She was in Vegas with her wife for their anniversary when the idea struck. Many Vegas ideas end in tears or defense attorneys, but chef Tara Monsod’s ended with a line of cars outside her North Park apartment.
“I posted it online on Monday,” she says, “and by Tuesday I had to cut people off because my tiny apartment kitchen couldn’t handle it.”
The idea wasn’t hers. A “sushi bake” was just one of the myriad trends people across the world were playing with in their kitchens during the pandemic lockdowns—a chefier version of banana bread and sourdough. It wasn’t until later that she realized the idea had roots in her own Filipino culture.
“I was just doing it for fun, but then everyone started ordering it,” she explains. “It was hard for me to get unemployment, so this became a way to make a little money and get me through.”
On Monsod’s Instagram, a highlight shows dozens of people raving about her sushi bake. Chefs, friends, supporters, randoms—all of them drove to her apartment, and she brought out their lockdown treat in a paper bag with their name on it.
In March she was named executive chef of Animae, the plush pan-Asian restaurant from chef Brian Malarkey and partner Chris Puffer. She tweaked it, refined it, put it on the menu as “shrimp toast”—and now it’s a runaway hit again. A thick piece of white bread is spread with shrimp mousse, shallow fried, then topped with spicy mayo, eel sauce, and lightly smoked trout roe. It’s dirty-good, indulgent, shareable. Only this time, she has the kitchen and the bandwidth to handle the swarm of orders.
The shrimp toast and coal-roasted cabbage are two dishes you should order at Animae if happiness and contentment are among your current pursuits. Monsod walks me through these standout dishes:
“It’s kind of like a baked dynamite roll,” Monsod says. “I basically took the shrimp toast from Chef Sara [Harris, at sister restaurant Herb & Sea] and did a Japanese American spin on it. We take a pain de mie, or a ploughman’s loaf. We make a forcemeat out of the shrimp with a little masago [the tiny, crunchy roe common on sushi rolls], green onions, and citrus. We spread it on the toast, shallow-fry it. Everyone loves spicy mayo and eel sauce on their sushi, so we made some of that, covered the whole thing with more furikake [a delicious Japanese condiment with dried fish, sesame seeds, dried seaweed, sugar, and salt] for that sesame flavor. Then, trout roe.”
Approximately zero people are excited about ordering cabbage at a restaurant. But this dish may do more for the cabbage industry than all the fish tacos in the land—for its bright-yet-smokey crunch with the rich miso brown butter sauce. “Malarkey throws out ideas all the time, and it’s up to us chefs to filter them,” Monsod laughs. “This was a collaboration between me and chef Carlos [Anthony, of other sister restaurant Herb & Wood]. Malarkey wanted a cabbage dish. Cabbage is such a humble vegetable that people pass by it. So we treated it like a steak and grilled it over the same coals we use for our wagyu beef. The smoke gives it a great flavor. Then we create a miso brown butter sauce, add some lime for acid, then furikake and nori. We present it like a steak.”
Animae, 969 Pacific Highway, Marina District