Four Must Visit Grocery Stores in Santa Barbara

By: Eddie Chen

I think the first time I understood what freedom felt like was when I moved into my first apartment in Isla Vista. No more overbearing RAs threatening to write you up for suspicious smells. No more sneaking out of the bedroom window to hang out with friends on a weekday night. I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. The thermostat could be any temperature I wanted. Waking up and eating breakfast at 3 in the afternoon? No problem.

The best part, however, was deciding for myself what I would eat every day. I had gotten sick of eating the same dishes day in a day out for most of my life that far. While nothing can beat the convenience of going to late-night DLG for a grilled cheese and fries, making something with your own hands, even if it does not look the greatest, will taste miles better than dining commons food.

Reading through recipes online, there were some ingredients I had never heard of and could not even pronounce. I started to doubt if I would be able to find these ingredients at Albertsons or any other grocery store. I was right. If I wanted to explore all these different cuisines, I would need to find specialty stores that carried what I was looking for. All the grocery stores that I found and have visited countless times since are locally owned and operated, so you can also feel good about supporting local Goleta and Santa Barbara businesses. Although many of these grocery stores are not within walking or biking distance of Isla Vista, you will not regret making the trip. Your stomach will not either.

Tino’s Italian Grocery

When I first heard about Tino’s Italian Grocery, I did not understand why there needed to be a store dedicated to Italian food. To me, Italian food was pasta with jarred tomato pasta sauce and frozen cardboard pizza. Believe it or not, there is plenty more to Italian cuisine. Lining the shelves are imported Italian snacks and treats, with everything from grissini—skinny breadsticks—to chicche con crema al cacao—biscuits with a creamy chocolate filling. At their deli counter, they offer a wide selection of salumi, mortadella, and other cured meats. By the meats are a variety of cheeses, from the classic Parmigiano-Reggiano to fresh burrata—a cheese similar in appearance to mozzarella with a creamy interior. And if that was not enough, they make deli-style sandwiches to order. The “deluxe” sandwich combines the best of Italian meats and cheeses in a surprisingly filling and tasty sandwich, perfect to grab and go before heading to the wharf or the beach. What makes this one of my favorite grocery stores is the guanciale—cured pork jowl rubbed in spices, often used in pasta dishes in spaghetti alla carbonara.

Choi’s Oriental Market

Choi’s Oriental Market is the only Korean grocery store in all of Santa Barbara. While Santa Barbara is not known for its Korean food, do not let that lower your expectations. Inside the unassuming storefront is a complete restaurant with traditional Korean dishes like jajangmyeon—a noodle dish served with a savory black bean sauce—and soondubu jjigae—a stew made with chili paste, soft tofu, and vegetables—perfect for those cold, rainy winter quarter days when going to class is the last thing on your mind. The aisles of the market offer staples of Korean cuisine—kimchi, chili paste, Korean toasted sesame oil, seaweed, and every thickness of dried noodle you could possibly imagine. On most days, the owners are greeting customers with a smile at the register and preparing dishes in the back kitchen. They are always willing to go the extra mile and are happy to help explain things from people who may not be very familiar with Korean food.

Indo China Market

The closest grocery store to Isla Vista, Indo China Market is packed to the brim with goods typically found in an Asian grocery store. Whenever I am craving my parents’ home cooking, everything I need can be found in this store, including spicy chili oil, frozen scallion pancakes, and crispy sweet and savory rice crackers. You cannot go wrong with blindly picking from their wide selection of instant noodles. Besides food, they also sell dinnerware and utensils like chopsticks for anything that you are going to the store for. And if you are really passionate about rice, they’ve got fancy rice cookers too. While the store is not the most organized or clean establishment, the employees are always happy to help you find what you are looking for, and that is all part of the experience. If your looking for a sweet treat, I highly recommend grabbing a pack of Melona bars, a South Korean melon flavored ice milk pop with a refreshing flavor and unique texture.

Santa Cruz Markets

With one location in Goleta and one in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz Markets focuses on Hispanic foods, offering fresh produce and full-service meat counter at very affordable prices. Whether you are buying pork shoulder for chile verde or just tortilla chips and salsa, their prices are lower than larger chain grocery stores like Sprouts or Albertsons. If there is one secret ingredient to making fresh tortillas, it is lard. Lard gives tortillas its moist, airy, and rich flavor and texture. But while it seems like a common ingredient, Santa Cruz Markets is one of the few stores that sell lard. Entering the store feels like stepping into a time machine and going back in time. At the register, employees enter prices of items manually one by one. These quirks make shopping here a very unique experience. And if you are looking for merch, both locations sell t-shirts that come in three colors to rep your local grocery store.

These are a few of my favorite specialty stores, and not an exhaustive list. While it may not seem like it, Santa Barbara has small gems that you just need to look a little harder for, but you will be rewarded with a diverse amount of new experiences that will prepare yourself for the rest of your life.

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