YUBA YOU'LL LOVE: The fried yuba sandwich is a crispy triumph, offering all that crunch in a vegan package.  | Credit: Ali Beck

There was no shortage of fans for the Asian-street-food-inspired menu that Tyger Tyger served during its original incarnation in the fall of 2018. The crowds were steady, and one alleged curry hater even told me that she wanted to pour their khao soi all over her body. 

But then the Funk Zone restaurant’s opening chef left less than a year later, and the pandemic came swinging with successive shutdowns. By the fall of 2021, there just wasn’t enough staff around to keep the colorful, casual eatery operating at the level expected by owner Sherry Villanueva. 

Instead, her Acme Hospitality group focused on keeping the lights on at The Lark, Loquita, La Paloma, and the other establishments in their portfolio, which now includes hotels in the Sierra Foothills and Palm Springs. The building didn’t shutter completely, surviving to this day as the headquarters of Dart Coffee Co., whose patrons typically take their drinks across East Yanonali Street to sit in the grassy, tree-shaded garden. 

When the Acme team was back to full power and ready to revive the space last summer, they decided to keep with Tyger Tyger in name and relative Asian street food theme. This time, however, the concept would embrace sustainability in a broad sense, offering mostly vegan dishes and progressive-minded beverage brands served with hyper-compostable flatware, cups, and utensils that become soil in just 90 days. (Also, the bright pink balloons are now white, but the playfulness lives on in fanciful wallpaper and a neon sign by the register.)

TEAM WORKS: Chef Trevor Laymance (second from right) leads the kitchen at Tyger Tyger, bringing to life the recipes spearheaded by Chef Jasmine Shimoda (second from left). | Credit: Ali Beck

“This has been my baby,” explained Daniel Bendett, the group’s director of restaurants who came to Santa Barbara a year ago, after getting a hospitality MBA from Switzerland and working for a decade around Los Angeles, Hawai‘i, and Toronto. “It’s the first one I’ve opened for Acme.” 

To do so, he enlisted two chefs with regional roots: Jasmine Shimoda, a Santa Barbara native of Japanese descent with big city experience who led menu development, and Trevor Laymance, the Ojai-raised son of a commercial fisherman who’s in charge of the kitchen. Starting last August, the three of them worked together in a frenzy to settle on about a half-dozen breakfast items, a half-dozen lunch dishes, and a trio of dinner offerings. While 13 of the 16 items on the regular menu are vegan (or vegan optional), diners can add meat if they desire, from bacon in the morning to coconut chicken and grilled fish in the afternoon. 

“The inclusivity of the menu is great,” said Bendett, but he’s proud that the menu isn’t just throwing one or two dishes to vegan and gluten-free diners. “People are excited to have a multitude of items.”

My tour through those multitudes began with two nonalcoholic drinks, the plum-shiso soda and hibiscus-verbena lemonade, just as Bendett showed me the boxed sake they’re serving and told me the goodwill initiatives behind each of the wines on the list. “They all have that give-back story,” he said. 

The parade of dishes began with the breakfast tacos, where tiny rolled omelets, black beans, and pickles are treated to house-fermented habanero, black vinegar Szechuan, and chili crisp sauces. The Burmese-inspired tea leaf salad was a textural symphony: crunch from the peanuts and fried shallots; snappy crispness from the lunchbox peppers, micro-amaranth, and lettuces; and satisfying chew from the gluten-free kelp noodles. Laden with pickled mustard greens, the khao soi chicken’s unique smoky flavor comes from roasting and hand-grinding the curry ingredients. On the addictive front, the daigaku imo — a Japanese street-food staple of candied, crispy-sweet potatoes — nailed the savory-sweet combo, thanks to a tamari-maple glaze and ground black sesame dust sprinkle. 

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Shimoda learned about those during extensive travels around Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia that she’s taken during her more than two decades as a chef. After graduating from Santa Barbara High, she worked the lines of New York City for about 15 years and Los Angeles for the past seven, where she opened the dairy- and meat-free Silver Lake hotspot Jewel in 2018.

“My parents were old-school Santa Barbara hippies,” laughed Shimoda, who grew up eating a regimen of brown rice and steamed veggies. “With all of my fine dining training, I try to take that idea and make it delicious.”

Her most innovative success in that regard is what she introduced as “our soon-to-be-world-famous crispy yuba sandwich.” Built around a pile of fried yuba — which are thin sheets of tofu skin — this doesn’t leave fried chicken fanatics like myself behind, delivering crispy bite after crispy bite without any moist flesh getting in the way. Braised out of its dehydrated origins, soaked in a vegan buttermilk, and then dredged in gluten-free flour, Tyger Tyger’s fried yuba is all about that crunch. Served on a vegan brioche bun with pickled Fresno chiles, chili-maple sauce, and yuzu ranch dressing, it satisfies on the required comfort-with-spice fronts, whether you’re a meat eater or not.

Once Shimoda finalized the menu, she bowed out to make way for Laymance. The two met about five years ago while catering an event for Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, recalled Shimoda, who then hired Laymance at Jewel. When an attempt to start his own restaurant with a partner in Meiners Oaks didn’t pan out, Laymance was pulled into the Acme orbit. “They are supportive,” he said of his experience so far. “They are here for us as chefs and as people in general. That’s rare.”

The ethic of Tyger Tyger fits his philosophy as well. “I grew up with a great appreciation for the hard work it took to get our food before we got it to the market and on the table,” said Laymance, who spent his teen years fishing for sockeye salmon with his dad in Alaska and then spent three months working a farm near Boulder, Colorado, as part of his culinary training. “That was a big foundation for me.”

Just as much as mastering each dish, including dinners of crispy pork belly lechon, turmeric-dill black cod, and mushroom carbonara, Laymance sees his role as making sure Tyger Tyger’s customers feel welcome. He grew up with a “tough family dynamic,” but his mom’s cooking brought “harmony” to the day. “Whenever we sat at the dinner table to be a family, we forgot about everything else — there was no fighting; everything was just in sync,” he recalled. “My focus has been reciprocating that experience.”

121 East Yanonali St.; (805) 880-4227; tygertygersb.com 

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