What’s the next move when you’ve created a string of successful restaurants, all in a two-block radius, from Californian, Italian, and Iberian in flavor to full-service, wine bar, bottle shop, and bakery in style? Walk-up Southeast Asian street food served in a colorfully casual cafeteria setting, alongside a gourmet ice creamery and small-batch coffee roaster, of course.
So concluded Sherry Villanueva and her team at Acme Hospitality, whose quiver of Funk Zone eateries includes The Lark, Les Marchands, Loquita, Lucky Penny, Helena Street Bakery, and the Santa Barbara Wine Collective. Last fall, they added Tyger Tyger to their celebrated culinary crew, and lines immediately formed out the door for slurps of Northern Thai curried pork noodles, chomps of Vietnamese crêpes, and sweat-inducing bites of “Weeping Brisket” that’s slopped up with sticky coconut rice. Diners can follow up with exotically spiced cones from Monkeyshine Ice Cream or a pull of espresso from the Dart Coffee Co.; all are under the same roof surrounding the pink-lamped, open-windowed dining hall, although the coffee business is independently owned by David Dart and Erika Carter Dart.
Leading the Tyger Tyger experience is Chef Daniel Palaima, a Santa Barbara–raised surfer, paraglider, and rock climber. He’s returned home after culinary school in San Francisco and jobs at top restaurants in the Santa Ynez Valley (including four-plus years at Root 246 under Chef Bradley Ogden), Lake Tahoe’s Martis Camp, and Chicago, where he moved in 2014 and worked under two of the world’s most respected chefs. He learned high-volume, all-from-scratch, modern Chinese cuisine under Stephanie Izard at Duck Duck Goat and then was rising up the ladder in Grant Achatz’s Alinea group when he got the Tyger Tyger call.
“Driving down the road to work, seeing the mountains, seeing the ocean, I’m so happy to be back,” Palaima told me one day last fall about his commute from the Mesa down to the Funk Zone, where we sat on Tyger Tyger’s back patio. Villanueva found him through her sister, resort manager Kathleen Cochran, who knew of Palaima through mutual Alisal Guest Ranch connections.
“They told me what they wanted, and I was really into it,” he explained of the Southeast Asian-street-food-inspired, casual-with-quality concept. “This is different than their other restaurants, which have a more mature, Old World feel. Especially at nighttime, you have a different feeling when you walk in.”
Suddenly, as if on cue, a middle-aged, seemingly sane woman parked her luxury SUV and wandered up to our patio table. “I’m not a curry person,” she reported with intent excitement, “but after I had some here, I’ve just got to pour it all over my body.”
I’m not sure if Palaima would go that far, but the whole staff is indeed fired up over the Northern Thai Curried Pork “Khao Soi” dish, which comes from the “Bowls” part of the relatively compact but creative menu that spans from Korea to Cambodia. The “Platter” part of the menu includes the Vietnamese Crepe “Banh Xeo,” which comes with shrimp and duck confit and the DIY Summer Roll, with shrimp, grilled pork shoulder, and pickle salad. There’s also a banh mi sandwich, a crispy rice salad with grilled albacore, and a wide variety of meant-to-share small plates, from crab chips and pickles to chicken wings in caramelized fish sauce and lotus root summer rolls.
“The binder is this thick with tested recipes that work,” said Palaima, holding his fingers about two inches apart, hoping to share even more via occasional specials. “We’re bringing a lot of new flavors and new techniques to the area.”
The drink list, curated by Hayden Felice of nearby Les Marchands, manages to wrap around all that spice and fish sauce funk with ease. Brisk white wines like Austrian scheurebe, German riesling, and Portuguese alvarinho lead into zesty rosés of cabernet franc and fresh reds like French gamay. Of course, the global beer selections may be more appropriate pairings, and the nonalcoholic options, developed by manager Kellie Ditch, abound as well. Though smartly selected, none of the beverages are intended to distract from the center-stage food, and all are fairly priced and poured into humble tumblers.
Most infectious about Tyger Tyger is the poppy buzz that you get when walking inside. With the vivid colors, open kitchen, brightly lit clientele, and constant delivery of dishes to the tables, there’s a steady stream of eye-grabbing activity, making you feel like you’ve entered an anime-like cartoon land somewhere between Speed Racer and Hello Kitty. The hustle is a familiar sensation for Palaima, whose mom loves throwing big Christmas parties at their Santa Ynez Valley home and who feels that he honed his relevant chops working for Izard at Duck Duck Goat.
“It’s high-volume and casual but without sacrificing quality — there’s a delicate balance you strive for,” said Palaima. “It’s her restaurant style but on a smaller scale.” He credits all of his mentors with fostering the mentality needed to pull it off. “Technique and drive and consistency — that’s been instilled in me in every restaurant I worked at,” he explained.
And it’s been clicking since opening day. “Nobody likes to wait in line in Santa Barbara, but people are,” said Palaima. “I guess we’re doing something right.”
121 E. Yanonali St.; (805) 880-4227; tygertygersb.com