Long before avocado toast or jam and ricotta-slathered brioche started filling Instagram feeds, shrimp topped one of LA’s most popular toasts. The dish, which isn’t even toasted, typically involves bread that’s slathered with shrimp paste and deep-fried, causing the two key ingredients to fuse like some soft of culinary Voltron.
Though shrimp toast supposedly originated in Guangzhou, China, it has since proliferated across the globe, becoming a staple in Hong Kong and Americanized Chinese restaurants all over the country, and can even be found on an occasional dim sum cart. In short: shrimp toast has moved from craveable Chinese small plate to become an increasingly hot food item all over the city, including at higher-end LA restaurants.
Unlike far more widespread food trends like hot chicken that are fueled in no small part by imitation, chefs who have latched on to shrimp toast have recently done so for more organic and personal reasons, and are approaching the plate from many different directions.
At Baroo’s original (and now sadly closed) location in an east Hollywood strip mall, co-founder Kwang Uh served a kimchi shrimp toast special. Uh recently resurfaced with fellow chef and wife Mina Park at Baroo Canteen, a temporary stall inside East Hollywood’s Union Swap Meet, a place where visitors can also buy a watch, a parakeet, or get clothing alterations.
“Prawn toast is pure comfort food,” Uh says. “Our version reminds us of the traditional Korean dish of kimchi jeon (kimchi pancake), and Mina loves it because it reminds her of Hong Kong where she moved from.”
“The canteen menu was supposed to be more casual and easygoing, but we’ve actually elevated this dish a bit more,” Uh adds. Baroo’s original kimchi toast was snack-sized, served with creamy avocado and crunchy thin-shaved vegetables. At Baroo Canteen, Uh and Park collaborated to make this toast a meal. “We actually use a lot more shrimp and have amped up the herbs and spices in the mixture,” Uh says. “We also are using these incredible mixed greens from Windrose Farm on the side,” which they toss with citrus dressing and serve with a vibrant dollop of avocado-shiso-yuzu coulis that helps cool the rich, deep-fried white bread slathered with shrimp mousse and punchy kimchi.
In the DTLA Arts District, Top Chef season 12 champion Mei Lin teamed with Francis Miranda and Cyrus Batchan to open hotly anticipated Nightshade in the beginning of 2019. For Lin, who was born in China and grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, shrimp toast reminds her of home. “It was a favorite growing up,” she says. “My mom didn’t let me eat a lot of fried foods, so when I did get to eat it, it was a big deal.”
Nothing is too simple or straightforward at Nightshade, but the reference is still clear in Lin’s “ideal shrimp toast.” For her original interpretation, she tops sliced prawn toast with crispy curry leaves and rests slices in judiciously spicy Cantonese curry. “I love curry,” Lin says, “and when you eat curry, you crave something to sop it up...So I combined the two...It totally worked.”
Night + Market Sahm initially listed shrimp toast on their winter 2019 dineL.A. lunch menu as a first course option under “drinking snacks.” Chef Kris Yenbamroong since promoted this dish to the regular rotation. As one server said, “It was a special initially, but it’s made it to the big leagues.” It’s easy to see why, with crispy discs slathered with pork and shrimp mousse, dressed with mayo, Sriracha, cilantro, crunchy sprouts, and spicy Thai chiles.
This isn’t to say that nouveau shrimp toast is completely novel. One notable version popped up at the start of this decade and has endured.
Nobody would mistake Son of a Gun for an Asian restaurant, but decadent shrimp toast somehow fit on Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s globally inspired menu when the duo opened on West Third Street in 2011. “Who doesn’t love shrimp toast?,” Dotolo says when asked about one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. “It is a throwback to American Chinese food. The idea seemed fun and delicious, which is usually the reason why we do anything.”
Son of a Gun’s shrimp toast sandwich features two slabs of pain de mie pan-fried in clarified butter until dark and crispy. “We wanted to keep it simple and recognizable, as well as a rich and indulgent bite,” Dotolo says. To boost bold flavor and balance richness, he and Shook fill the sandwich with hoisin, spicy Sriracha mayo, and bright herbs tossed with fish sauce.
Other restaurants served shrimp toast in the past, and now keep the dish in their back pocket. Banh Oui, the Asian fusion spot in Hollywood from chefs Casey Felton and Armen Piskoulian, started as a pop-up at his uncle’s Silver Lake auto body shop. In that stage, they deep-fried soft pain de mie spread with shrimp mousse, studded the toast with sesame seeds, and balanced with Sriracha, kewpie mayo, cilantro, and nuoc cham gel.
Felton found inspiration for Banh Oui’s shrimp toast while living in Sydney. “My mentor Angie Hong is considered the Godmother of Vietnamese Cuisine in Sydney,” she says. “She introduced us to the simplicity of shrimp mousse, and so it seemed a no-brainer to pair it on a thick slice of Texas toast covered in sesame seeds.”
Banh Oui’s brick and mortar location focuses on banh mi sandwiches, fries, wings, and khachapuri, though Felton won’t rule out a shrimp toast return once they secure a second location with a beer and wine license. “Can you imagine it? Our shrimp toast paired with a light honey scented brew or a crisp New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc!”
With shrimp toast, possibilities are seemingly endless.
Nightshade. 923 E 3rd St #109, Los Angeles, CA 90013.
Baroo Canteen. 4632 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA.
Night + Market Sahm. 2533 Lincoln Blvd, Venice, CA 90291.
Son of a Gun. 8370 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
Banh Oui. 1552 N Cahuenga Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028.