The first time I tried to find Shawn Pham's restaurant Simbal, I spent ten minutes staring at the address location on the phone while circling the block and wandering through Japanese Village Plaza trying to figure out where the heck I was going. Eventually I caught a glimpse of a sign with an arrow and followed those signs through an underground mall, around a corner, up some stairs and behind a sculpture where I finally found myself at Simbal's front door. The hide-and-seek was worth it for Pham's creative Southeast Asian cooking, and rather than see the hidden location as a negative, Pham takes pride in the fact that when people show up, he knows they really want to be there.
In an effort to celebrate the fact that much of L.A.'s best food is found in the nooks and crannies, Pham shared with us his favorite hidden gem restaurants, places that don't scream their presence but are heartily appreciated by anyone who comes across them. Here are his eleven picks.
11. Byblos Mediterranean Bakery, La Cresenta
“This Armenian bakery is out of the way, but the lahmajune served only on weekends is worth the trip. Also not to be missed is the manti, handmade Armenian baked dumplings with a light tomato sauce, yoghurt and sumac — little pockets of beef that are crispy, tangy and fun to eat.” 2948 Foothill Blvd., La Crescenta. (818) 330-7168. byblosmb.com.
10. Saj Bakery, Granada Hills
“My friend, photographer Dylan Ho, introduced me to Saj. Granada Hills is not a place I frequent often but there are exceptions, and Saj Bakery is one of them. The chicken shawarma is an exceptional example of how small details make a big difference. The shawarma is pressed on a Middle Eastern griddle with a weighted iron. This creates additional textural contrast; it’s a small step but makes the shawarma more enjoyable to eat. Saj is also the only place I’ve seen doughnut-shaped falafel — they use a special mold to shape the falafel. If you have kids that don’t like falafel this may be the gateway version.”
11146 Balboa Blvd., Granada Hills. (818) 368-4000. thesajbakery.com.
9. Hunan Chili King, SGV
“The name more or less says it all. Hunan province in China is unique in that they predominately use fresh chili peppers as opposed to the dried chiles found in other provinces. I haven’t had a bad dish here, but my favorites are the mapo tofu and fried fish with chilies. Beer is your friend at Hunan Chili King.” 534 E. Valley Blvd., Unit 2 & 3, San Gabriel. (626) 288-7993.
8. Santa Rita, Boyle Heights
“Fried chicken necks. If that doesn’t sound enticing I don’t know what does. For those too squeamish to try Chinese-style chicken feet, give these fried chicken necks a try; maybe it will open your mind to trying chicken feet. The necks are fried until crispy, then doused in a red salsa. Tortillas are provided on the side, but honestly I don’t need them. Eat more chicken necks; the world will be a better place.” 3900 E. First St., Boyle Heights. (323) 261-2738.
7. Al & Bea’s, Boyle Heights
“The bean-and-cheese burrito is what I come here for. Most people overlook bean-and-cheese burritos in favor of the more common meat offerings available. In the same way that a margherita pizza reveals the skill of the pizzaiolo, a bean-and-cheese burrito reveals the skill of a burritolo (I made that word up, don’t try looking it up) because there’s less to hide behind. The beans should be smooth, silky and have the right ratio of lard. The cheese-to-bean ratio should take into account the lard in the beans and be a complement to the beans and not overwhelming. The red or green sauce should add the right amount of acidity to keep the tongue stimulated.” 2025 E. First St., Boyle Heights, (323) 267-8810.
6. Dai Ho, Temple City
“This restaurant is open hours that I can only dream of: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. If the hours don’t prove their brilliance try the Taiwanese beef noodle soup that is perfumed with spices. I particularly enjoy their version because of the complexity and balance of the broth. The dan dan noodles and off-menu shrimp wontons are also good.” 9148 Las Tunas Drive, Temple City. (626) 291-2295.
5. Chichen Itza, South LA
“We are fortunate to have a wide and diverse Mexican food culture in Los Angeles. Chichen Itza is named after a region in Yucatan, Mexico. [Being] located in Mercado la Paloma in South L.A. doesn’t seem to … [hold back the restaurant] in any way as seen by the army of cooks working in the open kitchen. Longaniza Asada and Poc Chuc are what I order. You’ll find their house habanero salsa in bottles on each table and on each plate will be a habanero chili as garnish. I find that the habanero salsa pairs well with the food and brings out the flavors, making the food that much more enjoyable. Temper the heat with a Guanabana drink.” 3655 S. Grand Ave., Historic South-Central. (213) 741-1075. chichenitzarestaurant.com.
4. E Sea Fresh Noodles, Chinatown
“Located next to the Thai wholesale market LAX-C, this restaurant specializes in Thai Duck Noodles. I’m guessing they’ve been doing this dish for a long time because the signs advertising the dish in the parking lot are faded and look as if they’ve been around for years. My order is the duck noodle soup. You can choose different types of noodles, but I go with the egg noodles. This dish is Chinese in origin and has been adapted by Thais. E Sea Fresh makes my favorite version of this dish in L.A.” 1100 N. Main St., Suite D, Chinatown. (323) 343-9000.
3. Tire Shop Taqueria, South LA
“Unbeknownst to most Americans, beef is not the primary protein used in Mexican cooking. This stall is an exception, and their specialty is ranchero-style carne asada grilled over mesquite charcoal. Be warned that once you eat here you won’t be able to eat carne asada anywhere else again. All people I’ve taken here are unenthusiastic when they hear carne asada because they’ve never had the real thing. This stall is an example of attention to detail. In something as simple as taco-making, that makes all the difference in the world. There is always a line because they refuse to take shortcuts. The corn tortillas are made fresh to order, the meat is hand-chopped to order; you can taste the care and details that make this taco great. I’d pay double what they currently charge. Don’t tell them I said that.” 4069 S. Avalon Blvd., Historic South Central.
2. Jinsol Gukbap, Koreatown
“Even though I’m not Korean I equate Jinsol Gukbap with comfort food. The menu offers only a few dishes, which is a good thing because what they do, they do well. Rice soup made from pork bones is hearty and reminiscent of tonkotsu broth. Grilled pork ribs show off a nice spiced seasoning and light smokiness from grilling. Bites of blood sausage complete the meal in-between spoonfuls of soup.” 4253 Third St., Koreatown. (213) 908-5636.
1. Quesadilla cart lady, Echo Park
“Fresh blue corn tortillas, huitlacoche (corn mushroom fungus) and braised shredded chicken. Street food at its finest, simplest and most satisfying. Some of the satisfaction is being in direct contact with the person making your food and supporting a one-person operation.” 1246 Echo Park Ave., Echo Park.