Let’s start with some chicken satay. Delicious, tender and smoky, smothered in peanut sauce. Shall we proceed to some steamed rice, maybe some piping hot lemongrass and coconut soup? Pad Thai? Yes, please. It’s a classic, the yardstick by which all other Thai dishes are measured. For dessert, fried bananas and coconut ice cream. Yes, ladies and gentleman, that’s right. You guessed it. It’s Thai food time. But now that you’ve got that craving, where to go?
Your Place Restaurant
22 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara
Hours: Tue-Thu & Sun 11:30 a.m. – 9:45 p.m., Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.
Phone: (805) 966-5151
Widely regarded as Santa Barbara’s best Thai restaurant, Your Place has taken the Santa Barbara Independent’s “Best Of” title for the genre every year consecutively for 25 years, and probably will continue to do so at least until the Independent inevitably goes bankrupt. Popularity, however, is not the same as quality.
In reality, Your Place might just be the busiest of Santa Barbara’s Thai restaurants, and as Google will tell you, there’s kind of a lot. So why does Your Place, which was the first Thai place in town when it opened way back in 1983, still win that award year after year?
Part of the reason has to be the restaurant itself. Unremarkable from the outside, the interior is absolutely stuffed with wooden statues, carvings, aquariums, screens and plants from all over Thailand. The dining room is small, but it’s got a cozy ambiance, like a tree house in the jungle. It can get busy and a little loud in the dining room, but that’s why takeout was invented.
Kris Lertchareonyong, who works as manager for the family-owned restaurant, told me a little about Your Place’s most popular dishes.
“For appetizers, satay is very popular,” Lertchareonyong said, in reference to the strips of meat or chicken roasted on a thin wooden skewer that are ubiquitous in Thai cuisine. “For a main dish, pineapple fried rice and Pad Thai.” The Tom Kah soup, a spicy and sour broth made with coconut milk, mushrooms, spice and lemongrass is another very popular house special.
How hot is the food, I asked?
“We make it regular, not too spicy but not too mild,” Lertchareonyong said. Those looking for a bit more burn can request it, and those trying to avoid too much spice have options too.
“Not all Thai people like spicy food all the time,” Lertchareonyong said with a laugh. “There are dishes without any spice at all.”
Plenty of students join the throngs of locals on weekend nights, when the restaurant is most crowded, and not just to get away from I.V. As a local favorite, the atmosphere can get a little festive, especially when it rains and Your Place is flooded with eat-in customers.
“It’s fun. On a busy night you’ll see people running around with the food,” Lertchareonyong said, and he’s not kidding. Your Place is sitting pretty in SB’s top Thai spot, and has the customers to prove it.
Galanga Thai Restaurant
507 State St., Santa Barbara
Hours: Mon, Tue, Thu, Sun 11:00 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Phone: (805) 963-6799
Price: $10 – $20
Galanga Thai is a pretty standard Thai restaurant. Actually, it’s a pretty standard Asian restaurant, with glass-covered tabletops and vaguely Oriental floral patterns on the walls. But if Your Place is Santa Barbara’s gold standard for Thai, Galanga can’t be far behind. In fact, the owner used to be the chef at Your Place, so the two restaurants’ menus are nearly identical. The only difference that jumps out at me immediately is that Galanga is bigger, spacious even, and certainly has more tables. The dining room is almost empty, unlike Your Place’s cozy and usually crowded location.
Americans may tend to think of different Asian cuisines as unrelated, but hostess and daughter of the owner, Pawana Lertchareonyong, was quick to correct this misconception. There’s actually a lot of crossover between Asian styles. Certain ingredients and tastes are common throughout the continent; for example, curry.
“Every Oriental country has a curry,” Lertchareonyong said. “Indian, Chinese, Thai, even Japan has a curry.” Galanga’s menu, while traditional, reflects this.
“We have authentic Thai mixed with Chinese style, some dishes are Indian-style,” Lertchareonyong said. But she admitted that American Thai food is just not the same as the real thing.
“In Thailand it’s different,” Lertchareonyong said, “It’s stronger, more spicy. There are some ingredients that we can’t get here. Some ingredients we get here are not spicy enough.”
Thai cuisine can be difficult for Westerners to learn, and in a busy restaurant a long training period can be a drag on service and quality. Everyone, from the chef down, has to know what goes in to the food, so at Galanga, it’s all Thai.
“Only people from Thailand can cook,” Lertchareonyong said. “We only hire Thai, who know the food.”
What if a customer’s never had Thai food before?
“We tell them it’s spicier than Mexican food,” Lertchareonyong said, and customers can order the dishes to taste. The more adventurous can even ask for extra heat, although Lertchareonyong says even that’s not as hot as in Thailand.
“Here we leave some spices out,” she told me.
Vegetarian options are also available, and the staff always tries to make clear what each order contains to avoid any problems with allergies. Most Thai dishes are made with peanuts, seafood and tons of exotic spices, so a little caution can go a long way for someone with a sensitive stomach.
2829 De La Vina St., Santa Barbara
Hours: Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat Noon-9 p.m., Closed Sun
Phone: (805) 687-1828
Price: Less than $10
Uphill a ways from the cluster of Thai restaurants on lower State sits Bangkok Palace, a smaller and quieter affair than Galanga. The place was empty, except for one middle-aged couple languishing over their Tsing Taos, but a burbling fountain and paper lamps established a peaceful atmosphere. I didn’t have to wait long before the owner (and chef) Tom Pron appeared to answer my questions. Pron has owned Bangkok Palace since 1997, along with another location in San Luis Obispo.
I brought up what I’d just learned from Pawana at Galanga Thai — in Thailand, dishes are served fully-flavored, spice and curry kicked up to eleven, but stateside clientele need the heat dialed down a bit. How does American-made Thai food compare to the real thing? Pron shakes his head and laughs before I finish asking the question.
“My food is exactly the same. The local Thai people come here,” he says, even some of the staff from his competitors’ restaurants. Pron proudly considers his food authentic, traditional Thai, and doesn’t care if it seems different from what Americans are used to. That said, some non-Thai locals have impressed Pron and jumped right in.
“Some people really like it, they even eat it really hot,” he says.
Of course, not everyone likes, or can stand, some of the hotter plates in Pron’s arsenal. The spicier orders are indicated with a chili pepper icon on the menu, and Pron says the kitchen can season orders to a customer’s liking.
“We start from mild — some is not spicy at all, and we can make it up to super hot,” Pron says.
I asked Pron how a traditional Thai meal is served.
“We eat it all together: rice, soup and a stir-fry dish,” he said.
For the beginning Thai enthusiast, Pron suggested some of the milder dishes — cashew nut chicken and coconut soup, along with the eternal favorite, Pad Thai.
“I really recommend the Pad Thai, it’s a must-try,” Pron said. “It’s a really popular dish.”
No surprise there. Pad Thai is almost certainly the most popular order on any Thai menu in California. But according to Pron, the most popular dish at Bangkok Palace is something called Som Tum: a salad of sliced green papaya, grilled shrimp, tomato and green beans, all mixed with ground peanuts, fresh ground chili and lime juice. The Panang curry, like most Thai curries prepared with coconut milk, and the hot and sour Tom Yum and Tom Kah soups are also very popular.