There remain a lot of yet-to-be-knowns for the Santa Barbara Public Market, the indoor mall of restaurants and gourmet retailers at the corner of Chapala and Victoria streets that opened in April. Most everyone who loves hand-crafted, artisan-minded food and drink wants the project to succeed, but many are curious whether all of the shops will survive and, if not, which ones will stand the test of time and rent? One thing’s for sure: The almost-always-bustling Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar is here to stay and may even expand to other locations in the years to come.
“I wanted to create that memory people have from traveling in Southeast Asia,” said founder and co-owner Jerry Lee, a familiar face on Santa Barbara’s fine-dining scene since he moved to town from San Luis Obispo in 1993. Amid jobs at Citronelle (where he rose to become wine buyer during 10 years of work), San Ysidro Ranch (where he helped relaunch the Stonehouse’s beverage program over eight years), and, most recently, as director of restaurants for the rebuilt El Encanto for a brief time, Lee always had his eye on starting something like Empty Bowl. The noodle-focused bar is best described as Asian fusion, tapping a broad array of cultural influences from China to the Philippines, but it mainly puts a creative twist on classic Thai dishes, all menu items relying on the freshest ingredients possible.
“I crave noodles,” explained Lee, and one reason is that, 14 years ago, he became good friends with Nui Pannak, another familiar restaurant face to many — she was the main waitress at Zen Yai on lower State Street for years. Though she never cooked at Zen Yai, Pannak was an amazing home chef, and Lee often left her home amazed and hungry for more. So when the Public Market’s visionary developer Marge Cafarelli called Lee one afternoon last summer to say that a spot had opened up, Lee quickly turned to Pannak. Together with his friend Emre Balli, a sommelier from both San Ysidro and El Encanto, the pair began to hash out a plan.
A week later, the three were partners, and papers were signed. “I made it happen as fast as I could,” he recalled, and in six months, they had lined up the necessary investors, menus, and branding, and convinced Pannak to cook in a commercial kitchen for the first time in her life. “It was kind of a miracle for us.”
Lee did have a running start. “Restaurants have always been in my blood,” he explained. Born in Taiwan, he moved with his family to Carmel when he was 7 years old to live with his grandparents, who ran Chinese restaurants on the Monterey peninsula. When he was 12, the family moved to San Luis Obispo to open their own Chinese restaurants, including the still-existing Mandarin Gourmet (which they sold years ago). Upon graduation from high school in 1993, Lee came to SBCC but started with Citronelle almost immediately and never looked back.
It’s still a family business, too, at least when it comes to the potstickers. “My mom comes up every Saturday and wraps thousands,” said Lee. “I grew up with them — I eat like 30 a day.” And it’s not uncommon to see Pannak step out of the kitchen for a few minutes to eat noodles with her own family during a rare downtime.
Those who have already tried to eat at Empty Bowl know that “downtime” is generally not on the menu, but Lee suggests coming before 11:30 a.m. or between 3 and 5 p.m. on the weekdays, ordering and then eating at another spot in the Public Market, or just doing to-go (those latter two options are relatively new). Limited seating is just one of the challenges presented by working in such a confined space at the heart of the market, where there isn’t much storage, barely room for two prep stations, and lots of body bumping for the gaggle of cooks and servers jostling behind the bar. But that’s become an advantage for Empty Bowl, as Lee is forced to order ingredients every day. “We fresh cut everything,” said Lee. “There’s no backstop, no freezer. You can taste it in the food.”
For anyone who loves that Thai-based juxtaposition of sensations that are magically both rich and zesty, sweet and spicy, crunchy and smooth, light and filling, Empty Bowl will satisfy you in spades. The formula is rather replicable, so Lee hopes to one day open another spot in the Santa Barbara area, possibly followed by a small chain in similarly sized cities, perhaps in Public Market–type places, which seem to be popping up everywhere. And, to spread the noodle mantra even further, Pannak will soon be leading cooking classes in the Public Market’s demonstration kitchen, teaching us all how to fill our own empty bowls at home.
Two Dishes to Try
Tom Yum Noodle: Instead of just a spicy, limey clear broth with mushroom, tomatoes, and meat or tofu, Empty Bowl adds noodles (flat wheat, but they can be replaced with rice noodle for gluten-free folks) because Lee is always still hungry and waiting for an entrée after eating the traditional way. “We use Thai chili paste, galangal root, Kaffir lime leave, Her Farm lemongrass, and brown bunashimeji mushrooms,” said Lee. “This dish gives you the craving for the tom yum soup but with some Chinese flat noodles.”
Bangkok Street Noodle: “You will find these noodles on every corner in Thailand,” said Lee. “It’s a great hangover cure, with pork done three ways: BBQ pork, minced pork, and pork meat balls in a clear pork broth.” They also throw in house-roasted crushed peanuts, fresh-squeezed lime juice, bean spouts, fried garlic, and Chinese broccoli.
Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar is located in the Santa Barbara Public Market (38 W. Victoria St.; free parking underground) and open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday-Monday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Call (805) 335-2426 or visit empty-bowl-noodle.com.