Travel Blog

April 17, 2019

The Santa Cruz Taco Trail

All photos by Garrick Ramirez

Is there anything tacos can’t do? The humble, handheld snack sparked the current food truck craze, earned its own colorful emoji, and prompted countless memes with bad puns (which we won’t taco ‘bout). Tacos also make for a delicious excuse to explore Santa Cruz County. From Davenport to Watsonville, you’ll discover everything from crispy, old school tacos to trendy Asia-inspired creations. Whether you reach for the sriracha or Tapatio, here are nine essential stops for your next, epic taco crawl.

Cemitas

There are exactly three restaurants in the tiny, former fishing village of Davenport, one of which is home to some noteworthy tacos. While the eatery’s name refers to their signature Mexican sandwiches, you’ll find a small selection of tacos distinguished by hearty, homemade tortillas. Choose from al pastor, rajas, or, our faves, baja-style fish tacos with battered local rockcod, shredded cabbage, pickled onions, and chipotle cream. Add a few apps such as a skillet of queso fundido and charred, Mexican-style street corn, and follow it up with a stroll along the stunning coastal bluffs across the street.

Las Palmas Taco Bar

A steady stream of families, beachgoers, and life-long regulars pour into this welcoming, family-owned taco stand situated steps from the shore. They’re here for crispy tacos loaded with traditional, savory fillings such as ground beef, and piled high with shredded lettuce and cheese. These beloved tacos have been on the menu since Martin Mendez Sr., a former farmworker, opened the shop in 1955. Today, his grandson Rick Mendez continues the tradition, dishing up tacos alongside smoky, tangy enchiladas, breakfast burritos, and a whopping super quesadilla that staff secretly refer to as the Longboard Special. Brighten your meal with the vivid, chile de arbol hot sauce, a homemade recipe passed down from grandpa Martin. Wash it all down with a cold beer, or Alameda Point Soda’s craft drinks made from real cane sugar.

El Palomar

Named for the transformed 1929 hotel it’s housed within, this downtown mainstay has earned a devoted following with its homemade Mexican food and potent Margaritas. Opened by Jose and Emilia Espinoza in 1983, the family-owned and operated eatery offers diners two distinct ways to get their taco on. The main dining room and light-filled cantina offers a full-service menu that features a carne asada taco plate with fresh, handmade tortillas, as well as a la carte tacos with a variety of fillings. An adjacent taco bar sports a more casual vibe, and stays open late, slinging street tacos for a lively crowd. Don’t miss the weekly happy hour at each spot with Baja-style fish tacos in the cantina, street tacos at the Taco Bar, and discounted drinks at both.

Lupulo Craft Beer House

This popular taproom is renowned for its encyclopedic selection of craft beers, but perhaps lesser so for its locally sourced, organic grub inspired by the owners’ Mexican and Spanish family recipes. Their signature dish might be a trio of Oaxacan de pibil tacos with succulent, orange and achiote-braised pork, served alongside tangy slaw and pickled veggies. Other taco options include grilled carne asada, and sauteed mushrooms with potatoes—each perked up with bottles of the locally made Itso and Notso hot sauces. Pair your choice with a creamy, Belgian-style saison, or ask the expert staff for another recommendation. For those willing to stray from the taco trail, Lupulo’s carnitas-fueled torta is a thing to be reckoned with.

Snap Taco

This new Insta-worthy spot features a cheery, eye-candy interior and menu of both new and old school tacos. Listed alongside traditional choices such as Baja fish tacos and crispy, cheesy ground beef tacos, you’ll find Vietnamese-inspired Good Fortune Pork tacos and roasted sweet potatoes with mint infused goat cheese. The veggie friendly menu also features a sizable selection of snacks, sandwiches, and bowls such as the Golden Hour with mango, jicama, avo, kale, and grains. The vibrant interior takes cues from a Mexican beach town with vivid colors, mini cabanas, and a convertible VW bug for kids of all ages to pose for pics. There’s a daily happy hour, as well as daily specials such as Margarita Monday ($6 Snap Ritas) and Taco Tuesday ($1 off tacos, $5 drafts). Best of all: dessert includes frozen Choco Tacos!

Mijo’s

This solid spot in beachy Capitola serves up excellent fish tacos, including crispy Baja-style with lemon-herb crema and pickled radish slaw, and seasonal grilled fish with pineapple-mango salsa. You needn’t be vegetarian to wolf down their hongos taco with umami-rich shitaake mushrooms, Oaxacan cheese sauce, and crunchy pepitas. The cozy interior offers a handful of seats, but your meal is best enjoyed two blocks away on Esplanade benches overlooking Capitola Beach.

Castro Adobe State Historic Park

It’s not a restaurant, and it’s usually only open one Saturday a month, but this gorgeous historic property offers a unique experience for taco lovers. As restoration proceeds on the 19th century, two-story structure, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks hosts monthly open houses where visitors can tour the adobe and attractive grounds. Follow wafts of savory smoke to the working cocina where you can press fresh tortillas, and cook them on cast iron comals set over a charcoal stove. Top your fluffy creation with queso fresco, cabbage, and salsa roja for a tasty—and complimentary—treat! Check the site for the next open house event.

Watsonville

This vibrant south county town is a taco mecca thanks to a large Latino community and wealth of exceptional taquerias. Everyone has their fiercely defended fave, so we’ll simply offer an example such as D’La Colmena where lengthy, lunchtime lines are for good reason. Hidden within a market brimming with Mexican goods, a small kitchen and take-out window dishes up some of the best food in the region. Tacos feature a wide range of meats—from chile verde to chicharrones—but pork eaters shouldn’t pass up the carnitas.

Taco & Tequila Festival

August 24th & 25th, 2019

11:30am- 6:00pm

San Lorenzo Park, Downtown Santa Cruz

This fun, annual fest offers a chance to mingle with fellow taco enthusiasts, sample high-end tequilas, and chow down on tacos from a variety of taqueros. Art vendors and live music from artists including Tone Lōc make for a fun, funky col’ weekend! General admission for each day is $10 (tequila tasting is an additional fee). Kids 12 and under are free.