Three Asian Veggie-Friendly Finds
Meatless Dishes at Zen Yai, Shang Hai, and Sama Sama
Asian cuisine, with its remarkably diverse range of culinary personalities, can be a haven for vegetarians, and Santa Barbara’s best Thai, Chinese, and Indonesian restaurants are just that. Here are three dishes to try around town, from the Eastside to the theater district.
Silken Tofu at Zen Yai: Zen Yai (425 State St.;  957-1193), 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, the 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 shiitake mushrooms.) The silken tofu is understated in its simplicity, but it is precisely that which captures the restaurant’s personality.
Baked Tofu at Shang Hai: Shang Hai (830 N. Milpas St.;  962-7833; shanghaisbca.net) has been serving homemade Chinese cuisine since it opened in 1983. “We are small, and we’ve been here for a long time,” said co-owner Kevin Yin, “and we are most focused on family-style [dining].”
Thanks to co-owner Yvette Yin’s own vegetarianism, Shang Hai knows exactly what vegetarian diners want. “I’ve been vegetarian for 24 years,” said Yvette. “I think the customers feel more comfortable when they have vegetarian food here because they say, ‘You know what vegetarian means!’” Shang Hai’s owners understand that it’s not enough to swap in tofu for meat; they also have sauce options that are free from fish stock, oyster extract, or any other animal products.
Try the baked tofu on Chinese greens. Succulent strips of baked tofu are layered over sautéed Chinese broccoli and flavored with vegetarian oyster sauce and soy sauce. Because it’s baked, the tofu has a firm chewiness that isn’t typical of your usual silken tofu. For this reason, the dish is ideal for new vegetarians who are still learning to love soy-based products. Pair it with a side of steamed brown rice to complete the meal.
Tempeh Tacos at Sama Sama Kitchen: Founded on family and friends, Sama Sama Kitchen (1208 State St.;  965-4566; samasamakitchen.com) introduced Indonesian food to Santa Barbara in March 2013. “We’re the first Indonesian restaurant in Santa Barbara,” head chef and owner Ryan Simorangkir said. “Because we’re bringing something new, we try to tailor [our food] to our customers’ taste buds.”
The tempeh tacos were an immediate hit among all guests. “These are definitely not traditional,” said Simorangkir, whose colorfully charming tacos consist of sweet tempeh, cabbage, garlic, and shallots, all flavored with peanut sauce, tamarind, and chili and stuffed into a fried wanton wrapper shell. It’s a sweet treat to start off your meal, with the tempeh almost tasting like candied nuts.
While it may seem strange to find tacos in an Indonesian restaurant, General Manager Mike Easbey maintains that they are one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. “People who eat meat want the tempeh tacos,” he said, because tempeh doesn’t taste like meat or a meat substitute. “It’s really its own thing.”