Why We’re Rah-Rah for Buellton’s Na Na Thai

Ashley and Nik Ramirez’s Globe-Trotting Journey from Fine Dining to Southeast Asian Street Food

Why We’re Rah-Rah for Buellton’s Na Na Thai

Ashley and Nik Ramirez’s Globe-Trotting Journey
from Fine Dining to Southeast Asian Street Food

By Matt Kettmann | August 24, 2023

CHEF WALKS INTO A BAR:  Belly up at Na Na Thai. | Credit: Talia Helvey

In a land where the culinary pulse went from mere murmurs to visible thumping in the span of a decade, Santa Barbara County’s raciest restaurant right now is located in what would usually be described as a strip-mall hole-in-the-wall just off 101. By turning that hole into a vividly decorated hotbed of heartfelt food and even friendlier cheer, the couple behind Na Na Thai is bringing authentic Bangkok to Buellton, and making the sleepy Santa Ynez Valley town a must-stop for Southeast Asian street-food fanatics.

Just a year ago, no one could have predicted this outcome. That’s when Ashley and Nik Ramirez started their Na Na pop-up aside Bar Le Côte on Tuesday nights when the Los Olivos seafood tavern — owned by the Michelin-star-snagging Bell’s in Los Alamos — was otherwise closed. But how these Thousand Oaks– and Maui-raised fine-dining veterans became moo dad dang and som tum specialists is a story that starts long before in a faraway place — on a soccer pitch in Romania, to be exact.

FISH SAUCE FIEND: Ashley Ramirez | Credit: Talia Helvey

That’s where Nik, who grew up in Makawao and came to Santa Barbara City College for soccer, was playing professionally for FC Petrolul Ploiești, which served the team the same rotating lineup of weekly dishes. “I was so tired of eating the same thing every day,” he recalled. “I bought a burner and a sauté pan and tried to cook for myself.”

He quit pro soccer, returned to Santa Barbara, enrolled in SBCC’s culinary program, and, just before graduating in 2008, was hired as a line cook at Wine Cask. He worked his way through other kitchen jobs before returning to Wine Cask, which is where he met Ashley in 2014.

She started working in Conejo Valley restaurants as a teenager and clocked more than eight years at Brophy Brothers during college. She quickly tired of her vision to be a teacher, so she went back to SBCC for the culinary program, where she caught the wine bug. That led her to the Wine Cask, where she’d been working less than a year when her brand-new boyfriend got a call from Thailand.

Through an El Encanto connection — both of their work histories are too complex to fully detail — Nik was invited to prepare a 12-course menu to win a prestigious executive chef job at a Bangkok hotel. He only had a week to develop and source the menu from afar, but he got the gig. Ashley called her mom, wondering whether to ditch everything and move across the world with this man she barely knew, and her mom asked how she would feel if he didn’t invite her. “I’d be devastated,” Ashley replied. The answer was obvious. 

Two months later, they were living in the fast-paced, chaotic capital of Thailand, and these two small-towners got hooked. “I am almost scared of big cities, but we’d come back to California and I couldn’t wait to get back to Bangkok,” said Nik. “You live like a king there.”

Nik Ramirez | Credit: Talia Helvey

Residing in an apartment on a street nicknamed Na Na, the couple became fascinated with the city’s street-food scene, led to secret stalls by their Thai colleagues. “We would have never found them otherwise,” said Ashley. “Sometimes it was terrifying trying to get there — you’d have to go down dark alleys.”

But then they’d discover whole fried fish plucked right out of tanks before your eyes (on the Na Na menu as pla tod), or gai tod (fried chicken in nam jim jaew), or that addictive moo dad dang, which are pork niblets dried in the sun and served with chili sauce. “They put their lives into the one dish and they just make that,” said Nik of these sidewalk cooks, who rolled out their carts to prepare their specialty every day. “There’s something very different about that.”

Back from Bangkok

Credit: Talia Helvey

Four years later — we’ll skip over a couple of moves and job changes, except the one about Nik staging at a Noma (one of the world’s most acclaimed restaurants) concept in Copenhagen but turning down the barely paid work offer — they had two children and were still living the expat dream, getting paid high salaries in a cheap economy. “We would have probably stayed there, but the pollution in Bangkok is really bad,” said Ashley, who had air purifiers in every room and made the kids wear masks. Plus, private school, which is the only real option for expats, is extremely expensive, and the kids were reaching that age.

They finally married in September 2019 and returned to Santa Barbara that December, both working for Acme Hospitality; she managed the transition of Paradise Café to La Paloma, and he worked at Tyger Tyger and then Loquita. But they were commuting from a condo they bought in Buellton, and restauranting through the pandemic sucked.

Their job-jumping gets complicated again at this point. “There were so many job changes, it was exhausting,” admitted Ashley. The critical parts are that winemaker Drake Whitcraft introduced them to Bells/Bar Le Côte/Companion Hospitality owner-operators Greg and Daisy Ryan, who became their mentors/guardian angels, and that they started a work-equity deal to take over Succulent Café, where Nik wanted to serve high-end, new Nordic cuisine à la Noma to Solvang. “We wanted more skin in the game,” he explained.

Months later, that dream was dead, leaving them devastated, so much that Ashley nearly took a job in Napa. But the Ryans didn’t want them to leave, so they created a concierge-like job for her at Bell’s. Then another one of Nik’s jobs fell through, leaving Ashley in tears during a work meeting, at which time Greg Ryan took her by the arm and said, “Squeeze my hand. It’s gonna be fine. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we care about the four of you and you’re going to stay.”

Credit: Talia Helvey

Nik did a brief tour as a stay-at-home dad — “I loved it,” he said, to which Ashley said, “You did it like two weeks” — until the Ryans suggested they do a pop-up at Bar Le Côte on Tuesdays. “I thought açaí bowls was the best idea,” laughed Ashley. “I was so stupid.” Greg knew better, telling them, “You have to do Thai.”

The pop-ups started in June 2022 and ran for nine months, usually selling out in 90 minutes. Meanwhile, Greg was Mr. Miyagi–ing them into being restaurateurs and finding them a permanent location. He sent Ashley a picture of the keys to what’s now Na Na Thai in February — she didn’t know what they were at first — and Companion Hospitality became a partner in the project.

“We give them the support and net that a lot of first-time restaurant owners need — it’s a beast,” Greg texted me after my first visit in early July. “You need so much infrastructure. It’s hard on a small scale, but we believe in their hard work and the food and hospitality. If we can help eliminate the ‘slog’ stuff and be able to give folks some of the tools, it’s cool to see what people can do when you offer an opportunity.”

Street Food Style

YUM: Just a few of the dishes available at Na Na Thai | Credit: Talia Helvey

Na Na Thai’s menu is stacked with Thai words that are new for most Californians, even those of us who search out unique Asian dishes like we’re collecting baseball cards: moo pad grapao (minced pork, chile, egg on rice), sau ua (Chaing Mai–style sausage), gai pad med mamuang himmapan (cashew chicken), and so forth.

“The restaurant is essentially a collection of all of our favorite street food vendors,” said Ashley, which created its own logistical issues. “They’re not posting these recipes on the internet.”

Nik had to follow his palate. “I know what they’re supposed to taste like, but how do I get from A to B?” he wondered, and then reached out to his Thai friends for insight. He also leaned into technique, doing everything by hand with a clay mortar and pestle in an ancient process called tam, which means “to pound.”

“I made a promise not to Westernize it,” said Nik, who understood from his Bangkok days that much of American Thai cuisine had the spicy spices, searing acid, and fish-sauce funk dumbed down to appease unfamiliar palates. “If I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna make the dishes as respectful to the traditions as I can. We will take it the hard way.” The curry pastes are pounded by hand, and even the pad thai, a dish every proud noodle fanatic knows well, is made to order.

In a refreshingly direct manner, substitutions are not allowed — despite the vegetarian stereotype, most authentic Bangkok food is cooked in lard and uses fish or oyster sauce — but you can request it hotter. “You can amp it up,” said Ashley, “but we won’t take it out.” They’re not just being purists: To take nuts or fish out of a dish would require an entire rewash of that mortar and all of the associated tools, which is just not practical in a small, fast-moving kitchen. (It’s probably not happening at your regular eatery either, by the way.)

As such, the dishes, about a third of which change weekly depending on sources, are aggressively pronounced and pungent. But there’s plenty for all to enjoy, including kids, who can choose from butter noodles, chicken tenders, or sticky rice with cucumber.

Street food is a departure from the couple’s fine-dining ways, and that makes Ashley proud. “We want to create a place where you can go at least once a week,” she explained, noting that’s already happening with locals, while the Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo crowds continue to come as well, lured by colorful social media posts. “We didn’t want a special-occasion restaurant.”

Nik, however, still has that itch to scratch, so the bar may evolve into a tasting menu experience down the road. But he’s not complaining.

“I wouldn’t be anywhere without her,” he said in a sweet moment, referring to their children, home, and career. Ashley respects the praise, but sees him leading that hot kitchen every day, confirming that street food is just as challenging as any tweezer-requiring cuisine: “He said that this is the hardest station he’s ever worked.”

225 McMurray Rd., Ste. E, Buellton; nanathaisyv.com 

TEAM NA NA: Owners Ashley and Nik Ramirez are flocked by their staff members Tahmara, Gabby, Sergio, Conejo, Eddie, Max, Felicity, and Carmen. | Credit: Talia Helvey


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