You’re a young chef from Los Angeles who has nurtured a solid culinary career in fine dining, working under the tutelage of renowned chefs like David Myers, Tom Colicchio, and Jose Andres. At this point in your professional life, your future prospects in the field are looking pretty golden. So what would be the next logical step? For Chef Shawn Pham of Simbal, that would be to get the hell out of the country, of course.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that point,” says Pham, who relocated to Vietnam for 4 years after his stint at The Bazaar. “But I knew what I didn’t want to do.”
Pham felt like there were plenty of chefs out there cooking upscale European cuisine, so rather than ascribing to the status quo, he looked to Southeast Asia instead. There, he performed odd jobs, reconnected with his Vietnamese heritage, and hung out at hidden back-alley eateries, where he was exposed to regional dishes that were lesser known outside of the country, such as bún bò hu, a spicier noodle soup popular in central Vietnam.
“When you go there, you see that the food is vast and more complex than you realized,” says Pham. “I found that there’re more interesting types of cuisine out there that’s not as developed or as explored.” Pham eventually moved back to the states when his family decided to open up a restaurant in Downtown, where he would be able to share his experiences in Asia through a thoughtfully refined food and drink menu.
Simbal, which stands for simple and balanced, aims to serve fare that isn’t “too fussy, complicated, or precious.” Clean, minimal flavors are the driving force behind every menu item, which is why dairy, heavy oils, bread, and puree are mostly absent from each dish. Despite this, Simbal’s offerings, which are served tapas-style, feature quite a few decadent selections. Here you’ll find braised pork belly that melts in your mouth, a rich beef tartare and larb dish, and a dairy-free coconut flan, perfectly light and fragrant. We came, in particular, for the roasted bone marrow, paired with chili jam spread and Chinese donuts.
“In French cooking, they do bone marrow with onion or oxtail marmalade, so naturally, we did something similar to that: chili jam,” says Pham. “We needed something to smear it on, and the Chinese donut kind of looked like a bone marrow to me, so we did that.”
The marrow, buttery and rich, pairs nicely with the airy crunch of the Chinese donut, resulting in a lighter, more bite-sized alternative to the carb-heavy baguettes that typically accompany the dish. The chili jam, a departure from saltier spreads, compliments the fatty meat and fried dough with an extra layer of sweetness and tang. By experimenting with such unlikely flavor combinations, Chef Pham essentially subverts New American cuisine, over-saturated now to the point of derision, by marrying beloved flavors across both hemispheres.
Dinner would not be complete without an Asian-inspired drink from Simbal’s impressive bar program, featuring seasonal craft cocktails, a curated selection of biodynamic wines and beers, sake, and house-made fruit shrubs. Expect floral gins infused with Jasmine tea, vodka with lemongrass and basil, and fresh mezcals, mixed with herbal liquors and celery garnishes. Playful and refreshing, like everything else.
Written by Sophie He
Photographed by Kort Havens