Yet, Santa Barbara has only one restaurant that succeeds in capturing the authentic, down-to-earth, uncomplicated Spanish food we love that revolves around olive oil, garlic, ham, seafood, cheese, sausages, nuts, fruits and vegetables. That restaurant is Loquita (“crazy girl” in Spanish).
Located on State Street adjacent to the popular Funk Zone, Loquita showcases the flavors and traditional cooking methods of Spain with hot and cold tapas, wood-fired seafood, grilled meats and four types of paella. A separate pintxos bar named Poquita serves small snacks, charcuterie and cheeses.
Our experience one recent night (Loquita is open only for dinner) was sensational. A polite and charming hostess offered us seats at the lively bar or at a comfy table with cushions overlooking the open kitchen. We settled in comfortably and Justin, our very adroit and congenial waiter, brought us a bottle of light Spanish wine and a signature saffron-infused gin cocktail and martini while we perused the menu. We decided to try the sangrias and many other clever cocktails on another visit. We asked Justin to simply spoil us with house specialties as he captured our complete confidence with his commanding knowledge.
We were not disappointed in the least. Immediately out came Gilda Pintxo–white anchovy, spicy piparra pepper, and manzanilla olive, a spicy treat served on a board to start. El Bulli Olives, liquid manzanilla olives inspired by the famous Catalon super chef Ferran Adria revved up our appetite, followed by a carpaccio de carne of grass-fed beef– manzanilla olive, pickled mustard seed, 12 year old sherry vinegar, arbequina olive oil. The outstanding taste assault continued with Pan Con Tomate, Spain’s famous pan de crystal, tomato fresco, garlic, thyme, bay leaves. A serving of crimini mushrooms in a mojo verde, refrito de ajo, radish and minus 81.8 harvest vinegar went very well with a second bottle of red.
A tasting of finely aged hams then made an appearance, after which a selection of cheeses was presented: (Manchego sheep’s milk aged three months and delicious Murica goat’s milk cheese, and the cascade continued like a Valencian dream–three dishes that rocked our palates: Patatas Bravas–potato pave, 12-month manchego, brava aioli, pimenton, chives and jamón Serrano; Gambas Al Ajillo, black tiger prawns in a spicy tomato, garlic, brandy sauce with crusty grilled ciabatta; and Tortilla Espanola with potato, caramelized onion, herb aioli, frisée, thyme and parsley in a perfect tortilla. We were in heaven.
The main event was paella, which we ordered in advance. Thirty minutes are required to create these masterpieces. Two steaming pans were brought to the table and we watched as the server carefully scraped them to reveal the much-prized socarrat, the identifying mark of a good paella, a layer of caramelized rice at the bottom. We dug into Verduras paella, a simmering symphony of braised fennel, royal king trumpet, hon shimeji, butternut squash, brussels sprout, celery root puree. The second, Chorizo y Pollo was a magical robust combination of chorizo, rocky free range chicken, gigante beans, hen of the woods, salmorra.
Inexplicably, we did have room for desserts: Churros of chocolate, dulce de leche, and lemon curd were out of this world. So was the Panna Cotta, a silky coconut, mango gelee with raspberry and a matcha meringue. We passed on the extensive list of Jerez sherry. Next time.
In short, Loquita is a most admirable neighborhood restaurant and a friendly tapas bar with a graceful relaxed atmosphere. We consider it one of Santa Barbara’s best. The Spanish-inspired cuisine offers simple yet tasty meals, classics with a twist and dishes that are perfect for sharing. The menu is constantly evolving, following the vibe of the seasons and market favorites. The chefs are adept at using a variety of exotic ingredients to create their very special dishes. Peter Lee, the head chef, knows what he’s doing: he worked formerly with the one-and-only Joel Robuchon.
Go now, go often and ask for Stephanie, the lovely manager. Loquita is located at 202 State St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, (805) 880-3380, http://loquitasb.com. Sit on the patio if the weather is clement or inside at a colorful tiled table if you wish to see Santa Barbara’s brightest and best chattering at the bar or the artists in the kitchen.