As a college student, the food selection in Isla Vista can get tiresome, especially when we consider ordering a steak at Chili’s as going out on a culinary limb. For a truly unique dining experience, On the Menu explores the flavors of Southeast Asia and the Pacific without leaving Santa Barbara as we hang out, drink a few and maybe even belt out a few tunes – if you’re feeling brave enough.

The Heat Is On

Located in the heart of I.V. is Saigon Express, a recently opened Vietnamese restaurant that offers a healthy alternative to the usual burgers, burritos and sandwiches.

The interior of the eatery, which is located at 6549 Pardall Rd. B, is pleasantly upbeat, modern and inviting with its lemongrass and olive colored booths, chairs and well-lit interior. The smell of a home-cooked meal rich with fresh herbs and spices greets you at the door, as well as a smile and friendly service from the owner himself.

There is really something for everyone, as patrons can choose from a variety of Vietnamese favorites like fresh spring rolls, pho – a traditional noodle soup – and an assortment of shish kebabs and fresh vegetables.

“Vietnamese food is influenced by India and China,” owner Timothy Yuen said. “It has similar tastes, using mint, cilantro and lemongrass with less oil.”

During the 100-year period when the country was a French colony, Vietnam absorbed many French characteristics to its cuisine, Yuen said. For instance, you can taste the French influence when you order a “Vietnamese sandwich,” which consists of a French baguette, jambon, pate and all the fixin’s for lunch.

Even though Saigon Express offers an ideal atmosphere for an intimate meal and a place to relax and unwind with its fresh fruit juice bar and wireless Internet, there is also a side that appeals to the I.V. partier. The restaurant offers a happy hour from 2 to 6 p.m. daily, and all day Thursday. The restaurant’s half-price pitchers and free karaoke make this gem a refreshing escape from the dine-and-dash eateries in I.V.

According to Yuen, Saigon Express plans to start offering a variety of specials for patrons in the near future.

“There will be a ladies’ night coming soon, where ladies receive 50 percent off all drinks,” Yuen said.

The Big Kahuna

If you’re in the mood for a luau, burgers Hawaiian style, teriyaki skewers or unbelievably fresh salads, Kahuna Grill makes for the perfect island getaway. Located in the Camino Real Marketplace, this retro surf joint offers a fun and interactive setting for family and friends to sit back, relax and chow down.

Owner Dale Dellar, a Santa Barbara native and surf enthusiast, has done a remarkable job creating an authentic Hawaiian eating experience for his customers. The walls are adorned with authentic surfboards, pictures of surfers riding waves and televisions playing ’60s and ’70s surf films. However, if the scenery is not enough to satisfy your sensory appetite, the menu offers the perfect dishes to complement the decor.

“The whole menu is Hawaiian-themed,” manager Caitlin Kneier said. “We have great food, and people like the laid-back atmosphere.”

According to Kneier, the only thing customers think is better looking than the food is the staff of beautiful island girls who are mostly UCSB and Santa Barbara City College students.

Kneier also said the most popular item on the menu was the Island Burger – a mouthwatering burger topped with pineapple, teriyaki sauce and jack cheese.

But if you’re not jonesin’ for a burger when you head to this eatery, another of Kahuna Grill’s menu offerings that no luau-loving diner should miss out on are the restaurant’s “Da Kine K-Bobs.” The kebabs, which are served with two scoops of sticky rice, come with your choice of chicken, steak, fish, shrimp or veggie skewers, accompanied by fresh veggies and pineapple. And for any Isla Vista herbivores, the “Shaka” Salads – made with tangy homemade dressings – will never disappoint.

For even more island flavor, Kahuna Grill sports an impressive Shake Shack with freshly made Kona coffee shakes, coconut, pineapple and mocha shakes, as well as a wide variety of beers to choose from.

Aside from the foundation of SB regulars who frequent the Kahuna Grill, there is usually an influx of students on weekends. The restaurant is also a popular spot during graduation when students bring their families, Kneier said.

Pure Zen

Located on 425 State St., Zen Yai is an eclectic Asian restaurant boasting a traditional Thai menu, featuring favorites like succulent Thai barbeque chicken, traditional papaya salad and familiar Pad Thai in a very trendy and hip environment.

With its red-orange and yellow-gold painted walls and mood lighting, it is the perfect venue for a romantic date or small gathering. The walls are adorned with traditional Thai pottery, paintings and mini statuettes, along with a vintage painting of John Lennon – composed in coordinating colors with the restaurant’s interior – that serves to bring the atmosphere of the establishment together.

Seating is something of a communal setup, so look to the walls or corners of the restaurant for a more private experience.

Although some dishes might be a little on the pricey side for the more frugal of guests, once you take your first bite, the tantalizing flavors will take over your palate and money will no longer be a concern in this downtown Thai treasure.

Whose Place?

At 22 N. Milpas St. sits a quaint, austere Thai restaurant appropriately named Your Place. Any visitor will surely find the eatery’s name to be quite fitting – as it boasts a warm, congenial atmosphere reminiscent of the comforts of home.

Ushered in by a robust aroma of lemongrass, basil and mint, along with the light chatter of a semi-full venue, Your Place showcases a plethora of Thai decorations and two exotic fish tanks, which divide the restaurant into two halves. Each table and booth is made from dark furnished wood, crafted with a very simple yet elegant design. The simplicity of the dark oak is further accentuated with glints of gold trinkets and traditional Thai statues.

Your Place offers a fair amount of seating, and the large booths that resemble traditional huts constitute a particularly appealing seating arrangement for large groups of diners enjoying a meal together. Each of the intimately isolated booths is covered in carved bamboo that extends upwards toward the ceiling.

The lighting throughout Your Place’s dining area is set to a calming level of dimness, making it easy for guests to dine without feeling as though they are underneath a spotlight. Several upturned traditional Thai umbrellas hang from the ceiling, adding further color to the already exciting decor.

In addition, Your Place’s menu is remarkably extensive, offering diners more than just the foods that would meet the basic needs of a Thai food enthusiast. Although it is all encompassing, the menu is very simple to navigate, offering the traditional Thai name, as well as straightforward English explanations.

Your Place is a great choice for traditional Thai food, with the warm atmosphere of a Ma-and-Pa cafe for a very reasonable price.

So when you are yearning for warm temperatures and an island breeze, plan an exotic vacation to one of these tempting restaurants. With grilled meats, peanut sauce, coconut curries and burgers topped with pineapples, even Robinson Crusoe would be satisfied.