When Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin was small, she roamed her parents’ restaurant on Fredericksburg Road in San Antonio, Texas, cadging French fries from the diners. Her mom, Nancy Collet, was born in Taiwan and immigrated to the city on the arm of an American serviceman she later divorced. Collet cooked in the kitchen of Golden Wok, one of San Antonio’s oldest Chinese restaurants, before taking a job as a cocktail waitress and marrying a restaurant manager, Jim Dobbertin, Jennifer’s dad. In the 1980s, the couple opened an American-style diner, the Conglomeration. The menu ran to burgers, fried catfish, hush puppies. Collet offered blackened redfish for $9.50, fried okra for $1.50. “It was a disaster,” Dobbertin told me recently. “She could have been making Chinese food.”
She did at home, Dobbertin said: Taiwanese beef noodle soup; pork loin marinated in Shaoxing wine or bourbon, then sliced into matchsticks and stir-fried with smoked tofu and pickled radish. Cooking was in Collet’s blood. Her parents, staff to a family close to Chiang Kai-shek, fled mainland China in 1949 and eventually opened a breakfast restaurant in Taiwan. Collet’s brother would come to operate a stall there selling dumplings and soup. Her mom took Dobbertin to visit him every summer of her childhood. “We’d be in this restaurant in San Antonio for 10 hours a day every day,” Dobbertin said, “and then we’d be in this restaurant in Taiwan for 10 hours a day every day. I hated it.”
Still, it stuck. Dobbertin went to college, moved to Thailand, planned on a career in nonprofits. But by 2011 she was back in San Antonio and, soon enough, deep in the restaurant game, where she met, worked with, married, divorced and continues to work with her business partner, the chef Quealy Watson, with whom she has started several ventures, including Tenko Ramen and Hot Joy, where the food was as much South Texan as Asian.
In November 2020, amid the pandemic, the partners opened Best Quality Daughter, an 88-seat space in the former Pearl brewery that Dobbertin calls her pipe-dream Chinese-American restaurant. “I grew up in an American diner, eating Chinese food at home and spending my summers in Taiwan,” she said. “I wanted Best Quality Daughter to honor that, my Chinese heritage, my Chinese mom, the authenticity of what I’ve lived.”
Central to that desire is a family-style dish on the menu, with Bibb-lettuce wraps, pickles and condiments: red-cooked beef short ribs coated in a fiery glaze. “It reminds me of the food I grew up with,” Dobbertin told me, “food my mom made but didn’t sell.”
‘I wanted Best Quality Daughter to honor that, my Chinese heritage, my Chinese mom.’
Reminds, but does not replicate. Traditional red-cooked dishes — they take their name from the mahogany color the sauce imparts to the meat — are simple braises of rice wine, light and dark soy sauces, with some sugar and aromatics. Best Quality Daughter’s multiple sweeteners — molasses and brown sugar to go with the dark soy sauce — add an almost smoky complexity to the braise, which is extravagantly spiced. Dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorns bring tingle, and star anise and cinnamon provide warmth. There’s a whisper of orange, a bite of ginger. Tomato paste and doubanjiang, a fermented chile bean paste, confer depth.
Traditional red-cooked dishes also don’t get the treatment Watson gives them. He uses some of the braising liquid from the beef as the base for a vibrant finishing glaze enlivened by a bite of onion, thick and glossy as demi-glace. I took a shortcut with the recipe a few times to see if omitting this step makes a difference. It does. The extra effort is worth it. Just fold the cooked ribs into aluminum foil, and wrap some dish towels around them while you’re making the sauce. (Or make the ribs a day early, save the excess braising liquid and use it to reheat the meat when you’re ready to serve. That works beautifully.)
As for the lettuce, which calls to mind Korean ssams, the meat wrapped in leafy vegetables and dipped into sauce? Dobbertin thinks this is simply the best way to eat the dish. She is in no way concerned with serving something authentic, she said, but something delicious. “It’s authentic to America,” she said. “It’s authentic to me.”
Recipe: Red-Cooked Beef Short Ribs