Asian cuisine, with its remarkably diverse range of culinary personalities, can be a haven for vegetarians, and nowhere is that more true than in Thai cooking. Known for its focus on light dishes, powerful spices, and aromatic ingredients, vegetarian Thai food is never boring, as State Street’s own Zen Yai has been proving for more than a decade.
Zen Yai, which opened in 2001, stays true to its authentic Thai cooking techniques. Owner Wisut Jindapahn credits wife Pim Mayta’s culinary expertise in the kitchen for their restaurant’s popularity. The couple comes from Thailand, but they have been refining their craft in California for a long time. “We take the different cultures and mix it all in with Thai food,” Jindapahn said.
Although the vast majority of Zen Yai’s menu can be customized to meet vegetarian diners’ needs, Jindapahn recommended a uniquely vegetarian dish. Their silken tofu, which is often overlooked due to its status as an appetizer, is more than what it sounds.
Served on a bed of fresh mixed greens, large portions of tofu are ever-so-lightly seared and drizzled with homemade garlic sauce, black pepper, and cilantro. Oyster sauce is traditionally the base, but vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free guests can choose from Zen Yai’s arsenal of accommodating sauces. (Yes, they even have a vegan “oyster” sauce made from shitake mushrooms.) Admittedly the silken tofu is understated in its simplicity, but it is precisely that which captures the restaurant’s personality.
This effortlessness in Zen Yai’s cooking transfers to their tiny but quaint dining room. Said Jindapahn, “We like to keep it simple so that it’s easy to take care of everybody, to give them the best service.” This commitment to concentrating on perfection has fostered a loyal following among Santa Barbara diners.
Yet don’t be fooled by their mostly traditional style; you’ll also find ingredients like zucchini, Brussels sprouts, squash, and pumpkin, which are uncommon in Thai cuisine. About these few unique ingredients, Jindapahn said, “The way we cook is authentic — don’t let the look fool you!”
So whether you’re looking for classic Thai dishes like Pad Thai or for something new like pumpkin curry, the silken tofu appetizer is a simple and affordable way to start off your meal.
Zen Yai is located at 425 State Street. Call (805) 957-1193. The restaurant is open for lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m, and for dinner Sunday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m., and Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.