Where do these stairs lead?
Porn heaven or a happy ending?
By Thang Ngo
“People think it’s either a strip club or cabaret club” says Jamie Thomas, Executive Chef of Drink & Dine, owners of Santa Barbara . The real answer is somewhere in between – ascend these stairs of this bar-cum-diner you’ll find porn – USAsian food porn, that is. Directly under the Kings Cross Coca Cola sign you’ll find a dark, dreamy fantasy space where the rules are thrown out the door.
On the way up, you’ll see a giant stuffed bear stirring a bowl of porridge between two leopards originally from The Piano room (now closed). “Santa Barbara is light and airy and fun, we don’t take it too seriously, come up and you hear the music and you see the bear and crazy murals”, says Thomas. That cheeky attitude begins with each step, the text on the stairs have been “google translated” into Chinese and Korean.
The venue is inspired by a recent US of A visit by Thomas and his team, “[Sydney] shares the the same climate as California and we’re both kinda fun, sorta surfy, beach good times with everyone basically enjoying themselves” he says.
Santa Barbara is three spaces in one, Santa Barbara bar, The Californian 60-seat restaurant and the ultra-exclusive Hot Box inner sanctum.
They all serve care free, mix-and-match food pioneered in the States. “The whole Cali vibe, cultural melting pot is basically the same as in Sydney, where you can mix Korean and Mexican… there’s no rules as such, -people just want to eat well and drink well and they don’t care if we break a few rules along the way” he says with a smirk.
At the Santa Barbara bar that’s reflected in their single-hand burgers and tacos. The short rib slider (above) demonstrates the cultural layers, beef ribs slow braised in gochujang (Korean red bean chilli paste) served with kim chi and Sriracha (chili sauce).
Similarly the crispy duck taco, with hoisin bbq sauce and cucumber, bears more than a passing resemblance to Peking Duck. Just in case you don’t get it, a thin slice of crispy lotus root garnish spills the beans on their east-meets-Mex play.
You get more food choices inside The Californian restaurant at the left of the venue. KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) is a western twist on an Asian chook favourite, Thomas says the chicken is buttermilk fried, with southern (US) flour containing 27 ingredients including dried garlic, dried oregano, sage paprika, chilli butter and then rolled in red dragon sauce made with gochujang paste and vinegar, served with cubes of pickled daikon. Thomas says it’s probably their most popular dishes.
Aromatic BBQ ribs is all Tex-Mex; coffee rubbed ribs grilled with cumin and other Mexican spices and served with buffalo cucumber.
Zesty ocean trout ceviche (above) has a bet each way, ceviche and avocado has South American heritage while julienne paw paw served in cassava chips is an Asian inspiration reminiscent of som tum or Vietnamese goi usually served with prawn crackers. It’s a stand-out dish of the night.
Of everything on the menu, grilled watermelon with jalapeno and smoked salt (above) is a novelty that’s just a tad too “novel” for my sensibilities. The things which I like most about watermelon – that sensual deep red and sweet juiciness have been grilled out, leaving a drained, hollow blandness. Of course, food is subjective, Thomas confirms this dish has been an instant hit.
Oh, and there’s sweet Coca Cola chicken – a tribute to their location, in the old days it was cooked whole with a can of coke “up the bum”, these days the chook is broken up, marinated in five spice, coca cola and slow bbq’ed.
And then there’s the exclusive Hot Box, an ultra V-VIP room with membership by management invitation only, that can only be reserved via a mobile phone number which changes every couple of months. Right under the Coca Cola sign, it seats around 40 and has a stripper pole podium (of course) as its main feature. Length-long windows afford sweeping vista of lively Kings Cross while a one way mirror provides a voyeuristic view the bar area outside.
Santa Barbara is the latest pub/eat from the prolific Drink & Dine group, owners of Surry Hills based, The Norfolk, The Abercrombie, The Carrington and Forresters. Jamie Thomas (above) says Santa Barbara gives their loyal clientele somewhere else to go outside of Surry-hipster-Hills as well as attracting a new crop of punters. According to Thomas, their Kings Cross customers are a diverse bunch including “hipsters, gangsters, models… it’s a good mix which sets up a good night”. He recommends Thursday nights, it’s less crowded and there’s a DJ to get you in the mood for the coming weekend.
What are you waiting for? Follow the sign for a USAsian happy ending.
The Californian and Hot Box inside Santa Barbara
1 Bayswater Road, Potts Point
(02) 9357 7822
This noodlies, Sydney food blog experience was courtesy of the lovely folks at Drink & Dine.