All photos by the author.

You Should Be Drinking Mezcal with Vietnamese Food

After spending years cooking in Ho Chi Minh City, chef Shawn Pham returned to LA to open Simbal, where he's turning banh mi into salad and <i>larb</i> into tartare.

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Mar 22 2016, 6:00pm

All photos by the author.

California native Shawn Pham thought he was going to spend a month traveling in Vietnam. After four years working in Ho Chi Minh City, Pham had his parents worried.

"My parents were afraid I would never come back," Pham said. "They thought I was going to stay there forever.

Chef Shawn Pham plates the Coconut Flan with tamarind caramel, and coconut snow.

Chef Shawn Pham plates the Coconut Flan with tamarind caramel, and coconut snow. All photos by the author.
Simbal's Bánh Mì Salad with pickled daikon and carrots, Vietnamese sausage, head cheese, cucumber. Simbal's Bánh Mì Salad with pickled daikon and carrots, Vietnamese sausage, head cheese, and cucumber.

Before the expat left for Southeast Asia, he had finished a hospitality management degree at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, staged at the French Laundry, and worked in fine dining. While he loved eating the European food he was cooking, he knew he was on the wrong trajectory.

"I didn't want to continue cooking that style of food," Pham said. "There are enough people contributing to that dialogue, there's no need for me to contribute to that."

Pham left his job and set off for Southeast Asia.

"Vietnam seemed to be a good place. I had visited a couple of times and I'm Vietnamese too. I wanted to learn more about the culture and the food."

Once he decided he was going to stay for a while, Pham got a job teaching English before working for different Vietnamese hospitality companies. His Vietnamese improved; he learned to read and write. But the country was changing rapidly, to Pham's dismay.

"I learned a lot and saw the city change a lot," Pham said. "I felt like it was losing its identity as Vietnam. It's still Vietnam, but it's becoming more Westernized, modernized."

The expat returned to the US and took up his parents' offer to open a restaurant with them in Los Angeles. They were initially set on finding a space in West Hollywood until their broker suggested downtown.

"Since I was unfamiliar with Downtown—I was living in Orange County at the time—I borrowed a bike and biked around every single street Downtown. Everywhere there was a 'for lease' sign, I took a picture and called them trying to find a space."

The fruit of this labor was the discovery of an old Japanese karaoke bar in the Little Tokyo neighborhood. While Pham thought the space was too big, his parents were convinced it was perfect. They compromised and spent a year and a half transforming the space. In the summer of 2015, the sleek, industrial chic restaurant Simbal was born.

Simbal's demolition and renovations took a year and a half to complete.

Simbal's demolition and renovations took a year and a half to complete.
Plating the panzanella-inspired bánh mì. Plating the panzanella-inspired bánh mì.

They decided Simbal would focus primarily on Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Pham wanted to honor culinary tradition, but still push boundaries.

"I feel like those cuisines [Thai and Vietnamese] are a little underrepresented and no one's really explored the possibilities with them," Pham said. "If you look at a restaurant like noma, they're exploring within their parameters, but no one's exploring within these parameters."

The Simbal menu is filled with dishes that people already have associations with, but recreated in a way that Pham finds more stimulating.

"I was reading an Italian cookbook and saw a recipe for panzanella," Pham said of his inspiration for Simbal's bánh mì. "I thought that would be a perfect way to incorporate the same flavors and make it fun and interactive at the same time, but still stay true to the techniques and the ingredients."

The bánh mì salad features pickled daikon and carrots, Vietnamese sausage, head cheese, cucumber, crunchy baguette, and fried chicken liver pate balls. You get the same pleasure eating the deconstructed parts as you would chowing down on an actual sandwich, plus you get to eat off of a beautiful ceramic plate.

Guests can forget what they know about steak tartare, unless they've had larb-seasoned tartare before.

"This is beef tartare with larb seasoning. It's the same seasoning as larb, specifically from Northeastern Issan larb, not the Chiang Mai larb. So palm sugar, fish sauce, garlic, chili powder, herbs," Pham said.

Pham's Hangar Steak Tartare topped with a pita-like puffed Chinese sesame bread.

Pham's Hangar Steak Tartare topped with a pita-like puffed Chinese sesame bread.
Bar Manager Kevin shakes the Spring Awakening. Bar manager Kevin shakes the Spring Awakening.

"The only thing is that it's not cooked. I always loved the flavor of larb but I wondered what it would be like uncooked."

Pham pairs the tartare with a pita-like puffed Chinese sesame bread that guests tear apart to scoop up the spicy meat. The dish hits the table looking like a delicious dough blowfish.

Simbal's bar program is as thoughtfully curated as the food. Ron Carey, who serves as both general manager and beverage director of the restaurant, oversees the intriguing imbibing options from Austrian rosé to Californian saisons.

"It's all dedicated toward the food," Carey said of the beverage offerings. "The beer also; the beer selections are specific styles that go with [Pham's] style really well."

Simbal's house-made shrubs, like strawberry black peppercorn or pineapple ginger, are refreshing on their own, Carey suggests spiking them with something stronger.

"For the aficionados, I would highly recommend sherry or sparkling wine with these shrubs," Carey said. "For shrubs traditionally, dating back to the colonial period, that's really what they would play a lot with. If it wasn't a spirit like rum, it was sherry or sparkling."

Simbal's Strawberry Black Peppercorn Shrub.

Simbal's Strawberry Black Peppercorn Shrub.
Finishing My Spanish Ex-Girlfriend with marshmallow-esque blood orange foam. Finishing My Spanish Ex-Girlfriend with marshmallow-esque blood orange foam.

"We've gone through lots of experimenting and different changes with the beverage program, but the basis of the bar program is that everything works together with the food," Pham said. "It should compliment the food. We really believe in this idea of simple and balanced.

"The drinks, and I mean from beer to wine to cocktails, are not supposed to blow out the food, and the food's not supposed to blow out the cocktail or the wine. They should complement each other."

And complement each other they do. The cocktails are in a league of their own while still reflecting what's going on in the kitchen. The drink menu features Southeast Asian flavors like Thai basil, kaffir lime, and lemongrass, but also trendy touches like amaros, mezcal, and local spirits.

My Spanish Ex-Girlfriend, a play on a margarita, combines smoky tequila, Cappelletti, sous vide cooked Thai chili agave, and a velvety blood orange foam garnished with a house dehydrated lime wheel. There are so many good things going on in your mouth with every sip.

Pham doesn't envision opening up more restaurants anytime soon, although he's not opposed to the idea either.

"Right now we're focused on building this restaurant to be the best it can be. We're always evolving in terms of the food and the beverage program."

Curious guests can watch the Simbal team go through that evolution by sitting at the open kitchen bar seating dubbed the "R&D counter."