Sama Sama Kitchen in downtown Santa Barbara is attracting well-deserved attention for its combination of Indonesian-inspired Southeast Asian cuisine and creative cocktails.
The fact that the restaurant at 1208 State St. is the centerpiece of a burgeoning food empire, and a true local success story, only adds to the appeal.
That success has not escaped the watchful eye of the Michelin Guide folks, who recently awarded Sama Sama (which means “you’re welcome” or “same to you” in Indonesian) the Bib Gourmand designation (great food at more affordable prices).
“It’s a great accolade for us,” said Ryan Simorangkir, Sama Sama’s co-owner.
He and his business partner, Tyler Peek, have clearly got the formula, expanding now to three restaurants, with a fourth under construction.
Simorangkir and Peek first met in 2009 at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, quickly became friends and did their post-graduate internship together at miX, Michelin Star-rated chef Alain Ducasse’s since closed place in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
So how do two French-trained chefs evolve to become elite purveyors of Southeast Asian cuisine?
At the heart of this story is, as is so often the case, a certain girl. But maybe not the way you’re thinking.
First a bit of backstory …
Simorangkir, who was born in Santa Barbara but raised in Indonesia, “fell in love with food traveling in Spain” after high school, he told us, and shortly thereafter headed for cooking school in Pasadena.
Peek, born and raised in Nashville, moved to Palm Springs after graduation and got his start in restaurants at the well-known King’s Highway, then also enrolled in cooking school.
Their next stop after Puerto Rico was a job in Bali, Indonesia. After a successful run there, Simorangkir headed back to California, but Peek stayed on for girlfriend-related reasons.
While he was there, the housekeeper of a friend of a friend made it known that she’d like to learn western cooking.
“So I agreed to teach her lasagna and quesadillas if she’d teach me Indonesian cooking,” said Peek, demonstrating a cultural exchange at its finest.
Two months later he returned to Santa Barbara, without the girlfriend, but “with a bunch of recipes,” he said.
“I cooked some of them for Ryan and he loved it,” Peek added.
And Sama Sama was launched.
They began humbly with the recipes Peek had learned plus some other contributions from Simorangkir’s aunts and grandmother.
Soon they added other ideas they picked up on various travels.
These days the guys delegate some of the chef duties and devote much of their creative energy to the new concepts they’re opening.
“The menu at Sama Sama is pretty well established, but we let our chefs create the specials,” Peek said.
“And then we all taste them together.”
Creative is the word for the Sama Sama bar as well, run by long-time veteran Christian Krueger. He selects the wines and crafts many of the cocktails, including one of our favorites, the White Negroni.
As for the expanding empire, it now includes Dim Sama at 380 Bell St. in Los Alamos; Little Sama at 345 E. Ojai Ave, Suite 2, in Ojai; Strange Beast at 394-B E. Main St. in Ventura; and opening soon at the site of the former Rumba Room on Upper State Street, a new joint venture with the Lama Dog team (working title: Lama Sama).
Back at Sama Sama, we asked the guys what’s the best way to enjoy the place to its fullest?
“Come with four or five people, order eight to 10 dishes,” Simorangkir said. “Try everything.
“When we were younger, we wanted to change the menu all the time,” he added. “Now we realize that’s not the best way to run a restaurant. People come in expecting to order certain favorites.”
When the Let’s Go Eat Team visits, we definitely look forward to ordering (and, more important, eating) the Gado Gado Salad, Pork Noodles, Signature Wings and, of course, the Naughty Nuri Ribs, named after the owners’ favorite bar in Bali.
And with a White Negroni or glass of the Alamati “Goldie” Dry Riesling in hand, we salute the housekeeper who inspired an empire.
After a three-year closure, Sama Sama’s back patio, with its festive lighting, is reopening soon. It’s great for summer dining.
Also, ask for the garlic oil french fries, which aren’t on the menu.
When You Go
Sama Sama, at 1208 State St. next-door to The Granada Theatre in the heart of the Arts District, is open for lunch from noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Dinner is served from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and extends to 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.