Upon opening nearly five years ago in April 2014, Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar became an instant hit. The casual, open-kitchen, bar-wrapped restaurant by Jerry Lee, Emre Balli, and Chef Nui Pannak filled a void of Thai-inspired noodle dishes that Santa Barbara didn’t know it had and served as the steadily beating heart of the Santa Barbara Public Market as the large, collaborative space found its way.
About three years in, though, the trio started considering something new. “We wanted something more full-service, sit-down,” said Lee, who was ready to flex the wine muscles he grew while he and Balli developed the wine lists for San Ysidro Ranch and El Encanto in past years. “And we wanted to do it in Montecito. We knew there was a niche there that needed some Thai food.”
Pannak, who moved from her native Thailand almost 20 years ago and worked for a long time at Zen Yai, also felt the need to expand. “She always wanted to spread her wings more than what we can do at Empty Bowl because the kitchen is so small,” said Lee. “This way, she can mess around with more stuff — all of the curry pastes are handmade; every single thing is from scratch. She wanted to showcase her skills.”
So, in November 2018, after two years of searching and plotting, they opened Khao Kaeng in the downstairs corner of a complex on Coast Village Road. “We wanted to keep it separate from Empty Bowl,” said Lee, although they do serve that spot’s most popular dishes, including the northern Thai curry and hangover noodles, in Montecito. “We’re focusing all around Thailand, from the northeast to down south. We wanted to hit every spot but also focus on curries. That’s where the name comes in: ‘Khao’ means ‘rice’ and ‘kaeng’ means ‘curry.’”
Balli and Lee are excited to again join forces on a robust beverage front. “I moved from Turkey to be an intern,” said Balli of his move to San Ysidro Ranch a decade ago. “Whatever I’ve learned in Santa Barbara was from Jerry. I was his intern and then became his really good friend.”
They offer 16 wines by the glass and 120 bottle selections, ranging from Central Coast favorites and Napa blue chips like Opus One to Old World classics from Burgundy, Sancerre, and the Loire. There are, of course, plenty of crisp whites and sparkling wines that can cut through the Asian spices and acid. Among other food-focused highlights, like Austrian and German Riesling, is a sauvignon blanc made by Paul Lato. “He made 100 cases for the whole world,” said Balli, “and we are the only place serving that by the glass in North America.”
There’s also a range of regional beers and four low-alcohol cocktails that have been very well received. The cocktails are fueled by Sabe, a brand that blends tequila, bourbon, and other spirits with sake to mirror the flavors of those stronger boozes while falling under the permit for selling beer and wine.
The restaurant features patio seating as well as a tight but brightly decorated interior full of birchwood, colorful tiles, and Sharpie art by a Thai artist who is a friend of the owners. They recently started serving lunch as well, with a simplified menu, and takeout is already a hot commodity, thanks to the ample amount of parking in the rear of the building.
Like Empty Bowl, the formula clicked right away. “We want to hit all the taste buds at both places,” said Lee. “Everyone tells me they don’t have to go downtown anymore. It’s a great fit for the community and for us too.”
But it’s not just Montecito residents, said Balli. “We have regulars from Santa Barbara to Carpinteria and Summerland,” he said. “We have new people. They all leave very happy.”
1187 Coast Village Rd., Ste. 9, Montecito; 770-7170; khaokaeng.com.
Dishes to Dig
Little Gem Nam Sod: Roots Organic Farms’ lettuces are grilled and then served with Mary’s free-range chicken, ginger, shallots, Thai chilis, peanuts, mint, puff rice, and more. “It’s a nice, refreshing little salad, and it’s kind of warm but cold too,” said Lee. $15
Thai Vegetable Egg Rolls “Poh Pia Tod”: These crispy rolls are stuffed with cellophane noodles, green cabbage, Chinese shiitake, garlic, carrots, and white pepper, and dipped in sweet plum sauce. “It’s nice for the vegetarians out there, and it’s really savory,” said Lee. $13
Sai Grog Issan Northeastern Sausage: These little circular pork shoulder sausages are packed with garlic, jasmine rice, and white pepper, and served with ginger, cabbage, Thai chilis, peanuts, and lime. “It’s not just filled with meat,” said Lee. “It has rice in it too.” $14
Larb Mushrooms: This is a revelatory, tangy combination of bunashimeji, king trumpet, and Chinese shiitake mushrooms with roasted rice powder, lime juice, cilantro, shallots, fresh mint, and dried chilis that you wrap in Roots Organic Farms little gems. “Larb can be done any way, with shrimp or tofu or meat,” said Lee. “We wanted to do a vegetarian version since we have all these killer mushrooms. It’s been a big hit.” $15
Green Curry: “Our focus is curry, and this is one of my favorites,” said Lee. Amid the Jidori all-natural chicken breast, Thai basil, kaffir lime leaves, coconut milk, and homemade green curry paste, he’s most jazzed about the bamboo shoots. “You barely find fresh bamboo shoots,” he said. “They’re always canned.” $21
Lamb Massaman: Lamb shoulder from Mountain Meadows is stewed for hours in a mix of fingerling potatoes, pearl onions, peanuts, cherry tomato confit, tamarind, coconut milk, and house-made massaman curry paste. “It’s dark, slightly sweet, but spicy on the end,” said Lee. “It reminds me of a Thai mole.” $28