<b>KITTY'S LITTLE SIS: </b> Grace Austin (above) opened her West Ortega Street restaurant with Wildcat Lounge owner Bob Stout and Couch owner Michelle Prestage. 
Paul Wellman

Little Kitchen, the new lunch and late-night restaurant next to the Wildcat Lounge on West Ortega Street, may have a small cooking space, but the name belies the bold and innovative menu cooked up by 29-year-old general manager Grace Austin.

“Our concept is basically modern comfort food,” said Austin, whose late-night menu features exotic takes on classic stick-to-your-ribs food, such as Bangkok street fries, Philly cheesesteak, and báhn mì sliders, as well as desserts such as French toast bites. The lunch menu takes a slightly lighter direction, with sandwiches and salads, all kicked up with Austin’s trademark creativity. The turkey rosemary club, for instance, is enhanced with bacon, avocado, and garlic aioli. “I still try to put a unique spin on everything,” said Austin, who co-owns the restaurant with Wildcat owner Bob Stout and Michelle Prestage, who owns the nearby furniture store Couch and designed the restaurant’s cheerful and rustic décor. “We’re hoping that the people in the neighborhood will make this their new lunch spot.”

A Santa Barbara native, Austin majored in psychology at UC Berkeley yet found herself drawn to the food world, working in restaurants and cooking at an outpatient facility in East Oakland, where she was in charge of lunch. She moved back to Santa Barbara and attended culinary school at SBCC while bartending at the Wildcat and working as a private chef and caterer. When the pizzeria next to the Wildcat closed, Grace and Stout were presented the chance to offer bar-goers a new place to frequent in between drinks. “Bob, knowing my culinary background and knowledge, approached me with this idea of taking over the restaurant,” said Austin, who opened with the late-night menu in late April and began serving lunch in June.

Like many chefs in town, Austin relies on the farmers’ market for many ingredients but also tries to stay affordable. “We try to use as much organic as we can,” Austin said, “and keep it at a low price point.”

Here are some highlights from the menu:

Bánh Mí Sliders: “I’m very much a fan of all different kinds of cuisine,” said Austin, who packs these satisfying sliders with house-braised pork, pickled radish, carrot, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeño, and Sriracha mayo.

Cheeseburger Egg Rolls: “Three Pickles does a Reuben egg roll, and I just loved it, so I thought, ‘What about cheeseburger egg rolls?’” explained Austin, whose savory mix of ground beef, sharp cheddar, onions, and pickles in a crispy-fried egg roll wrapper is served with house-made Thousand Island dressing. It’ll make you wonder why we don’t eat everything in an egg roll!

Southwest Chicken Tikka Masala: “I’ve been making curry since college, so that’s kind of where that inspiration came from,” said Austin of this dish, which puts Mary’s Organic Chicken in a creamy tomato curry with roasted corn salsa and cilantro. It’s served with grilled pita at lunch, and coconut ginger rice at late-night.

With catering to come, plans to open for dinner, and special menus for both the Wildcat and Bobcat bars in the works, Little Kitchen certainly gives fresh meaning to the phrase “small is beautiful.”

Open Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. and Friday-Sunday, 11 p.m.-2:30 a.m.; 17 West Ortega Street; (805) 770-2299; littlekitchensb.com


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