After a hearty State Street crawl, you might hope for a bit of intestinal ballast to get you through the rest of the night. But maybe, one night, just hoping for substance, you find something much more. Say, perhaps, a tri-tip sandwich, the meat tender and juicy but even better because it is swathed in oyster-chili mayonnaise and sits with zesty pickled veggies and a piquant cilantro salad. Or maybe you’re more in the mood for some seafood and opt for a red curry shrimp roll, served on ciabatta grilled to toasty perfection and set off with fried tofu and caramelized onions. Each flavor is distinct, the spiciness pitched to the exact heat so that you can taste it but not feel as if your mouth’s on fire. After fine late-night bites like these, you’ll end up thinking there might be a better way to get lucky after a night out on the town than the usual.
“When I first moved here, I couldn’t believe how early things shut down,” said Cindy Black, the moving force behind the recently opened Blue Owl at Zen Yai. “So it’s nice to be able to go somewhere after midnight.” It’s also nice to know that Black’s late-night weekend take-out spot is just an extension of West and Pim Mayta’s Zen Yai, which is still open as always, serving great Thai food. Black, who is the force behind catering service MMM… Cake and has worked at the Wine Cask, San Ysidro Ranch, and Duo Catering as a pastry chef, explained, “It’s always been a dream of mine to have a café on State Street, so this is perfect for me. I originally wanted a food truck, but they were too expensive. Zen Yai is a great location and a great restaurant so I feel very grateful they’ve given me this opportunity.”
Black is putting all she has into the endeavor, sleeping on friend’s couches, selling her belongings, forgoing any employees in the early months of the Blue Owl. “My friends have all been into the Blue Owl,” she said. “One friend made a logo; another, flyers. They’ve all been passing out flyers.” Black has also learned to befriend State Street’s toughest crowd: the bar bouncers. “We give a bouncer a sandwich,” she said, “and pretty soon they send all their customers.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the food is not just unique for Santa Barbara late-night; it’s delicious, too. “Each weekend I have about five items on the menu, but it’s week-to-week,” Black explained. “It’s just me in the kitchen. But once I start making more money and have two cooks, I can expand and really make the menu bad-ass.” She has great plans, from a vegan sandwich to “something really healthy” to a dessert “since you can’t get dessert after midnight” to a more traditional Thai rice soup she wants to sell as “hangover soup.” But there’s a catch, at least as she establishes herself: “The hardest part of this is doing the food I want to do and balancing that with what will sell, balancing what a drunk person will buy with flavor and quality.”
A graduate of the SBCC culinary program and a seven-year Santa Barbaran, Black insists all the Blue Owl ingredients are local or she makes them herself. As for why Southeast Asian street food, she said she wanted to stay in line with Zen Yai’s daytime flavors. “I’ve been to Asia twice, the first time for three weeks, the second time for two,” she said. “It’s hard to travel as a cook—if they don’t need you for more than two weeks, they don’t need you at all.” Now her goal is to build the Blue Owl, and as she put it, “Make a decent living and go on vacation once a year—that might be good.”
And that means more late-night yumminess like BBQ pork and duck confit grilled steam buns with a smashed egg or a Thai basil cheeseburger, all for under $10 a pop. Plus, Black has other ideas about how to draw people in. “I’m thinking about a golden ticket for free food,” she divulged. “Each night there will be one hiding in one order.” As if the entire idea of the Blue Owl isn’t already a golden-enough ticket for us all.
Get your late-night Southeast Asian food fix at Blue Owl at Zen Yai, 425 State Street, 705-0991, theblueowlSantaBarbara.com, open Thursday-Saturday nights, 11:30 p.m.-2:30 a.m.