Sesame Dinette brings together three generations in a pan-Asian cuisine

At a Long Beach mall, wedged between a laundromat and a pharmacy, three generations of Nguyen women fold flower-studded Vietnamese spring rolls that had long been absent from the space and were almost gone forever.

The matriarch of the family line, Judy Mai Nguyen, does it all with a full, elegantly made-up face and a confident presence, just as she has done every day in her 35 years of working around recipes on and off to create, cook and manage in acclaimed restaurants like Brodard and crustacean. Here, the women shred green papaya for a funky and bright beef jerky salad, and serve up a vegetarian “duck” noodle soup that mimics the bird with swaths of braised tofu skin. They slice carrots and cucumbers for rotating bao specialties, some stuffed with pork, others with soft-shell crab.

The casual Vietnamese-tinged restaurant is a testament to Nguyen’s cooking and her family’s persistence in salvaging their restaurant space, which they had closed during the pandemic. “I was sad to suddenly do that,” Nguyen said. “I almost gave up.”

With the help of her daughter and granddaughter, she reopened about a year after the storefront closed and is now buzzing from late morning to mid-afternoon. On Fridays and Saturdays her granddaughter Kiera Sivrican assists her in the kitchen with prep, cooking and creating recipes while she is the owner and operator on Wednesdays through Saturdays sesame dinettePerfumer and restaurateur, Linda Sivrican, takes orders and curates the pantry wares, the pop-ups, and oversees the general running of the restaurant that helped save her mother’s business — and provides a new generation of AAPI chefs and makes a place shine.

Sivrican opened Sesame Dinette in April as a sibling concept to their Superette in Chinatown – Sesame LA — and a midwife taking over her mother’s own restaurant, which opened a month before the pandemic and closed just as quickly.

Nguyen had tried to fill catering orders for a while and even started preparing takeout groceries for her daughter’s new corner store in Chinatown, but when the LA County Department of Health told the family they were no longer carrying the perishable items Sesame LA could sell, Sivrican saw the writing on the wall: Your mother would have to turn.

Sesame Dinette’s kitchen team is led by matriarch Judy Mai Nguyen, but also includes Nguyen’s friends from local Buddhist temples. Above, vegan shrimp summer rolls with tamarind dip.

(Stephanie Breijo/Los Angeles Times)

She knew the commitment of her long-term lease in Long Beach and the thousands of dollars her mother and stepfather had poured into their retro Saigon Bistro, buying the kitchen appliances from the previous owners and investing in getting the operation up and running. In its short existence it had provided income and activity not only for the Nguyens but also for the matriarch’s friends from the local Buddhist temples who worked there on selected days of the week.

“I figured if I rebranded it as Sesame LA, at least some awareness might help,” Sivrican said. “I thought, ‘Why not, let’s just try, let’s just do it.’ I am absolutely confident in the skills in the kitchen; Our main concern is to manage the front and back of house and this meant that the decisions were very loose [format].”

She painted the mustard-yellow walls a pristine, bright white and modernized the furnishings. At one end of the dining room are now a few shelves holding jars of locally made black sesame spread and bottles of crisp and spiced chilli salts and other items made by members of the AAPI community as a sample of the goods available at Sesame serve LA.

The restaurant’s concise menu runs from lunchtime until early evening and changes slightly each week, with an emphasis on classic yet creative pan-Asian dishes, though many draw on Nguyen’s Vietnamese heritage and decades of professional cooking experience. There’s no beer or wine license, and no table service — it’s all set up for the convenience of the kitchen crew, made up mostly of Nguyen and her friends from Truc Lam Buddhist Center and Chua Pho Linh Temple, all in their 70s and 80s.

They arrive around 9am to cook the lunch service and then leave around 4pm to prepare for the next day with summer rolls and pho and banh mi before clocking out. Meanwhile, a new generation of chefs like Kalas Avanthi Dev and coffee roaster Dominic Lee Teece occupy a corner of the dining room.

A new space for AAPI entrepreneurs

Much like Sesame LA, the dinette expands on the 250-square-foot corner store’s ethos of supporting and uplifting AAPI manufacturers. But in Long Beach, a residency program for aspiring chefs and other creatives is creating a space to experiment and showcase their food alongside the sesame dinette menu.

Kala, the first pop-up in the programme, has given Dev – formerly Destroyer and Vespertine – a place to sell quirky, original and sustainability-focused baked goods and delicious savory dishes in space. Instead of cheddar biscuits, she bakes fluffy versions with green garlic and paneer; Classic French financiers get a cashew, almond and cardamom infusion to resemble barfi, an Indian sweet she loves. She turns whey from her fresh yogurt into a savory cream cheese frosting for her seasonal tea cakes. She makes tonics from her leftover jam liquids.

For now, Sesame Dinette is the only place where Dev’s kitchen can be found consistently.

A photo of Kalas tea cakes with cream cheese frosting, blood orange slices and nasturtium leaves.

The pop-up Kala has been serving pastries, pick-me-ups and other dishes in a corner of the sesame dinette since April, and offers items including seasonal fruit teacakes topped with cream cheese.

(Stephanie Breijo/Los Angeles Times)

The opening of both Sesame outposts was not only helpful to several generations of the chefs exhibited there; it has also helped Sivrican grow.

Being a perfumer, she said, is a lot lonelier than her newfound profession as a restaurateur. Although she runs the Capsule perfumery with her husband Mike, she spends much of her creative process alone.

“The first month I opened Sesame, I was always joking [LA], I have spoken to more people than I have as a perfumer in the last 10 years. There are so many people coming through; I’ve met so many good friends, new friends – being in my late 40s, Sesame LA has allowed me to make really meaningful friendships, I’m so grateful for that.”

She hopes to continue building that community in Long Beach through pop-ups and special dinners, and by curating the restaurant’s pantries to meet the needs of the area’s vast Cambodian population. As she builds the community, her family grows closer. Even her stepfather joins the fight. His role as a dinette handyman has evolved into an occasional baker as he has spent more time in the kitchen and learned to bake bread and donuts for fun.

“I’m very happy,” said Judy Mai Nguyen. “That’s why I’m waking up and going back to the career I like. [Sivrican] is also very, very creative and she is a very busy and hard worker; I can not believe it. I worked a lot when I was young, but I wasn’t like zip here, zip there. That is not easy.”

Sometimes it’s a scramble.

Once, when asked for her opinion on one of her mother’s dishes, Sivrican took a taste and said, “Okay, it’s good, but it’s a little bit sweet.” Before her mother even tried it herself, she replied, ” That’s your mouth.” (Others then tried, echoing Sivrican’s feelings, to which Nguyen admitted that maybe it was a little cute.)

“I’m like, ‘Hey, you don’t cook,'” Nguyen said, laughing. “,You do not know.'”

But Sivrican keeps learning and so does her daughter. Watching the three of them walk in and out of the room together with ease and love, it’s hard to imagine a better cooking mentor for all of them.

sesame dinette

1750 Pacific Ave., Unit B, Long Beach. Open Wednesday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Leave a Comment