Diners won’t find the familiar clang of metal utensils hitting woks or call of orders in Vietnamese at Sesame Dinette in Long Beach. Instead, soft music plays in a serene, brightly lit dining room with Helvetica font menus. The interior features modern furniture in blond wood tones and pops of color from wall paintings. Opened in April 2022 by mother-and-daughter duo Judy Mai Nguyen and Linda Sivrican, who first teamed up at neighborhood superette Sesame LA in Chinatown, Sesame Dinette has become perhaps the best Vietnamese restaurant in Long Beach.
But the dinette was never meant to be, well, Sesame Dinette. In January 2020, Nguyen purchased Long Beach’s aging Retro Saigon Bistro, where trays of Chinese American fare sat behind steam-fogged service counter windows. She intended to open a catering kitchen with a business partner from Phước Lộc Thọ, a mall in Westminster’s Little Saigon. But when the COVID-19 pandemic rippled across the Southland and one of the Nguyen’s investors dropped out, Sivrican says the family was left wondering what to do with the space.
Sivrican, meanwhile, opened neighborhood superette Sesame LA in Chinatown in 2021, featuring Asian-owned products like Rooted Fare’s crunchy black sesame butter and Mama Teav’s Original Hot Garlic chile oil. Nguyen, 73, who was a chef at Brodard in Westminster and District in West Hollywood, began supplying dishes like pickled cucumbers and greens, crab asparagus soup, and lemongrass sate for Sesame LA’s deli case. The collaboration was short-lived, however, when someone reported the food sales to the Los Angeles health department.
“The [Long Beach] space being unused for two years made my parents constantly bicker — y’know, my dad yelling, ‘Why didn’t we just retire?’” Sivrican says, chuckling. “That brief glow my mom got from serving her food [at Sesame LA] told me what needed to be done: I need to get this damn restaurant open,” Sivrican says.
Sesame Dinette seemed like the next natural step: While Nguyen finally got to break in her massive Long Beach kitchen, Sivrican was able to flex her marketing and aesthetic approaches for an entirely new community. Sivrican would influence some of the twistier menu items — like the pho French dip — and Nguyen would point toward things she didn’t like — a color here, an ingredient there.
Sesame Dinette’s interplay between traditional and creative is best illustrated in two steamy bowls. The first is phở đuôi bò, a classic oxtail pho with a clean, nearly clear broth and chunks of beef falling off the tailbone. The other is mì vịt tiềm chay, a vegetarian version of a noodle soup that features braised “duck” tofu, and a broth with the fragrant aromas of jujube dates and shiitake mushrooms.
Other dishes show twists on traditional Vietnamese staples, combining Nguyen’s deep knowledge of the cuisine with her daughter’s unexpected plating approaches: Yes, there’s bún thịt nướng with vermicelli noodles, shreds of carrots and cucumber, a pool of crushed peanuts, but it also comes with chả, a Vietnamese pork sausage, that sits as a patty front and center. Classic summer rolls swap in plant-based shrimp or shredded tofu. There’s also the ốc lá lốt, grilled escargot mixed with pork paste and rolled in nearly black betel leaves. It’s meant to be wrapped in lettuce and dipped into a mango-yuzu sauce before taking a bite.
In the past year, Sesame Dinette has become a full family effort. Sivrican’s father and Nguyen’s husband, Hank, often does odd jobs to maintain the space, while Sivrican’s college-bound daughter Kiera spends her Saturdays side-by-side with her grandmother, prepping pâté chaud or drink syrups.
“You have to know what this place is — this isn’t a neighborhood where you’re randomly walking and exploring [like Belmont Shore or Bixby Knolls],” Sivrican says, who adopted the name Sesame Dinette instead of Sesame LA to cater to fiercely loyal Long Beach residents. “The clientele we have knows food and knows what we offer.” Outside of fast-food chains, the neighborhood lacks fresh food options from a vast range of cuisines. And Sesame Dinette deviates from Long Beach’s other Vietnamese offerings that tend to be Khmer-owned. “Even in LA, the real Vietnamese food you have to experience is either in SGV or in Orange County,” Sivrican says. “We don’t have a ton of great Vietnamese options. It’s a harsh truth, yes, but one nonetheless.”
Sesame Dinette offers some tweaks that show Nguyen’s ability to adapt to her new audience. Chả cá thăng long, the famed turmeric and dill fish dish sits next to hủ tiếu khô, freshwater prawn and pork noodles served as a soup, an homage to a Vietnamese breakfast staple that exploded in popularity during the ’60s.
And of course, there’s bánh mì, but instead of using a baguette, the dặc biệt is served on barbari, an Iranian sesame flatbread that Sivrican’s Turkish family introduced. Pickles are sliced thin, not shredded, so the sandwich looks layered when divided. Sivrican even designed a dish specifically for Long Beach that’s become one of the restaurant’s most popular. The pho French dip features seasoned bits of beef stuffed into focaccia with a bowl of pho broth on the side. The sandwich is hardly traditional but also 100 percent Sesame Dinette.
While Sivrican continues to have a hand in both businesses, she admires her parents’ ability to make something special on their own terms. “They just keep pushing despite their age and despite the obstacles. I’ll handle the marketing, and Kiera will come to help with laborious stuff. But it’s ultimately theirs. People DM me asking, ‘Why aren’t your hours more expanded?’”
Sesame Dinette is only open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday. As service picked up, Sivrican urged her mother to open on both weekend days and dinner service, but, ultimately, Nguyen wasn’t into it. “They don’t want to,” she says “They want Sundays to hang out with friends and go to temple.”