PB for lunch

Japanese milk bread, instant noodles and authentic Southeast Asian specialties at new downtown eatery

The Pork Katsu Sando on Japanese milk bread. (Photo by Ken Smith)

To cope with the isolation and existential dread wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, Youa Vang—like many other people—turned to baking. She was already an accomplished, self-taught baker and the go-to person for birthday cakes and other homemade sweets for family celebrations, but the world-wide crisis spurred her to hone in on a few hard-to-master delicacies; namely, Japanese milk bread and French pastries.

Meanwhile, the pandemic wreaked havoc on her husband Jimmy Lee’s then-latest culinary enterprise Lucky Poke. Lee is the chef at the couple’s other restaurant, Aonami Sustainable Sushi, and he opened the downtown poke bar across the street in 2019 to rave reviews, but the newer establishment was shuttered due to COVID-era lockdowns.

Lee held on to the Second Street storefront with the intention of using the space to open a new eatery focused on Japanese-style sandwiches. “I was taking forever to do it, and then she took over and cleaned up the whole place and put together a menu, and it was going to be all Hmong food. But she’d perfected the bread so we wanted to add the strawberry and cream sandwiches, which aren’t Hmong at all.”

The pair’s separate visions coalesced and expanded into PB and Jimmy’s (the name is a play on “Jimmy’s Plan B,” alluding to Lucky Poke’s unfortunate end), which opened in April. The permanent menu is primarily based on Vang’s Southeast Asian recipes—including Thai, Hmong, Lao and other
dishes—while Lee’s Japanese sandwiches appear as weekly specials. It also hosts a build-your-own-bowl of ramen bar, featuring various flavors and brands of packaged noodles, along with other snackables like shrimp chips and corn snacks.

Since its opening, the restaurant has maintained uneven hours, doing business on select weekdays for lunch, and even more rarely for dinner service. (See note below for the latest info.) Regardless of the irregularity, and with only word-of-mouth advertising, the eatery—and especially the spicy katsu sandwiches, in pork and chicken varieties—has become something of a sensation, with Chico foodies posting raves and delectable-looking pictures to social media when they’re doubly lucky to find the restaurant open and before the specials sell out.

My companion and I were thus blessed one June Friday around noon. To make the most of it, we ordered a little bit of everything to share: a chicken katsu sammie ($10), a Thai-style papaya salad ($12), a half-order of pork belly and rice ($8), and a sweet strawberry cream sandwich ($6).

The papaya salad comes Thai or Lao style, and can be made to order for less adventurous diners. We tried it with everything included: noodles, pickled fermented pork, shrimp, Vietnamese ham, tomatoes, green beans, papaya and a dressing made from lime, fish sauce and sugar. It was “refreshing,” as Vang promised and an incredible mix of rich and varied flavors. The couple said the Lao style is stronger and more flavorful, and made with more heavily fermented meats and sauces.

PB & Jimmy’s owners, wife and husband Youa Vang and Jimmy Lee.

The pork belly was crispy and also delicious, and the pepper sauce it was served with was among the spiciest and tastiest dressings I’ve ever had (it’s begging to be bottled and sold). The owners say it’s a Hmong staple made with fish sauce, limes, green onion, cilantro, garlic, and Thai chilies fresh from Lee’s mom’s garden. Vang said their home-brewed variety is a favorite among their Hmong regulars, and others have also suggested packaging it for take-home use.

“It’s very common in our culture, pretty much everyone makes their own homemade version,” Vang said. “A lot of customers say we’ve nailed it. … It’s all about the ratios and portions of the ingredients.”

And, oh, that katsu chicken sandwich … It’s worthy of the hype. The soft and yummy milk bread is all it’s cracked up to be, the meat was perfectly cooked and seasoned and covered in a delightfully crispy, fiery outer shell. The heaping helping of cabbage helped mellow out the spiciness, at least until I was done chewing. Then the afterburn, fueled by multiple accelerants, really kicked in. I’d dove in head first while my companion merely sampled some spicy bites, but by that point we were both openly weeping from the heat.

For this reason, the strawberry cream sandwich—made with fresh strawberries, thick whipped cream and more milk bread—is an essential part of the meal. Not only was it tasty, but the cooling effect was much appreciated. It’s kind of like strawberry shortcake served sandwich style, though the bread isn’t nearly as sweet as angel food cake.

The menu also features more exotic fare like deep-fried chicken gizzards and chicken feet, which I may try out on future visits. But really, I just cant wait to get my hands wrapped around another katsu sandwich. Vang said she plans to add more French-style baked delights in the near future, which is yet another reason to revisit this excellent addition to the downtown dining scene.

Check their website and Facebook page for the latest updates, and if you happen to see it open, don’t miss the opportunity to try a taste.

PB & Jimmy’s
119 W. Second St.
(209) 349-2241

Hours: Wed.,
11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Thurs. & Fri.,
11 a.m.-2 p.m. & 5-9 p.m.;
Sat., 11am-2pm

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