner or later you see everybody in town there having an incredibly cheap steak (the catch: you have to cook it yourself).

But in recent years, Carpinteria has been blossoming with places selling good Mexican antojitos in non-restaurant settings. For instance, a Mexican panaderia named Reynaldo's Bakery has a cold case of burritos, tamales and chile rellenos in plastic wrap. They're basically for takeout, but somebody will warm them up in the microwave (if you want your burrito definitely hot, tell them so--they're a little overcautious) and you can eat at a couple of tables near the door.

This is bare-bones dining but the tamales have generous fillings, such as a somewhat vinegary pork chile colorado. The beef version is a little less distinctive but has an authentic taste of ground chiles.

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A block down Linden, just past a store called Florist and Bagel Boyz (yes, it sells flowers and bagels), is Michael's Beach Liquor, which has a very polished food operation. You order at the cash register and take the receipt to a cooking station at the back of the store. You can't miss that gleaming new ventilation hood.

When your food is ready, you can doctor it to your taste from a free-standing condiment bar, just as at a certain sort of sit-down Mexican fast-food restaurant. If you actually want to sit down, there are a couple of tables on the sidewalk. Though this is a liquor store, remember that you can't drink alcoholic beverages on the street.

The soft tacos are in the two, small tortilla style and the tortas are made by splitting a long roll, spreading it with mayonnaise and then cooking the mayo side down on a griddle for the grilled-sandwich effect. The fillings are all pretty good: middleweight carne asada and soft-style carnitas, medium-pungent pork chile verde and very good fried fish and grilled chicken, the latter quite smoky. A chile relleno, oozing melted cheese, can serve as a vegetarian burrito filling.

Both the tortas and the burritos use Cheddar cheese, but the tacos are made with Jack. They have the usual lettuce-tomato-onion garnish, and it's a measure of how polished this place is that the onions are red onions.

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Linden Avenue, Carpinteria's main drag, is home to many an eatery (mostly forgettable). Carpinteria Avenue, which parallels the freeway, has only a couple of dining places, though they include the well-known Delgado's, which has been specializing in rich cheese enchiladas for decades.

Mi Fiesta Market, located at the corner of Cramer Street, is an interesting newcomer. It's nowhere as bright and appealing as Beach Liquor--it's just an old market with a small cooking station in the back, four tables and a distilled water dispenser out on the front porch--but there are unusually good things here.

Again, you order at the counter and take your receipt back to the cook. A young woman is often there with her, cooking up carne asada on an ancient gas grill warped from heavy use. A big pot of beans may be boiling furiously on another of the handful of burners.

The menu is burritos, tacos, tortas (which include lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise and cilantro) and quesadillas, plus a couple of dishes of meat with rice and beans. The selection of meats is large: carne asada, fish, chicken, al pastor, carnitas, tongue, beef head meat (cabeza).

The fish is like chewy, flavorless fish sticks, the carne asada nice, if not quite memorable, but many selections are remarkably good: soft-style carnitas with a distinct lard taste, wonderful beef al pastor--snappily browned chunks of meat in a vinegary hot sauce--and especially the chicken. It's outrageously smoky, like very good barbecue chicken. I'd drive up to Carpinteria just for a chicken taco.

BE THERE

Reynaldo's Bakery, 897 Linden Ave., Carpinteria, (805) 684-4981. Open 5:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 6 a.m.-noon Sunday. No alcohol. Street parking. No credit cards. Takeout. Antojitos for two, food only, $3-$8.

Michael's Beach Liquor, 794 Linden Ave., Carpinteria, (805) 684-2919. Open 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6:30 am.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Street parking. All major credit cards. Takeout. Antojitos for two, food only, $4-$8.

Mi Fiesta Market and Deli, 4502 Carpinteria Ave., Carpinteria, (805) 684-2235. Open 8 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Street parking. No credit cards. Takeout. Antojitos for two, food only, $4-$10.

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