A Chinatown market celebrates new and old Asian staples
Sesame L.A. may occupy just 250 square feet of Chinatown’s Central Plaza, but owner Linda Sivrican has managed to fill her market with a childhood’s worth of memories by way of Asian condiments, pantry staples and snacks.
Inside, white metal shelves are lined with goods including red Chinese sausages and Lee Kum Kee hoisin sauce. Baskets are filled with candied kumquats, preserved plums and dried cuttlefish. But these familiar items are juxtaposed with modern artisanal products: pour-over Vietnamese coffee kits, gorgeous bottles of Japanese smoked soy sauce, and calamansi sparkling water.
“Our focus is primarily on highlighting Asian makers … [but] we have some brands that are not Asian but still [have] Asian flavors,” Sivrican says. “For instance, we have a togarashi” spice mix made by a chef in Tijuana.
Sivrican, a 46-year-old Vietnamese American who is a perfumer by trade (she’s co-founder of the West Hollywood fragrance house Capsule Parfumerie), never dreamed about opening a superette.
Initially, she was looking for a pop-up space to feature a collaboration she was working on with Daybird chef-owner Mei Lin. Sivrican had invited Lin into Capsule Parfumerie to see if they could work together on creating a ginger-based hand sanitizer and a chili oil.
“Once I came down to the five different scents that I liked, I realized that all those scents are actually ingredients that go into pho,” Lin recalls. “So, I was like, ‘OK, perfect, I’m going to make a pho-scented chili oil.’ And [Sivrican] was like, ‘That’s so weird, because those are all the different scents that are in the hand sanitizer that [I’m] making.’”
Sivrican was tipped off by a friend to the Chinatown space, which was previously occupied by Chunky Paper, another pop-up. When the landlord said she could stay long-term, Sivrican jumped at the chance. It seemed like everything was coming full circle; as a girl living in Upland, she frequently made the drive to Chinatown on weekends with her family.
“When I understood that I could be here longer, I realized that I wanted to do something that the community could really embrace,” Sivrican says. “Chinatown doesn’t really have a market like this, so that’s why I decided to shift focus and put together Sesame L.A.”
Sambuus, a triangular fried dumpling filled with meat, seafood or vegetables, is eaten throughout East Africa and the Middle East. This is celebration food, consumed during special occasions like weddings, Ramadan or Eid celebrations.
It was also a chance for Sivrican to help her mom, Judy Mai Nguyen, showcase her culinary chops. For years, Nguyen, 72, cooked at the District by Hannah An restaurant, now closed. In 2020, she opened a catering kitchen in Long Beach but had to shut down a month later due to the pandemic. Sesame L.A. gave Nguyen the chance to reopen her kitchen and employ seniors from the Southern California Buddhist temples she supports. With their help, Nguyen prepares a series of grab-and-go dishes for her daughter’s market.
The menu changes every couple of days and might include traditional dishes such as bánh hỏi lot chay (vegetarian woven rice vermicelli), chicken curry, and beef bourguignon. Nguyen makes her own vegetarian “shrimp” paste and pickled vegetables, and she and her team have more than 100 recipes they can put in rotation.
Sivrican plans a series of recipe collaborations that will be based on conversations with chefs and food purveyors. She hopes to host chefs who will build recipes around particular ingredients that will be sold at Sesame L.A. One of the first restaurants she has in mind is Woon in Historic Filipinotown. Similar to Sivrican’s story, owner Keegan Fong opened Woon to showcase the cooking of his 72-year-old mother, Julie Chen Fong. He and Sivrican are hoping to get their mothers together for the series.
“I’ve always just wanted to share my story and my mom’s story,” Fong says, “and I feel like what that does is create an open forum for people to be able to understand where we’re coming from, understand our perspectives as Asian Americans and, for me, growing up as one.”
Food blogger and author Jonathan Melendez brings you five tasty recipes for our next ‘Week of Meals’ series.
Sivrican is a newcomer to both the food and Chinatown communities in some ways and is still finding her place in them. She sells neighboring Steep L.A.’s sesame sauce and cold-brew tea and Paper Please’s card crafts. Lin’s chili oil will hit the shelves soon, and Sivrican says she’s working with others on Chinatown revitalization projects.
At a time when anti-Asian attacks are on the rise, opening Sesame L.A. is a poignant experience for Sivrican.
“I’m very proud of our culture. I’m not just talking about Vietnamese culture; I’m talking about Asian culture in general,” Sivrican says. “I think we have a lot [of] positive experiences to share through food. Food is just one of those things that bring people together, and hopefully we create this experience where it feels very accessible.”
936 N. Hill St., Los Angeles, SesameLA.com.
Eat your way across L.A.
Get our weekly Tasting Notes newsletter for reviews, news and more.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.