In a Long Beach mall, wedged between a laundromat and a pharmacy, three generations of Nguyen women fold flowery Vietnamese spring rolls that had, for a long time, vanished from space and nearly disappeared for good.
Family lineage matriarch Judy Mai Nguyen does it all with a full, sleek face of makeup and a commanding presence, just as she has done every day in her 35 years working, on and off, for create recipes, cook and manage in renowned restaurants such as Brodard and Crustacean. Here, the women chop up green papaya for a funky and bright beef jerky salad, and serve a vegetarian “duck” noodle soup that replicates the bird with strips of braised bean curd skins. They slice carrots and cucumbers to spin bao specialties, some filled with pork, others with soft-shell crab.
The casual Vietnamese-leaning restaurant is a testament to Nguyen’s cooking and her family’s tenacity in saving space in her restaurant, which she closed during the pandemic. “I was sad to do this suddenly,” Nguyen said. “I almost gave up”
With the help of her daughter and granddaughter, she reopened about a year after the storefront closed, now buzzing from late morning until late afternoon. On Fridays and Saturdays, her granddaughter, Kiera Sivrican, joins her in the kitchen prepping, cooking and creating recipes, while Wednesdays through Saturdays the owner and operator of Sesame dinetteperfumer-turned-restaurateur Linda Sivrican, can be found taking orders and curating pantry produce, pop-ups and overseeing the general flow of the restaurant that helped save her mother’s business – and delivers a new generation of AAPI chefs and crafts a place to shine.
Sivrican opened Sesame Dinette in April as a sister concept to its Chinatown convenience store — Sesame LA — and a hail marie to take over his mother’s own restaurant, which opened a month before the pandemic and closed just as quickly.
Nguyen had been trying to fill dine-in orders for a while and even started making take-out food for her daughter’s new convenience store in Chinatown, but when the LA County Public Health Department told the family that they could no longer sell the perishables at Sesame LA, Sivrican saw the writing on the wall: His mother should swing.
She knew about 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 kitchen equipment from the previous owners and investing in the setting up the operation. In its short existence, it had provided income and activity not only for the Nguyens, but also for the matriarch’s friends from local Buddhist temples, who worked there on certain days of the week.
“I thought if I rebranded it as Sesame LA, at least some of the awareness might help,” Sivrican said. “I said to myself: ‘Why not, let’s try, let’s do it.’ I’m totally confident with the cooking skills; our main concern is how to handle the front and back of the house, and that led to some very casual decisions [format].”
She painted the walls a pristine white mustard yellow and modernized the decor. At one end of the dining room now sits a handful of shelves, where locally made jars of black sesame spread and bottles of crunchy, chili-flavored salts and other items made by members of the AAPI community serve as a sample of the products available at Sesame LA.
The restaurant’s streamlined menu runs from lunchtime to early evening, changing slightly weekly with an emphasis on classic yet creative Pan-Asian dishes, though plenty of riffs on Nguyen’s Vietnamese heritage and decades of experience. professional with the kitchen. There’s no beer or wine license, and no waiter service – it’s all formulated for the convenience of its kitchen team, made up mostly of Nguyen and his friends from Truc Lam Buddhist Center and Chua Temple. Pho Linh, all between 70 and 80 years old.
They arrive around 9 a.m. to cook during the lunch service, then leave around 4 p.m., getting ready for the next day’s summer rolls and pho and banh mi before heading out. Meanwhile, a new generation of chefs, like Avanthi Dev of Kala and coffee roaster Dominic Lee Teece, occupy a corner of the dining room.
A new space for AAPI entrepreneurs
Like Sesame LA, the Dinette extends the 250-square-foot corner store’s philosophy of supporting and elevating AAPI makers. But in Long Beach, a residency program for up-and-coming chefs and other creatives creates space to experiment and showcase their food alongside the Sesame Dinette menu.
Kala, the program’s first pop-up, gave Dev — formerly of Destroyer and Vespertine — a place to sell whimsical, quirky, and sustainability-conscious pastries and delicatessen-leaning savory dishes in the space. Instead of cheddar cookies, she bakes soft versions with green garlic and paneer; classic French financiers are given an infusion of cashews, almonds, and cardamom to resemble barfi, an Indian sweet she adores. She repurposes the whey from her fresh yogurt into a flavorful cream cheese frosting for her seasonal cakes. She makes tonics from her leftover jam liquids.
Sesame Dinette is, for now, the only place where you can regularly find Dev’s kitchen.
The opening of the two Sesame outposts has not only been helpful to several generations of chefs who have been introduced there; it also helped Sivrican grow.
Being a perfumer, she says, was much lonelier than her new job as a restauranteur. Although she operates Capsule Parfumerie with her husband, Mike, much of her creative process happens alone.
“I used to joke the first month I opened Sesame [LA], I have spoken to more people than in the last 10 years as a perfumer. There are so many people passing by; I’ve met so many good friends, new friends – being in my late 40s, to be able to make some really meaningful friendships through Sesame LA, I’m so grateful.
She hopes she can continue to build that community in Long Beach through pop-ups and dinner specials, and by curating produce from the restaurant’s pantry to meet the needs of the area’s vast Cambodian population. While growing her community, she also brings her family closer together. Even her stepfather joins the fray. His role as the Dinette’s resident handyman turned into the occasional baker, as he spent more time in the kitchen and learned to bake bread and donuts for fun.
“I feel very happy,” said Judy Mai Nguyen. “That’s why I’m waking up and going back to the career I love. [Sivrican] is very, very creative too, and she is a very busy and hard worker; I can not believe it. When I was young I worked a lot but I wasn’t like zip here, zip there. Doing this is not easy.
Sometimes it’s an arm wrestle.
Once, when asked his opinion on one of his mother’s dishes, Sivrican tasted it and said, “OK, it’s good but it’s a little sweet. Before her mother had even tried it herself, she retorted, “It’s your mouth.” (Others later tried it and echoed Sivrican’s sentiments, at which point Nguyen admitted it might have been a little sweet.)
“I say, ‘Hey, you don’t cook,'” Nguyen said with a laugh. “‘You do not know.'”
But Sivrican is learning more and more, and so is her daughter. Seeing the three together move in and out of space with ease and love, it’s hard to imagine a better leader-mentor for each of them.
1750 Pacific Ave., Unit B, Long Beach. Open 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Wednesday to Saturday.