We have never had a bad time at the little arcade party that is the El Palomar Taco Bar. Four TVs all tuned to sports, spacious tiled floors, a team of can-do women running the food show (wearing lots of bright pink), a full bar of tequilas, and delicious freshly-made Mexican classics.
Of course we love this place—and so, it appears, does everybody else. Families, children, babies, grandpas, surfers, students, tourists, rock stars, local politicos, everybody ends up hanging out. We checked out the lunch specials as we stood in line to place our order. Great offerings at great prices. But we had our favorite orders already in mind. For me, a ginormous prawn quesadilla ($8), plus a succulent guacamole taco ($3.50). For Jack, his all-time favorite snapper taco ($4) plus rice and beans ($3). And a large diet Coke ($2.25). Diet Coke goes brilliantly with the bright flavors of pico de gallo, cilantro, and creamy guacamole. Besides, Jack doesn’t get anything close to a Coke at home, so he indulges when at El Palomar. So we pay and pick up our bowls of chips and salsa, grab a table and wait for our number.
It’s important to grab a table fast anytime close to noon. This place fills up in nanoseconds. Chips: warm, light, crisp and salty. Perfecto. Salsa: well-balanced, spicy, complex, but not lip-incineratingly hot. Like everything at El Palomar, these foods are cooked to order, so while it’s quick, it’s by no means fast food. The scene is so vivacious that waiting is also part of the fun. A plump baby spreads one of those supernatural smiles all over the place. A well-behaved pug poses beneath his owner’s chair. Buffed men kick a soccer ball across an emerald field on one of the screens. First comes my guacamole taco, a layer of citrusy mashed avocado, cilantro, and lettuce on a pillow of world-class refritos and a soft corn tortilla. I never knew that guacamole could hold its own as the key taco element. It can. Next came my beautiful quesadilla, melting with cheese, a thin frosting of refritos, and lots of hot prawns. Pre-scored into accessible strips, the quesadilla was deluxe, and so were its partners—sour cream, guacamole, and a fat scoop of, you guessed it, pico de gallo (I love pico de gallo). Finally came the snapper taco, sauteed chunks of fish filet tossed with beans, cilantro and lettuce, and tucked into a tender taco. Next to the taco was a broad band of seasoned rice, and next to that a dinner-sized portion of pinto beans. Oh. God. So. Good. For $22 we had enough for a substantial side dish. In and out in 40 minutes. El Palomar Taco Bar—siempre! Downtown Santa Cruz, in the arcade connecting Pacific Avenue and Front Street.
A Vermouth Worth Drinking
That’s Carpano “Antica Formula” Sweet Vermouth. Elegant, full-bodied, and delicious, this blood-red Italian sweet vermouth is made from several varieties of grapes plus botanicals such as vanilla, saffron, wormwood (the central ingredient in absinthe), and bitter orange. Such complexity (a secret formula since the late 18th century) yields an equally complex libation. I consider this beautiful beverage the sweet sister of my favorite bitters, Fernet Branca. We were given this spectacular vermouth as a New Year’s gift—thanks to the impeccable palates of Lin and Dee. It is definitely the finest sweet vermouth I’ve ever encountered. Obviously, it would make a sensational Manhattan, but we enjoyed it neat, room temp. Does anyone know if it’s available here in Santa Cruz? If so, let me know where!