Simbal Unveils A Happy Hour Menu With Vietnamese-Inspired Bites And Spritely Cocktails

Orange County-native Shawn Pham, chef and owner of Simbal, had spent four years living and working in Vietnam. One of his takeaways about the food culture there? "People aren't really concerned with pairing a certain wine with a certain food. Drinking's just a social event—a time for people to get together and relax," said Pham. Perhaps one reason for this is the sultry weather there. Walk into any eatery, and you may find a patron pouring ice into a frosty glass of pale lager. Ice! It's enough to make a craft brewer's head explode.

Taken altogether, it may be surprising to hear that Simbal, which dishes out new-age Vietnamese fare, has unveiled a happy hour that's replete with a painstakingly-curated set of cocktails, beers and wines. It may seem like a break with tradition from the source material. But, as Pham tells LAist, it's also about joining in with the herd.

"There are people from the surrounding businesses. There are city workers and LAPD around here. And they're looking for a happy hour at that time of day. So we want to make use of the late afternoon," said Pham.

As with anything about Simbal (and with all nouveau takes on traditional cuisine, for that matter) the happy hour menu borders on homage and improvisation. The newcomer on the menu is the marinated chicken wings. Glazed with fish sauce and caramelized sugar, the dish has a distinctive taste profile that is equal parts sweet and savory. The wings, as they should be, are crispy on the exterior, but tender and pliable on the inside.

The rest of the food menu is comprised of Simbal's signature sharable plates (but with reduced prices). There's the banh mi salad, which really is like a banh mi broken up into a cubist painting. Whereas your usual banh mi is like a mashup of different textures and colors (the tang of the pickled carrots come to mind), Simbal's version allows you to admire the constituent parts. There's the Vietnamese sausage, the crouton-like bread, the pickled daikon, and even some jalapenos for an added kick. For true gratification, however, there's the hanger steak tartare that's topped with an airy puff of sesame bread. The bread, while hollow on the inside, has a skin that's wonderfully soft and substantial. You break off a piece and scoop some of the nicely seasoned steak onto it. The seasoning, which is bright with hints of lime and spices, takes a nod from larb, a minced meat dish that's vastly popular in Laos.

There are the drinks, too, of course. As implied earlier, it's ill-advised to pair Vietnamese food with, say, a double-bock brewed in the depths of a Belgian Monastery. Simbal's approach is to let the beverages complement the food. "In general we try to keep the beverages light and not too heavy. We keep it more refreshing, with some citrus flavors," said Pham.

"Light" and "refreshing" may draw the suspicions of a high-minded mixologist. But the drinks on the happy hour menu are well thought-out. There are plenty of floral and herbal notes, to the extend that you'd think there's an arboretum behind the bar (there are, in fact, flowers in their arsenal). The showcased cocktails on the happy hour menu include the "Spring Awakening," which has Jasmine tea-infused gin that's paired with honey and orange bitters. There's also the "Jade of Hearts," which mixes vodka with lemongrass, Thai basil, and a Cocchi Rosa aperitif.

The most intriguing items, however, are the shrub cocktails, which are fizzy, tinted with some fruity aromas, and garnished with flowers that are personally picked and dried by General Manager Ron Carey. To make the drinks, Carey soaks a batch of fruit in vinegar for three days, then he bottles up the resulting extract. These bottled mixes (which include pear and ginger, strawberry peppercorn, and pineapple rosemary, among others) are what give the shrub cocktails that flagrant hint of autumn. The cocktails may be mixed with any type of spirit (vodka and rum are common) but you can also get them non-alcoholic if you simply want a tasting.

If you're uncertain about what to get, query the bartender and you may end up with their artfully subdued pisco thyme. There's a selection of rieslings on the happy hour menu, too, along with some lithe-yet-flavorful beers from local breweries like Smog City.

The new happy hour is perhaps a sign of the restaurant's willingness to adapt. This is crucial, as it's hard to put your finger on what, exactly, Simbal is. The restaurant culls its inspiration from Southeast Asian countries, and yet it's got an extensive wine list with selections from Germany and Austria. Also, it's tucked inside Little Tokyo, right alongside a karaoke bar. A little confusing, maybe. But Simbal is nothing if not ready to accommodate—a winning mindset for a restaurant that's been around for only a year-and-a-half.

Pham noted, for instance, that rice was once offered as a separate item on the menu. Now, a bowl of rice comes complimentary for each table, as Pham realized that customers wanted something to tame the strident flavors of his creations.

"Everyone has their ideas of what it'll be like," Pham said of owning a restaurant. "But you don't know until you're there. Then you respond and make it work."

Simbal's happy hour, served only at their bar, runs from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays. The restaurant is located at 319 E 2nd St Suite 202, Little Tokyo.