Simbal opens in Little Tokyo with spicy sweetbreads, bone marrow and Chinese doughnuts

Name of restaurant: Simbal, which opened in early June. This is Vietnamese cooking crossed with modern small plates cuisine. Which means lots of dishes with lots of flavors, from a banh mi salad with head cheese to a short rib pot pie with lemongrass. The chef is Shawn Pham, a Vietnamese American who grew up here, but returned to Vietnam for four years to explore the food.

Before heading back to Asia, Pham cooked in L.A. at the Bazaar and at Sona, David Myers' terrific now-closed restaurant. Thus Pham has the technique to match the flavors. It's also why you might see chef Kuniko Yagi, who has been consulting on the menu (see: house-made tofu) with Pham, as they both cooked at Sona about a decade ago. 

Where you are: In a former karaoke lounge (the long-defunct Cafe Focus), with high ceilings and a concrete-and-glass industrial aesthetic. The center of Simbal is a huge open kitchen. To your right is a large dining room with a pretty bar; to your left, more of that large dining room with window seating. You're also, despite the street address, definitely not on 2nd Street (do NOT try to get into the Public Defenders Office). To find the restaurant, which is set back from the street, head down San Pedro: You want to be just north of the Union Bank and directly across the street from Demitasse. Clue: If you see a little garden patio with a stone monument ("Stone Rise," 1984, by Seiji Kunishima), you're in the right place. 

What you're eating: First, something off the traveling dim sum cart, which is not filled with dim sum exactly but small starter dishes like sauteed mushrooms or bites of sausage. If you're a fan of shrimp and grits, get Pham's caramel-braised shrimp with congee, since it's basically an Asian version of that dish, with rice for grits. If you're a fan of bone marrow, then you'll be eating the bone marrow, which is of "Flintstones" proportion and loaded with chili jam. Also because instead of toast, it comes with a halved, toasted Chinese doughnut. Enough said. 

But what you really need to order is the crispy sweetbreads. Even if you're not a fan of sweetbreads, get this dish — because it's like the best spicy fried chicken you've ever had, since the sweetbreads are more tender than chicken and the whole dish is crispy and spicy instead of just battered and fried. There's fish sauce involved somehow, which helps everything, and the dish is paired with pickled Chinese mustard greens, which does too. 

Service: Seriously friendly and attentive, as if they've been waiting for the place to open so they could all (there's a huge staff) start practicing on real diners. 

What you're drinking: A pretty cocktail. The cocktails all have somewhat silly names but are loaded with things like salted plum syrup, byrrh quinquina, Thai basil syrup, and carbonated green tea. Lots of fresh herbs. Lots of sochu. 

Bonus: Simbal is also hosting a series of R&D pop-up dinners, starting with one by former Hinoki & the Bird executive chef Kuniko Yagi. Yagi's seven-course "Snack Time" pop-up will include a market raw fish course, as well as meat and pastry courses. "Everything should be two bites," said Yagi at Simbal the other night. The dinner is $75 and will run for three days: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Each night will have seatings at 6 and 8 p.m., with 14 seats only at Simbal's counter. 

Info: 319 E 2nd St., Suite 202, Los Angeles, (213) 626-0244,


Because taking pictures of food is almost as much fun as eating it, on Instagram @latimesfood.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World