And before you leave, you’ll likely want to stop by LAX-C BBQ Express, a small indoor food stall with a huge variety of prepared Thai dishes in steam trays. It may not be the hot dogs at Costco, but can be delicious and almost as cheap. Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, you could pick out a live fish from the numerous tanks nearby and they’ll filet it and even cook it up for you. "All Asian markets will have a kitchen where they'll clean, gut and fry up fish for you,” Pham explains. “It's the easiest way to cook a fish other than steaming, you just get the whole thing in one shot. And you don't even have to filet it, you just pick the meat off.”
As we head over to Ai Hoa Market on Hill St, Pham opens up about the different perceptions that diners can have between Asian and Western restaurants, which he’s observed throughout his years of cooking. "I went through certain experiences to understand what I wanted to do,” he explains of his decision to return to more Southeast Asian-style cooking from more Euro-centric type eateries. “But there's still a bias now, that may always be there. For example, with Simbal, some people don't want to pay certain prices just because we're under the umbrella of Southeast Asian food. Our crudo dish is $13, but if I had an Italian restaurant serving the exact same thing, I can charge $16 or $18 and people won't bat an eye. It’s the same product. That's how those restaurants make a lot of money, too, there's a lot of built in perceptions."
"The only Asian country that can get away with higher prices tends to be Japanese cuisine, just because of the presentation and the environment that it's usually presented in,” he adds. “It looks more composed, like sushi for instance, which looks almost jewel-like and there's a ritual to it. So, people are willing to pay for that. You'll also notice that with Japanese food, much of it is usually presented individually, you don't eat as many things communally as you do with other Asian cultures, and I think that's also why they're able to have a different price point."
Pham goes on to explain some of the other perceived barriers, which he sees as obstacles for some Southeast Asian restaurants to be considered approachable fine-dining options for many people. "I think there's a barrier of comfort, because generally with Vietnamese or Thai restaurants, people have this impression of them because they started out as restaurants for immigrants and they're very small mom-and-pop restaurants, so they're not necessarily well-versed in service,” he explains. “So with the menu, sometimes you can't understand it or you might not be familiar with the words, so you don't know what things are. It may just not be what Western people are accustomed to. That's why the menu at Simbal has no unfamiliar words, we don't use any fancy words. I took all of that out because I didn't want people to ask the servers, and the servers have to explain to them and [diners] might feel awkward or uncomfortable." It’s also why he wanted the restaurant to have an open kitchen, so that guests could see the entire process as their meals are prepared.
Once we arrive at Ai Hoa Market, we’re greeted by these beasts: