So the ongoing drug war in Mexico has found you a little less than excited to cross the border. Even so, who’s to say that you have to lose out on the many flavorful dishes and cocktails that find their home south of the border? Santa Barbara offers one of the most diverse ranges of Mexican cuisine, from upscale and chic restaurants turned nightclubs to the most humble, cheap and authentic taquerias this side of Mexico City. From flautas to margaritas, and from mole to tamales, On the Menu has got the best dish on a sample of Santa Barbara’s best Mexican restaurants.

514 State St., Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 966-1388
Hours: Monday 3 p.m. to Close, Tuesday though Friday 11:30 a.m. to Close, Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to Close
Price: $5 to $15

The first thought that comes to mind when entering Sandbar is, “There’s no way I could afford this place.” The same fear still lingers as your waitress seats you at the floral-patterned leather table with carved, wooden chairs. That concern quickly vanishes upon first glance of the menu. Apparently, the traditional Mexican tiles and antique light fixtures are no indication of the price of the food.

Aside from offering the usual menu options – enchiladas, fajitas, tacos, taquitos, flautas, burritos, chimichangas and char-burgers – you’re also given the choice to mix and match your favorite dishes. I knew my meal was going to be delicious after tasting the complementary house chips and salsa. I was right. My combo platter offered me a taste of the entire menu, which features recipes that have been refined since the 1970s and my strawberry margarita looked like it was pulled straight out of an advertisement.

Managing partner Aron Ashland said the décor and atmosphere make Sandbar look more like a travel destination than a restaurant.

“This place looks like somewhere you would go on vacation,” Ashland said.

Ashland also said students, locals and tourists alike are attracted to the restaurant’s specials. It’s Happy Hour is every day from 4 to 8 p.m., appetizers are half off until 7 p.m. and drinks are $1 during breakfast.

“Customers continue coming to this place because our Happy Hour is more reasonable,” Ashland said. “People see value in that. … We also act like a nightclub, promoting with signs, in our menus, on college campuses. We go after business a little harder.”

“A little harder” is a bit of an understatement. Sandbar puts on a different event and offers a new promotion almost every single day. Margarita Mondays, reggae Tuesdays and college night are just a few of the scheduled events. The bar offers drink specials to college students every Thursday, also attracting younger customers with music and dancing. Friday’s special: mechanical bull riding at 10 p.m.!

What sets Sandbar apart from the myriad of Mexican restaurants lining State Street is that along with eating well-portioned entrees under $10, you can also get hammered at the tequila bar, have fun on the dance floor and watch the Lakers defeat the Nuggets on one of the many flat screen TVs.

La Super Rica Taqueria
622 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 963-4940
Hours: Monday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Closed on Wednesdays
Price: $3 to $6

When it comes to La Super Rica, size doesn’t matter. This small taqueria is a bit underwhelming from the outside, but more than makes up for its lack in size with its flavorful, authentic Mexican dishes.

The eatery is so popular that the line always extends outside the door. I had a chance to talk to other customers while waiting and the diverse group of people included students, those who have been visiting with their families for years and out-of-towners who had heard that a visit to Santa Barbara would not be complete without a stop at La Super Rica.

The menu includes a large selection of seasoned meats served on warm handmade corn tortillas. Each plate offers a small portion at a cheap price so customers are able to experiment with different selections. The food is made fresh to order in a small kitchen that can be seen from your seat. Although tamales can be found at most Mexican restaurants, La Super Rica provides a wide range of tamales whose recipes are influenced by the owner’s travels.

“I’m beginning to introduce new menu items,” owner Isidoro Gonzalez said. “We offered banana leaf tamales this year. I can now do those dishes discovered in my travels to Mexico. I plan to go to Mexico again in January for inspiration and return with 10 new tamales.”

The owner adds to the warm, cozy environment by interacting with the customers. Aside from working the register, preparing the food and compiling new recipes, Gonzalez also attends to the crowd. He opened the restaurant in the summer of 1980 and has been working at the same location with his younger brother ever since. Gonzalez’s 89-year-old father and 86-year-old mother even help out occasionally. His father works around the store while his mother makes the restaurant’s famous salsas.

“My family working with me is one of the things that gives me the most pleasure,” Gonzalez said. “Them being with me, us doing things together is a satisfying feeling.”

The student-friendly prices, mouth-watering food and cozy atmosphere make you forget that you’re sitting in plastic chairs. This little aqua-colored hut and the aroma of fresh tortillas can’t be easily forgotten.

Los Arroyos
14 W. Figueroa St, Santa Barbara
Phone: (805) 962-5541
Hours: Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 9p.m., Sunday to 8 p.m.
Price: $10 to $20

Sitting in Los Arroyos feels like being in abuelita’s kitchen – if your grandma happens to live in a mansion with a huge kitchen, that is. The delicious family recipes and Mexican décor – consisting of rooster knick knacks and Spanish music – create a homey atmosphere.

The restaurant offers daily specials, homemade soups, corn tortillas and salsa. Everything on the menu is made fresh daily. The large selection of sauces at the salsa bar is made from scratch twice a day while the rice and beans are made four times during the course of the day. I was again reminded of home when my food was brought to the table. The chile rojo burrito I ordered was such a large portion that I was unable to clear my plate. But unlike being home, no one forced me to do so.

Aside from its downtown location, the family-owned restaurant can also be found in Montecito and will soon open in Camarillo as well. Owner Tony Arroyo started working in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher, working his way up with his family’s help.

He and his family members have also chosen their favorite entrées, naming the dishes Maria’s enchiladas, Tony’s alambres, Johnny’s burrito and mama’s salad.

Manager Ariel Miguel said the owner buys the best possible ingredients with no regard to their expensive prices.

“Tony believes in high quality, fresh ingredients,” Miguel said. “Most restaurants don’t care about meat quality. The food to us is more important than the price.”

Los Arroyos has been open for 10 years now, yet the food is still freshly prepared by the original cook. The restaurant also prides itself in not using any lard. So it’s no wonder that this cozy Mexican locale attracts a diverse crowd of customers.

“Everyone comes here,” Miguel said. “Locals, students – we’re located near the bus stop – alumni and families all eat at the restaurant.”

So if you’re feeling hungry or homesick remember to drop by at Los Arroyos because mi casa es su casa.