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Tiffani Thiessen fed me fried chicken, cheesy enchiladas, beef jerky and a Michelin tasting menu. We had leftovers

By Jenn Harris, Los Angeles Times
Published: November 5, 2023, 6:02am

LOS ANGELES — “Frickles are freaking good.”

Tiffani Thiessen is sitting in the Elvis corner at Johnny Rebs’ True South in Long Beach. Above her are framed photos of the late singer alongside license plates, coffee mugs and other Elvis memorabilia.

“You have to be a pickle lover,” she says about Johnny Rebs’ frickles, thinly sliced dill pickles dusted in cornmeal then deep fried. “I love really good pickles.”

With her big brown eyes, shiny locks of chestnut hair and a smile as warm as this afternoon’s sun, Thiessen, 49, is instantly recognizable as ‘90s teen idol Kelly Kapowski from “Saved by the Bell” and as Valerie Malone from “Beverly Hills, 90210.” More recently, she’s built a lifestyle brand with three seasons of her “Dinner at Tiffani’s” cooking show and two cookbooks. Her newest, “Here We Go Again,” focuses on creative leftovers.

But before her TV career, Thiessen grew up in Long Beach and frequented Johnny Rebs’ True South, a decades-old restaurant known for its ribs, fried catfish and peach cobbler. It’s the first stop on a restaurant crawl around Thiessen’s hometown.

  • 2:13 p.m. Johnny Rebs’ True South

“It’s really about the nostalgia for me,” Thiessen says about Johnny Rebs. “I used to take my boyfriend here. It was the one place my parents were OK that we went to.”

She points out the wood-lined booth across the narrow dining room where she used to sit during her teenage dates. Our server interrupts the memory to take our order.

“You don’t come here on a diet,” Thiessen says, surveying the laminated menu. “That’s for sure.”

She orders an appetizer called the Whole South Sampler; a plate of fried chicken with coleslaw, mashed potatoes, gravy and cornbread; fried catfish with macaroni and cheese and collard greens; jalapeño hush puppies and a plate of sweet potato fries.

“Do you still have the peach cobbler?” she asks.

They do.

Thiessen claps excitedly and orders one for dessert.

A few minutes later, our server returns with a platter as big as a truck tire, filled edge to edge with frickles, fried okra, onion rings and fried green tomatoes in varying shades of golden brown. This is just our appetizer.

“I have always had a love for Southern food,” she says, scanning the sampler platter. “I ended up marrying a Southern man. Wait, do you like okra?”

I nod enthusiastically, already reaching for one of the nuggets of fried vegetables.

“OK, we can be friends,” she says.

The okra are cut into bite-sized pieces that make them highly snackable. The frickles are crisp, well seasoned and still juicy in the middle. And the onion rings are the kind that are more about the batter than the onion inside.

The rest of our order arrives in a flurry of more brown.

“The cornmeal on the catfish is just so good,” Thiessen says. “It’s that crunchy cornmeal that gets me every time.”

The fish is lightly battered in the same cornmeal that coats the frickles and okra. The restaurant could probably get away with frying just about anything in that batter and it would be excellent.

The fried chicken is juicy. The hush puppies are generously studded with diced jalapeño. We power through a good portion of every dish, almost forgetting about dessert. Almost.

Thiessen digs her spoon into the cobbler, making sure to get a bit of ice cream, a hunk of peach and some of the crunchy topping.

“I love you,” she says, directing her affection at the skillet of cobbler.

As we box up our leftovers, Thiessen walks me through the possibilities for next-day meals from each dish.

“You could probably make tacos or enchiladas if there’s enough of the fried chicken left,” she says. “The mashed potatoes could be for an individual shepherd’s pie. The collard greens could go in a sausage and greens stew. Or you could put the chicken in my Buffalo chicken bean dip. Poutine for the fries. I could keep going, girl.”

Turns out, Thiessen has a passion for repurposing leftovers. It’s why she wrote her new cookbook, “Here We Go Again: Recipes and Inspiration to Level Up Your Leftovers.” In it, you’ll find the Buffalo chicken bean dip recipe, a breakfast sandwich you fashion out of leftover pizza and a clever way to turn the last dredges of your bag of cereal into cereal milk ice pops (a favorite for her two children).

“We didn’t have a ton of money growing up, my mom was always stretching food throughout the week,” she says. “As a little girl I always used to see all the women in my family cooking. This book is a little love letter to my childhood.”

  • 3:48 p.m. Sophy’s: Cambodia Town Food

Thiessen is having a difficult time narrowing down the order at our next stop, a Cambodian restaurant called Sophy’s: Cambodia Town Food. Sophy Khut, who opened the restaurant in 2000, has a vast menu of curries, salads, noodle soups and stir fries.

“I’ve been told by so many Long Beach friends to come here,” Thiessen says. “It’s been on my list for a while.”

Khut stops by the table to offer some guidance, steering us in the direction of her signature beef jerky, beef sate, amok fish curry and prahok ktis, a dip made from fermented fish, pork and coconut milk. Thiessen adds an order of tom kha, her favorite soup.

Nearly 10 minutes after we place our order, Thiessen is still looking longingly at the menu, contemplating adding the fried bananas and lok lak (pepper beef on tomatoes and cucumber).

Though she’s always loved to cook, she says she didn’t become a “foodie” until she started traveling.

“When I was doing that lovely Saturday morning show I can’t talk about [this interview took place during the ongoing SAG strike], and traveling overseas, that’s when my whole world opened up,” she says. “I was like whoa, food is so different and tells a story and evokes emotion and all those wonderful things.”

Khut delivers the plate of jerky, presented as large sticks of beef stacked like logs in a campfire. They’re the size of beef ribs, and remind us both of something the Flintstones might enjoy.

We peel pieces of the dried meat like string cheese, pulling away long tiles and dipping them in a sauce made with rice vinegar, shallot and sharp black peppercorns from Cambodia.

The beef is fantastically meaty, dried but not devoid of moisture. It’s salty and garlicky, eating more like a well-seasoned steak.

“I’m a pretty good connoisseur of beef jerky,” Thiessen says. “If I had this beef jerky on our road trips as a kid, I would have never argued with my brothers. I’d be the perfect daughter.”

The tom kha soup, served in a large silver bowl over a small flame, . is rich with coconut milk and bright with lemongrass, lime and galangal.

“I could eat this soup every day,” she says as she sips the deep orange broth. “This is one of the best ones I’ve ever had.”

She uses a piece of raw cucumber to scoop up some of the prahok ktis, a muddy paste in a rust red oil. Her eyes widen when she takes a bite.

“Mmmmmmm,” she says. “Funky! I like it!”

The funk of the pickled fish is wonderfully shocking, its pungency combined with the chiles, lemongrass and lime leaf, making it sharp, vibrant and addictive. We put generous spoonfuls onto our white rice. We dip the raw vegetables cut up like fancy crudités. We spoon the paste directly into our mouths.

The amok is the last dish to arrive, tucked into cups made from wrapped banana leaves. It tastes like a steamed fish curry custard, with soft pieces of fish steeped in a mild coconut cream sauce.

As we eat, Thiessen explains her move from scripted television into the cooking world. While filming a TV show in New York, she requested a meeting at the Food Network. After watching cooking shows for years, she wondered if the network would be interested in a show from a home cook.

Each episode of “Dinner at Tiffani’s” centered on a dinner party with Thiessen’s friends and co-stars as dinner guests.

“I don’t pose myself as anybody who went to culinary school because that’s not who I am,” she says. “I enjoy being in the kitchen and cooking for friends and family. All of my recipes are meant to be very relatable.”

We pack up our leftovers, making sure to get every last drop of the prahok ktis into the container.

“I would make a pretty stellar fried rice out of this and add in all the vegetables,” she says. “The jerky I’d just put in a Ziploc and throw it in my car. It might not last the drive home.”

  • 4:51 p.m. Pancho’s Mexican Restaurant

Pancho’s isn’t on our schedule for the day but Thiessen insists we stop by for a plate of enchiladas.

“It’s been 25 years since I’ve been here,” she says, looking up at the restaurant’s tall brown sign. “This is the place I used to come when we did go out to eat because it was a special night that didn’t happen often but Poncho’s was that place we all wanted to go.”

Her go-to order is the cheese enchiladas with onions. The cylinders of tortillas and cheese come drenched in a red sauce, with melted cheese blanketing the surface.

“With the onions inside, that cheese, that sauce, it tastes exactly the same as I remember,” she says. “I feel like I’m 10 all over again.”

  • 5:44 p.m. Heritage

We sit down at the chef’s counter, the only open seats in the bustling restaurant. Heritage, run by sister and brother Lauren Pretty and chef Philip Pretty, serves a seven-course tasting menu. It is the first and only restaurant in Long Beach to be awarded a Michelin star and it’s been on Thiessen’s bucket list for months now.

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“My parents and my aunt and uncle are still here in Long Beach, so when you see a success story within your community, it feels pretty cool” she says. “I love what the restaurant has done for themselves and for the community of Long Beach.”

Our first course is a beautiful presentation of farm-raised beets, tangy housemade yogurt, cucumber, yuzu granita and burnt strawberries.

“Stunning,” Thiessen says. “There is so much complexity without being complex. Does that even make sense? It’s not fussy. It’s very harmonious.”

Her delight increases with each course, moaning with her first bites of grilled diver scallop and again, and maybe even louder for the black cod. The word “stunning” is uttered repeatedly. The Iberico pork shoulder with polenta elicits more than a few gasps and by the time the toasted Sunchoke ice cream arrives, served over a sunflower seed praline, bits of caramelized banana and sunflower petals as edible garnish, she’s already making plans to return with her husband.

By this point in the evening, I’ve made transforming our leftovers into a sort of game for Thiessen. She can repurpose the leftover pork on a simple cold salad. The cod she might put on toast for a “little Nicoise on toast kind of thing.”

There’s a section of her cookbook called “bottom of the bag, box and bottle,” that I find especially useful, with ideas for chip crumbs, coffee grounds and any remnants in your pantry.

“I wanted to think outside the box a little bit,” she says. “Instead of throwing away that little bit of something you can make something really damn good.”

Thiessen has another food show in the works, but even with the writers contract settled, the ongoing actors strike has non-scripted show production slowed as well.

“It’s not a cooking show per se, but I’d love to have another cooking show,” she says. “It’s one of my favorite things.”

We finish our last dessert of the evening, squares of a decadent chocolate cake with passion fruit and feuilletine.

“You’re going to need to roll me out of here,” she says. “And once I get to my car, I’m going to have to unbutton every single button.”

She laughs hysterically as she walks off to find her car.