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You want wild? Say hello to Wok on the Wild Side, Isla Vista’s only Chinese restaurant that opened just last Wednesday and features Sichuan-style food, a regional Chinese cuisine internationally known for its explosive flavors, pungent aftertastes and sweat-inducing spiciness. With heavy use of garlic, chili peppers, ginger, herbs and the famous Sichuan pepper that leaves a “numbing” feeling on the tongue and a “shit, where’s my water cup” on the mind, Wok on the Wild Side brings our fellow Isla Vistans age-old Chinese regional classics that cost no more than $10 per dish.
While the restaurant offers a hearty collection of spicy dishes such as Sichuan Tofu with Fish Fillet — tofu and white fish cooked meticulously in concentrated “red oil” — owner Lydia Zhu says her main goal is not necessarily to show off that seductive spice of the Sichuan style. Instead, Zhu seeks to bring a wide variety of Sichuan food (the restaurant menu is over eight pages long with small font, I checked) that includes everything from soups to grilled meats like pork, beef and chicken to specific vegetarian options such as eggplants and kung pao tofu.
Wok on the Wild Side currently has one chef, and according to Zhu, all of the food used for the dishes are fresh and never frozen. As for where her ingredients come from, Zhu says she takes constant trips to Asian markets in Los Angeles and personally drives the products up to Isla Vista herself for better control of her food.
Cross-armed and shy, clad in a fashionable blue wool top, Zhu actually speaks very little English, and all of her words are Chinese translated into English by one of her employees, third-year electrical engineering major Stephen Liu. Oftentimes, in fact, Zhu says nothing at all and allows Liu to speak for her.
“I.V. is a very big market,” Liu says in her place. “There’s a growing population of Chinese students, and the hope is that we can make this restaurant just as popular as the other restaurants in I.V.”
It’s more than that, however, Liu continues. He explains that while Zhu currently resides in downtown Santa Barbara, she originally came from northeast China. She already owns a restaurant in Pasadena but was inspired to start a new one in IV after her niece, also a UCSB student, prompted her to “take a piece of home” to I.V. students, some of whom have never seen such food before or others, like her, who grew up with these dishes.
“It’s very traditional Chinese home dishes,” Liu says, and he smiles as he gestures over to the trays of food located at the front of the cash register desk. “They taste like home.”
The trays of food he points to are part of a lunch combo service that customers can order on-the-spot as dine-in or takeout food, but Liu says customers are always welcome to take a seat, order directly from the menu and be served by a waiter or waitress.
As of now, the restaurant is still inching its way to completion. Currently, the menus are still in their original paper formats, the blue and white walls are still awaiting decor and the restaurant has yet to set up a storefront sign with its name on it. However, Zhu reveals a calm demeanor about the untied ends. Everything will eventually fall into place, she says. For now, her focus is geared toward getting the food up and out there to I.V. residents.
“Our service is a bit out of place because we’re still hiring more people, and we’re in the process of making pretty menus and putting up artwork on the walls,” Liu said. “But already I can tell that people like our food because they’re coming back.”
Photos by Rilla Peng / Daily Nexus.
A version of this story appeared on page 7 of Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014′s print edition of the Daily Nexus.