Sometimes it’s hard to imagine a place more similar to paradise than our little community by the sea, but white, sandy beaches and warm, clear water – not to mention exotic flavors – exist in the far-off land of Thailand. Not in the mood to sit on a plane for 17 hours? On the Menu has you covered, currying your favor for a taste of Thai as close as downtown.

Ga Ga for Galanga
507 State St.
(805) 899-3199
Price: $10-$20

Complex flavors come standard in this family-owned restaurant with simple décor. Located on lower State Street, Galanga serves authentic Thai cuisine and lots of it. Everyone is sure to find something to suit his or her taste in the restaurant’s expansive menu, which now includes an entire section for vegetarians.

Wantana Wuttipinitkul, whose parents own the restaurant, said some of the more popular dishes include Tom Kha Kai, a traditional hot and sour chicken soup with coconut milk, galanga, lemon grass and mushrooms and yellow curry, which is made with either chicken or shrimp, potatoes and onions in a coconut milk curry sauce. The Papaya Salad is also popular, and is a combination of young papaya shredded with peanuts, tomatoes, green beans and dried shrimp in a spicy sweet and sour dressing.

“[The Papaya Salad] is not something they expect,” Wuttipinitkul said. “It’s refreshing, kind of crispy and not as sweet. The dressing is more like Caesar than Italian and there are tiny dried shrimp for flavor.”

Galanga can adjust the level of heat on most dishes to accommodate the adventurous types and those more wary of the Thai spices. Wuttipinitkul said that freshness is key to the quality of their food.

“We make everything freshly, order-by-order,” she said.

And just in case you order something a bit too spicy, be sure to get a glass of Thai iced tea to wash it down. Wuttipinitkul said many people liken the flavor to chai tea, although she thinks it has a lighter flavor.

“Thai iced tea is very sweet,” she said. “In Thailand, it is very humid so they need the sugar to keep their energy up.”

The eatery is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. It is closed Wednesdays. You don’t have to use your noodle to know that Galanga brings delicious, authentic Thai cuisine at affordable prices to locals with a liking for the exotic.

Zender Bender
Zen Yai
425 State St.
(805) 957-1193
Price: $10-$20

Zen Yai is a hip joint with rich colors on the walls and a giant painting of John Lennon looking over you as you eat. The food is equally stimulating, as owner and executive chef Pim Mayta has created a menu masterpiece of Thai cuisine with a flair.

“The menu has combinations of my own recipes [and traditional Thai dishes],” Mayta said. “It’s a fusion with California style and Thai sauces.”

Some of those fantastic combinations include the Stuffed Eggplant – a delicious blending of fresh mozzarella, grilled eggplant and bell pepper sprayed with lemongrass and kaffirlime leaf and a tamarind sauce, and the Zen Yai Salad, which has big clear noodles tossed with shrimp, squid and pork in a spicy dressing.

“Most everything is my favorite,” Mayta said. “My favorite is the Zen Yai Salad. I really like it because it’s different, original. We use a different kind of noodle.”

Mayta also recommends the Larb, an appetizer with ground pork, chicken or calamari seasoned with chili, lime juice, mint, onion and rice powder, and the Pumpkin Curry, a green curry sauce with chunks of pumpkin and bell peppers heaped over a bed of rice.

“[The Pumpkin Curry] is a very traditional Thai dish,” she said.

She said there is no MSG in anything at Zen Yai, and that the quality taste comes from the attention that goes into each dish.

“We try to make it so everyone likes it,” Mayta said. “I do it because I love to make [customers] happy.”

Zen Yai opens for lunch at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday through Friday and for dinner at 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Awaken your flavor palate and take your sense of adventure to a new level of Zen – after a meal here, you’ll have to meditate over its splendor.

More Bang for Your Buck
Bangkok Palace
2829 De la Vina St.
(805) 687-1828
Price: Under $10

To be a fish in the wall at Bangkok Palace, a charming restaurant tucked away on upper De la Vina Street, would be a swimmingly good life. The hospitality of the owners, the candlelit atmosphere and the wafting aromas of tempting Thai dishes are enough to make anyone wish they could live in a place so fit for a king. The extensive menu features only the best quality of ingredients, including hand-picked produce.

Owner Narong Promsupsin said his wife and children go to the Santa Barbara farmers’ market to pick the veggies for Bangkok Palace.

“We pick it, taste it, and if it’s not good, we don’t use it,” he said.

Wading through the menu may seem daunting, but Promsupsin said he recommends the Panang Curry, a light sweet curry with coconut milk and basil, and Pa-Ram Chicken, which is topped with spinach and a peanut sauce. Served in a pineapple, the Pineapple Fried Rice is also a must-try, as well as the ever-popular Pad Thai.

“Pad Thai is the number-one sale,” Promsupsin said. “Almost every table orders it.”

Since Bangkok Palace aims to please all its patrons, Promsupsin said almost every dish can be made vegetarian and the level of spiciness is adjustable.

“All of our dishes can be mild, medium, hot or super-hot,” he said. “But some of them are not hot at all.”

Bangkok Palace is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday from noon until 9 p.m. To eat at this Thai restaurant, you don’t have to be royalty – you just need a royal sense of flavor and a princely palate.

So you may miss out on chilling in a tree house by not traveling all the way to Thailand, but at least you can get that monkey off your back by trying some of the best Thai food in the Santa Barbara area.