Jonathan Gold visits Simbal in Little Tokyo

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This week our favorite Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold makes his way to Simbal, a Vietnamese izakaya discreetly tucked along the San Pedro Street side of the Little Tokyo Mall in Downtown LA.

Simbal - Chef Shawn Pham crop
Chef Shawn Pham of Simbal. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)

Once you get to Simbal, Gold recommends starting off the evening with an absinthe-laced cocktail that is appropriately named “Absent Thought.” The drink comes with a playful chaser: four brightly colored jelly beans. (Who would have thought jelly beans would be just the thing to cut absinthe’s bitter bite?) Pair that cocktail with a tasty bowl of Yin’s wok-fried nuts, roasted seaweed and anchovies and you’re good to go.

Chase the rest of the night away trying out the rest of Chef Shawn Pham’s menu. Pham trained in the kitchen of Danny Myers’ Sona so he’s earned his chops. Order the refreshing salad of pomelo and shrimp tossed in a funky fish sauce vinaigrette, and the crispy sweet potato rösti-like pancake topped with poached shrimp and aromatic herbs. Or, go for the Gold with the prime beef hanger steak tartare that comes with toasted Thai larb rice powder and a warm, roti-like puffed sesame bread you use to scoop up the tartare.

Simbal - Crispy Sweet Potato, Poached Shrimp, Fish Sauce, Herbs
Inspired by the Vietnamese bán tôm, Chef Pham tops crisped strands of sweet potato with poached shrimp, fish sauce and fresh herbs. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)

Got all that? Now you’re ready for the next course. If you’re feeling particularly indulgent, order the roasted bone marrow served with Chinese cruller-like donuts and fried chile jam. Jonathan’s other favorites include the tender pork belly braised in coconut juice and the grilled lemongrass and bird’s eye chile pepper seasoned pork ribs. There’s also the white peppercorn-flecked Heavenly Beef (see recipe), which is a nod to a traditional Thai dish that involves fermenting the meat on a hot roof for two days. Instead, Pham flash-fries his in dry-aged, rendered beef fat to add another layer of umami-rich complexity.

Wow. Be sure to come hungry or with friends.

Read Jonathan Gold’s LA Times piece on Simbal and find more of his restaurant recommendations here.

Simbal - Heavenly Beef, Coriander, Garlic, Dry-aged Beef Fat
Chef Shawn Pham finish his Heavenly Beef with fresh cilantro leaves. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)

Recommendations: Try the wok-fried nuts; the pomelo and shrimp salad; the crispy sweet potato pancake; the wild shrimp congee; the Heavenly Beef; the braised pork belly; the pork ribs; the roasted bone marrow; the prime beef hangar steak tartare. Don’t forget to order the Absent Thought to accompany the feast.

Location: 120 South San Pedro Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012 | (213) 626-0244

(Note that you’d be advised to consult the restaurant website to familiarize yourself with the exact location before going.)

Simbal - Wild Shrimp Congee, Caramel Sauce, Poached Egg
Chef Pham drizzles a sweet-and-savory caramel sauce over his congee, which he finishes with wild shrimp and a gently poached egg. Pure comfort in a bowl. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)
Simbal - Pork Ribs Grilled, Lemongrass, Chili
No utensils necessary. The lemongrass and chile marinade give Simbal’s tender grilled pork ribs just the right amount of kick. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)
Simbal - Absent Thought Cocktail
Bartender and general manager Ron Carey’s signature cocktail, Absent Thought, is a whimsical play on the negroni. Absinthe plus jelly beans? We’ll drink to that. (Photo by Camellia Tse/KCRW)

Pomelo and shrimp photo (top) by Rick Poon.