There comes a point in every workweek when fantasies of a weekend trip creep into your psyche. Maybe that fantasy is walking around nature or drinking wine flights with friends or sitting by a pool in solitude and ignoring everyone for two days. But an entire fantasy where you leave town just to go to one restaurant? Only if you skipped lunch today.
Once you eat at Bibi Ji, though, that will change. This restaurant serves some of the best Indian food in Southern California, and you shouldn’t just daydream about going - you should make it a reality.
Located in downtown Santa Barbara, Bibi Ji is on a stretch of State St. better known for Billabong discount stores than destination restaurants. You could easily walk past its nondescript exterior (a black door and two shaded windows) and assume it’s a closed-down electronics store. But once you get through that door, things change.
Bibi Ji is the kind of approachable place where you could spend all night. There are big family portraits along the walls, people getting drunk at the bar, and hot pink accent lights at night that make you feel like you’re inside a limousine. This is a neighborhood restaurant, but with food good enough to justify however long it took you to get here.
You can come to Bibi Ji and order as many dishes a la carte as you’d like. But if this is your first time or you’re seeking a higher level of existence, the chef’s tasting menu is what you get here. It’s essentially a highlight reel of Bibi Ji’s menu - and at $50, it’s an incredible value given the amount of food that will hit your table.
Whichever route you take, make sure Mr. Tso’s cauliflower is part of your meal. There’s some sort of fried cauliflower on almost every menu in California, but the sweet tomato and chili sauce it comes with here will make you feel like you’re eating cauliflower for the first time in your life. Similarly, you'll be thinking about Bibi Ji's tandoori chicken for a week. The main event of the chef’s tasting is the curry sampler platter - six curries plus rice, yogurt, and garlic naan. It’s an enormous spread that you could eat six times and walk away with a different favorite each time.
One item that’s not on the tasting menu, but is essential anyways, is the uni biryani. Outside of chardonnay and Katy Perry in 2010, Santa Barbara’s greatest gift to the world is sea urchin. When combined with the saltiness of the fried biryani rice underneath, this becomes the most destination-worthy dish at a restaurant that’s already proven itself worthy of a weekend away.
You might even have to extend your trip an extra day to experience it all again. And that’s something we’ve never said about a yurt.
This arrives at the table, and you think you know what it’ll taste like. And then you put it in your mouth and it’s so much better than that. The cauliflower is perfectly fried and the sauce is the ideal combination of salty and sweet.
We don’t know which celestial ocean Bibi Ji harvested these from, but they are tremendous. The mint and coriander sauce on top definitely doesn’t hurt either.
This isn’t just the most beautiful plate that’ll hit your table - it’s also the best. The briny Santa Barbara uni combined with the soft and salty fried rice underneath is unlike anything we’ve ever had before. We would come to Bibi Ji for this dish alone.
You’ll walk out of Bibi Ji talking about the tandoori chicken. Perfectly cooked and marinated in spiced yogurt, this dish is richer and creamier than most tandooris, and we certainly aren’t complaining about that.
The piece de resistance of Bibi Ji’s tasting menu. It comes with sample sizes of all six of their curries, plus yogurt dip, a salad, and basmati rice. We’d like to eat this every day.
If you order the tasting menu, you may or may not get this - the dessert changes. But consider adding it to your order anyways. This gigantic popsicle is made with cardamom, honey, and pistachio and is the perfect way to end a meal here.