From Vietnamese beef stew to spicy coconut crab, city chefs share the unique dishes they’re grateful to have on their own holiday tables.
At Brandoni Pepperoni, chef Brandon Gray makes haute pizzas topped with lemon ricotta and fennel-pollen salami. But his Thanksgiving macaroni and cheese relies on a more humble ingredient to achieve a perfectly velvety texture: Velveeta. “A lot of chefs shit on Velveeta, but it’s not a true macaroni and cheese without it,” says Gray, though he admits to sometimes adding smoked gouda to keep guests on their toes. During his time cooking in the navy, Gray picked up a secret technique: “One of the shipmen would strain three quarters of the water the macaroni was cooked in, leave the last quarter of the now-starchy water, throw all the cheese in, and then mix it up,” says the chef. “You’re essentially creating a sauce with a thickened liquid.”
Stirring the Pot
Cassia co-owners Bryant and Kim Ng host an annual Thanksgiving potluck at their San Gabriel home that’s famous for two things: its karaoke contests and Kim’s beef stew. “Never mind that this is my profession,” says Bryant, who is also the chef at the couple’s acclaimed restaurant. “We want Kim’s stew.” The hearty riff on a traditional Vietnamese beef stew features slow-cooked short ribs, carrots, potatoes, and peas seasoned with star anise and fish sauce. The Ng’s holiday table is rounded out with everything from Vietnamese spring rolls to Bryant’s mother’s sticky rice to Porto’s Cuban pastries. “Who cares if it matches?” says Bryant. “In fact, it’s even better if it doesn’t.”
When she was growing up in Buena Park, chef Sabel Braganza’s family table was a mix of American turkey alongside Filipino and Chinese dishes. Her favorite was her aunt’s spicy coconut crab. “For some reason she stopped making it. I missed it, so I started making it,” says Braganza, who heads the kitchen at West Hollywood hot spot E.P. & L.P. She prepares her childhood favorite by steaming a whole crab in a broth made of coconut milk, ginger, garlic, shallot, jalapeños, and fish sauce—a classic Filipino blend of sweetness and spice. It’s best served with rice and a glass of Prosecco. “Super simple. The hardest part is eating it,” she says.
“It was always a mix of Western and Chinese,” says Jon Yao, the chef-owner of Michelin-starred Kato, of his childhood Thanksgivings in Walnut. “We’d do a turkey with sticky rice and Chinese sausage stuffing.” When coming up with holiday dishes these days, Yao also mixes things up, incorporating elements of his Taiwanese mother’s cooking into traditional American dishes. For the past couple of years, he and his family have been experimenting with Chinese hot pot-style Thanksgiving dinners. “Trying to keep one foot in Chinese-Taiwanese culture and one foot in American culture was confusing when I was a kid,” Yao says. “Now I’ve found a healthy compromise between the two. That’s the real American Thanksgiving story.”
The Right Stuff
Growing up in the scorching climate of Arizona, Jar chef and co-owner Suzanne Tracht always looked forward to Thanksgiving. “It’s my favorite time of year, November—fall, the start of winter.” Along with the changing of the seasons, Tracht fondly remembers the “aroma of the house” when later she and her own family spent full days cooking together—often preparing food for 20 to 50 people. “We never say no to somebody who doesn’t have anywhere to go,” Tracht says. “We’re chefs; we feed people whether we’re at home or in the restaurant.” Her hospitality is on full display in her finely tuned recipes like her classic cornbread turkey sausage stuffing, which took years to perfect. The dish features turkey sausage, shiitake mushrooms, and sourdough bread, though Tracht emphasizes the true key is to not “be cheap on the stock, or number one, the butter.” She never tires of her job, often drafting new recipes while messing around in the kitchen with friends over champagne. “You always want to make every dish with love, and Thanksgiving is the best time to love what you’re cooking and who you’re cooking for.”
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.