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Photograph by Pete Shea
Muy Sabrosa: Patricia Vaca shows off one of La Cabaņa's signature tacos.

Mondo Salsa

Lunch at Santa Cruz's Taqueria La Caba-a specializes in soccer, salsa and serious tacos.

By Christina Waters

Jack and Noah have been die-hard La Cabaņa fans since the early days when this family-run taco palace held down the working end of Davenport. When the taqueria moved to Mission Street, so did Jack and Noah, along with every student, surfer and farmworker on the Westside. These days I join them on their weekly taco orgy, backlit by throbbing Mex pop and televised soccer games. The ambience is classic, and that means aqua walls lined with Diego Rivera prints and obligatory kitsch artwork featuring caballeros posing on horseback in front of a mission. Huge plaster Olmec masks overlook the gumball machines. Behind the TV that is often tuned to gory disaster newscasts too bloody for American cable, to the left of the Mexican flag, a handwritten "Welcome--Please Order Here" invites you to make your selection.

And so you get in line, place your order, pay, take a number and then wait for the woman in charge, an expert waitress who keys her colorful eye shadow to match her outfits. You will probably have eaten half your bowl of chips and salsa in the meantime.

In our scores of visits we have developed serious crushes on various La Cabaņa specialties. Noah's order is always the same: a snapper taco and a shrimp taco (all the tacos are priced at a rock bottom $1.79 per, except the "high end" shrimp and salmon tacos, which run $2.25). Side of rice and beans. Large horchata--the creamy, sweet rice drink. Jack's orders tend to wander within a narrow bandwidth that almost always includes fresh snapper or spinach (yes, spinach) tacos, sometimes the green bean-flavored nopales cactus, sometimes the voluptuous chile verde versions. He always orders Diet Coke. And by the time I get to La Cabaņa, usually a few minutes after the guys, they have already ordered my current favorites--nopales and chile verde tacos. And some kind of Penafiel or Jarritos soft drink. My current choice is tamarindo.

Here's the deal. The tacos here are open-armed, sassy and incredibly easy to eat. Easy to like, too. A bed of two or three very soft, thin, warm tacos lays down the main riff. Then comes a healthy mound of the main attraction. Chile verde, for example, with lots of slow-simmered, fork-tender pork slathered with tomatillo sauce. Next comes a handful of freshly shredded green cabbage--this adds the crucial crunch to counteract the soft, sensuous meats or seafoods. On top goes the zippy salsa fresca (which always has a bit more diced onion than I would like, but I'm alone in that opinion), or in the case of the terrific salmon taco, a green tomatillo sauce. Then comes chopped cilantro and wedges of lime on the side--total hand-held heaven.

Oh, we had our flirtations with the super burritos--megameals loaded with your choice of filling, cheese, beans, rice. But after years of honing our relationship with La Cabaņa, we know that the small taco meals please us the most. Maybe because each creation is so easy to dispatch without having to waddle out the aqua doors afterward. And besides, once you've inhaled your first taco, there's time to savor the second one. And if you pace yourself--maybe get involved for a minute with one of those Mexican beauty pageants the guys always seem to like to watch on the tube--you'll actually find that you've got room for another one of these tasty, easy-eating creations. On one visit to La Cabaņa I became hypnotized by the blinking light on the ATM machine in the corner, and when I regained my senses, Jack had eaten half of my nopales taco. Who could blame him? The flavor and texture of nopales is something like tender string beans with a hint of tang, like vinegar. Full of vitamin C, too.

You could think of La Cabanã's tried and true lineup of tacos, mariscos, burritos and quesadilas--killer, perfect, gooey quesadillas--as a smart subset of fast food, without the grease. Great tacos, fresh and loaded with flavor, with prime people-watching on the side.

Taqueria LA Cabaņa

Address: 2332 Mission St., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.427.7261

Hours: Open daily 10am-9pm

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