Let me admit something about writing about food: I find it extremely difficult to separate the things made for us from the folks who make them. When I meet a maker, like a chef, it is hard for me to sit there, looking at something I didn’t make, and judge its merit.
That being said, it’s important to note that though this is a personal list, it comes with a methodology.
I love to be academic on many things—urban use, transit issues—but food writing is much more than, “Here is good food. This food is bad. That food is whatever.” Food presents a fascinating conundrum: At its core, it is needed for basic survival, and yet, we continually strive to create family, memories and experiences with it, attach ethics and conscience to it, abuse, politicize, villainize and deify it.
For Long Beach, 2019 marked a distinct turn in what local chefs are making, with an influx of new cuisines, methods and personalities. In fact, there is no other year that the city’s food landscape saw such wonderful additions; 10 of the restaurants on the list opened within the past 18 months, a testament to the fact that those investing in Long Beach care about quality.
Given this, my list might seem odd to some, wrong to many, annoying to those over there, even overrated to some over here—and that is entirely OK. And yes, many of these places are places I’ve discussed before so I could very well sound like a broken record. Those sentiments are a given.
But the main thrust of this piece is to show that Long Beach actually has great cuisine; not good, not decent—great.
Let the countdown begin…
25. Nick’s on 2nd
4901 E. Second Street, Belmont Shore; 562-856-9000
There is something deeply respectable about consistency, and Nick’s is one of the city’s most consistently solid spaces.
I understand criticisms that Nick’s doesn’t challenge much in terms of its food. With a menu that has largely remained unchanged since its opening seven years ago, it is as straight-forward as an American restaurant can be: Excellently made steaks, sides like fried deviled eggs that rarely fail and a butter cake dessert which is one of the best in the city. And yes, it could, with a bit more finesse, a bit more focus, as well as a shift in its layout, achieve something like the elegance of Arthur J.
For the folks living in and around Belmont Shore, the consistency isn’t just necessarily in food but in the space’s stability. With a slew of restaurants and businesses shuttering along Second Street—including one of the city’s oldest watering holes, Acapulco Inn and one of the Shore’s longest-running restaurants, Papalucci’s—it is no wonder that Nick’s remains not only popular and respected, but cherished.
24. “Pastor Plaza” on Anaheim
Anaheim Street between Daisy and Magnolia, Washington/Willmore
If you ever have the chance to visit Jalisco, you’ll find the pockets of every plaza from Guadalajara to Jalos filled with a giant slab of pork, layered with pineapple and spices, spinning on an upright stick called a trompo, massive sources of heat surrounding it while a talented, well-seasoned knifesman slices away as slivers of succulent meat fall into a tortilla.
This is al pastor and it’s a wonder of a meat to add to a taco.
At first, I was going to include just Panchos, the food truck parked on the northeast corner of Magnolia Avenue and Anaheim Street, as it serves up the epitome of this dish every evening (until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, no less).
Leave it to fellow writer and my dear friend Sarah Bennett to bluntly tell me, “Wow, so pitting it against Tacos Leon. Have fun with that.”
Well, Tacos Leon is delicious and, if one were to battle it out, I will let the reader decide who is the king of this mini Pastor Plaza. For me, it remains Panchos: A tray of pickled onion, whose mild tartness is sliced with heat from habañero and Serrano chiles, is the perfect accouterment for any lover of heat while their salsas, particularly their arbol-centric red sauce, is another fiery add-on that I personally find irresistible.
Either way, your mouth gets to delight in the wonders of al pastor. Now, all we need is for a third truck to really make it a plaza worth arguing about.
23. Pier 76 Fish Grill
95 Pine Ave., Downtown; 562-983-1776
The best part about Chef Chris Krajacic’s style is the cleanliness in his approach to food. Eschewing complicated preparation, his plates are simultaneously simple and complex and this shines best in plates like his array of fresh fish and moule frites.
Pier’s tin bucket of moule frites filled with a hefty heap of freshly steamed California black mussels atop a pile of fries is Krajacic’s take on the seafood classic. I first experienced it at Walt’s Wharf in Seal Beach, which just happened to be under the direction of Krajacic when I had it.
We’re talking beautiful execution here with a white wine broth—beautifully balanced to the point where one could easily use it as a soup—in which the fries happily bathe, mixed with onions, roasted poblano peppers and chunks of bacon.
The grill menu, offering everything from Idaho trout to live Maine lobster when available, pairs each water creature its own special sauce. And though the perfectly bitter arugula almond pesto for the shrimp, and the bleu cheese bacon sauce for the mahi mahi are delicious, one can easily overuse them and ultimately take the limelight away from the star that is the protein. Fillet or prawn, the simplicity with which Krajacic approaches his seafood is good enough to do without accouterments.
This isn’t to say they don’t play with decadence, their langostino and lobster roll is the definition of it. Buttery bits of lobster and langostino are tucked into an equally buttery French roll and topped with bits of vine tomato and cilantro, a chipotle bleu cheese sauce, and candied bacon. Oh, and let’s not forget the most important ingredient they list on their menu: “Pure love.”
22. Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
2580 Long Beach Blvd., Wrigley; 562-276-1819
There were two places to go to for solid fried chicken in the region before 2019: Howlin’ Rays in Chinatown and Gus’s Fried Chicken in Arlington Heights, both in L.A.
That is, until Gus’—a chain that started in a Mason, Tennessee roadhouse—opened a location in Long Beach.
This tiny but mighty altar dedicated to the cluck worships the style that is Memphis hot chicken. It’s not the same as the hot chicken made famous by Prince’s in Nashville, but it’s deserving of its own trophy.
Gus’s has the type of chicken that looks overcooked in Instagram photos because of its bleeding red color. There’s a pepper-and-cayenne-y heat that doesn’t immediately hit your tongue but, when it does, you feel it. That never deters you from continuing to plow through, of course, perhaps dipping pieces in your greens or beans to cool it a bit, or grabbing a spear of a fried pickle that gives Beachwood a run for its money.
21. The Ordinarie
210 The Promenade N., Downtown; 562-676-4261
Taking over the old Blue Cafe, The Ordinarie is the brainchild of Auld Dubliner’s longtime bar master, Christy Caldwell and is his ode to American hospitality.
The “ordinarie,” or what later became known as the tavern, was written into the laws of the early American colonies: “Every community is required by law to build an Ordinarie for the receiving, refreshment and entertainment of travelers and strangers.”
In this sense, ordinaries were an integral part of early American culture, a space where people were encouraged to eat, drink and discuss the times and needs of the community.
With that, Caldwell and his crew have created a homey, comfort-driven menu that includes lobster pot pie as well as pot pie bites on the appetizer side and wonderfully warming dishes like roasted half-chicken, sitting atop a pile of sweet potato succotash that pairs perfectly with practically any drink from their well-curated cocktail menu.
20. Cheko el Rey del Sarandeado
343 E. Market St., North Long Beach; 562-422-4888
This tiny, off-the-grid seafood joint is dedicated to the sarandeado-style preparation of fish, where it’s cooked over the high heat of simmering coals.
What makes Cheko so special is that the SoCal chef responsible for it is Chef Sergio Peñuelas, who developed a cult-like following at his former place, Coni’Seafood.
Now, his work is right here in Long Beach inside the most unassuming of places creating Long Beach’s best fish taco: Cheko’s marlin taco. It’s smoky, salty, downright spectacular and even minimalist with just smoked marlin that is then heated over hot coals, cheese and a single avocado slice smudged inside a wonderfully hand-crafted tortilla.
And do not forget to get down on Peñuelas’ tostaditas locas, the ultimate appetizer that heaps shrimp and octopus ceviche on top of marlin “pâté” raw and small fried tortilla rounds.
19. The 4th Horseman
121 W. Fourth St., Downtown; 562-513-3394
There is this thing about The 4th Horseman in Downtown Long Beach, which is both beautifully jarring and makes it feel like it has been in Long Beach forever—and it’s only been open for a year.
The artistic gems that comes with its decor aren’t just a visual feast for horror-core fans. The tables, adorned with cut-outs of old horror and sci-fi comics like “Eerie” and “Famous Monsters,” are pieces of art themselves that allow anyone to appreciate the collages of hand-drawn wonders. Vintage NYC Monsters Convention posters and creepy analog televisions showing nothing but static are paired with paintings of Poe’s raven clinging to a piece of pizza, while constant streams of horror flicks play on a small projection screen near the bar. The bathroom is room to behold all its own; I leave the experience up to the reader to discover.
But the true stars of the Horseman are its hyper-minimal menu that creates a hyper-focus on pizzas. These pies are not perfectly Neapolitan-style nor perfectly New York-style. Rather, they’re odes to the Californian culture of fusion; a chewy, not-too-thick-not-too-thin, sourdough-y crust that comes with an abundance of options.
18. The Navarro Hospitality Group
Lola’s Mexican Cuisine (2030 E. Fourth St., Fourth Street Corridor; 562-343-5506 and 4140 Atlantic Ave., Bixby Knolls; 562-349-0100); The Social List (2015 E. Fourth St., Fourth Street Corridor; 562-433-5478); and Portuguese Bend (300 The Promenade N., Downtown; 562-435-4411)
Luis Navarro and Brenda Rivera deal with the punches.
They have dealt with a healthy share of haters calling Lola’s overrated. They have had to deal with partners not fully grasping concepts, having to take the reins when those partners walk away and hone in on The Social List. They had to figure out the curves, dips and obstacles of creating the state’s first distillery/restaurant concept (thanks to the passage of a new type of license issued by the state), with delays and issues pushing the project back a full year before offering Long Beach its only grain-to-glass concept. (For those arguing that there is also Willie’s Tin Shop, there is a big difference between the two: Willie’s buys pre-made vodka and cuts it with water while Portuguese Bend actually creates its own vodka while also offering a space to taste the spirits directly.)
But they are successful. And, in a time when restaurants in Long Beach are closing with regularity, this pair and their various supporters have created a group of restaurants that are standing the test of time, all built upon the legacy of Luis’s mother, Maria Delores Navarro.
Referred to by friends and family simply as “Lola,” she came to Long Beach from Guadalajara in 1972 with nothing but fifty bucks and the dream of opening a restaurant, a dream which became tangible with the opening of Lola’s Mexican Cuisine on Retro Row.
It was then that I first met Lola, a few weeks after they had opened. My curiosity was not just piqued by a sit-down Mexican joint hitting the heart of my own ‘hood, but a sign out front that made my heart burst with gastronomical joy: she was serving birria, one of my favorite Mexican dishes where goat is marinated for hours in a spice-heavy broth that is nothing short of heavenly. I was slightly skeptical, however, upon learning she turned the dish into something I initially felt made the dish either too uppity or awesomely uppity: rather than the traditional goat, she used pork and veal.
And it was here—after telling me that she would never serve birria de chivo to anyone, be it in her house or restaurant—that I truly understood, like every other cuisine in the world, “authenticity” thrives not on rules but a knowledge of history, a talent at tweaking the traditions of those histories and so much love that it requires you to share it.
Since Lola has sadly passed, Luis and his underrated, under-appreciated, under-acknowledged wife Brenda have taken a loss and turned it into something that is not only delicious but an experience that doesn’t require rice and beans.
17. Jongewaard’s Bake n Broil
3697 Atlantic Ave., Bixby Knolls; 562-595-0396
In the words of Russ Parsons, in a perfect world, every neighborhood would have a Bake-n-Broil.
Birthed in 1965 by Roger and Carol Jongewaard, it is the epitome of a classic American coffeeshop and diner—the one cringe-inducing joints like Chuck’s wish they could remotely be like and the kind that spawned one-too-many offshoots.
Carol is the essence of Bake-n-Broil. A masterful baker, she could churn out an orange-glazed muffin that would simultaneously fill you with warmth while wondering just how one managed to get a muffin that moist, that flavorful and that decadent. And the two bakers who have been roughly running the joint for the past three decades are direct descendants of training by Carol.
Her peanut butter cookie—one of the best ever—is slathered with fresh peanut butter on top. Her carrot cake is perfection, its cream cheese frosting not too sweet with just enough tart. Her banana cream pie is one that Los Angeles Magazine has called the best in the region.
Oh, and the Holiday Lush pie?
Sitting on the base of a chopped pecan crust, cuddling up to a filling of whipped cream with cream cheese whipped in—in the words of our publisher, “That’s cream in cream”—the sweetness is sliced with sour Granny Smith apples and tart cranberries. Add a final layer of streusel topping and more whipped cream and, well, you have a holiday masterpiece.
Of course, it goes beyond the baking as well: the “broil” part of Bake-n-Broil is just as solid.
It’s comfort food, unquestionably so. But it’s comfort food that you wish was always within arm’s reach.
16. Michael’s Restaurant Group
Michael’s on Naples (5620 E. Second St., Naples; 562-439-7080); Michael’s Downtown (210 E. Third St., Downtown; 562-491-2100); and Chianina Steakhouse (5716 E. Second St., Naples; 562-434-2333)
If there has been a group of restaurants which has managed to reinvent itself repeatedly, it’s Michael’s.
The group’s knack for providing classic and consistently high-quality Italian food has garnered accolade after accolade, something that wasn’t quite the tale when Michael Dene first opened Michael’s on Naples in 2007. Unsure of how to accommodate people’s stereotyped sense of Italian food—patrons would consistently ask where the chicken alfredo was—Dene knew he had to aim high or call it in.
He went high.
Michael’s on Naples, the original restaurant of the group’s trio, was the restaurant that became attached to the now-famous year that Zagat called it the best Italian restaurant and the second-best restaurant period in Southern California. Michael’s Pizzeria, the group’s second venture directly next door, was named one of the best pizzerias in the nation by Zagat. And Chianina? It’s the sole place in the nation you can score a piece of Italy’s prized Chianina beef, thanks to a persistent and determined Dene courting the only farm in the nation to raise the cattle.
But things change and with son Carl taking over the group’s day-to-day operations, the group is entering what could be called its third iteration.
Perhaps what has proven most smile-inducing is the introduction of Giuseppe Musso, loving called Chef Giuseppe by patrons and management alike, a fiery, quick-talking, interactive executive chef who has returned Michael’s Downtown away from the heady plates that marked its ascent, toward the simpler highlights of Italian cooking: cacio e pepe, pappardelle littered with large, shaved pieces of black truffle, bowls of tagliatelle…
It’s just great, solid, classic Italian fare that ranges from accessible to the outright exclusive.
15. Taste wine-beer-kitchen
3506 E. Broadway, Belmont Heights; 562-433-1000
Creating good food and creating new food are two different talents that don’t necessarily coincide with one another all the time. Taste somehow makes that happen on a continual basis in a space that, though it can only handle a handful of pairs and groups, reminds me of the tiny spaces throughout Mexico and Europe that make you never want to leave. You just keep ordering and ordering and ordering…
The brainchild of Olive Grocer founders, owners and loving couple Erin O’Hagan and Laurie Semon, this joint has for nearly five years introduced its patrons to new discoveries without offending them by the removal of favorites. (Though my stomach still misses their outright awesome Vietnamese meatballs.)
The sheer array of its offerings harken to what California does best: Fuse food with the weary who have traveled far to make our state their home, in turn, introducing new flavors and cuisines to incorporate in this odd cuisine call “Californian.” From tempura cauliflower and Thai-spiced calamari to carrot hummus and grilled watermelon caprese, Taste is a fusion of foods that creates plates which are mostly shareable and almost always delightful.
14. Robert Earl’s BBQ
703 E. Artesia Blvd., North Long Beach; 562-726-1116
Real barbecue—whether you’re talkin’ Texan or that of Carolina—is extremely difficult to find on the West Coast. The best Texan barbecue west of Texas is right here in Long Beach.
Beyond Robert’s smiling mug and humble demeanor and beyond the straight-forward paper tray with red-and-white checkered paper that everything is served on, it is the meat and the talent of the man cooking the meat that makes Robert Earl’s BBQ the best of the best.
Even those who opt for the chicken will rejoice at Robert’s ability to make it succulent, moist and with a skin so perfectly charred and crispy that it’s actually worth ordering again. Should one be resistant to clogged arteries, their links—bites that look over-cooked yet pop with a moist spiciness—are one of many pork options and that is a testament to the fact that their beef and pork is where it’s at.
The ribs are simply and generously seasoned with salt and pepper, charred to perfection and slathered with Earl’s not-too-sweet sauce that makes it extremely difficult to not overeat.
If there’s one thing at Earl’s that will certainly make you gluttonous, it’s the brisket. It’s the stuff of legend: Beef so tender that it falls apart without much effort while causing one to slowly close their eyes in meat-fuel bliss.
13. Wide Eyes Open Palms
416 Cherry Ave., Fourth Street Corridor; 562-386-2031
There’s something distinctly special about Wide Eyes Open Palms, the cafe that has become a Retro Row staple thanks to couple team Kat McIver and Angie Evans. After all, there’s a reason they have maintained an unheard-of five-star rating on Yelp!’s review system.
While I’ve long touted Long Beach’s coffee scene—remember Makai and The Green House?—and especially its roasting scene, I have rarely mentioned that WeOp has always been a part of that. Starting out in a Downtown farmers market that sat in a parking lot that is now home to an apartment complex, the pair were one offering Four Barrel beans in their cold brew and divine sweets like plum almond bread pudding. Through that work, they built their cafe, one that has become one of the city’s most queer-friendly caffeinated spaces—which is why, beyond the delectable liquid offerings they serve, their food is something that should be heralded.
It goes beyond Kat’s incredible pastry creations: olive oil cakes and scones and cookies that taste as wonderful as they were carefully prepped…
It goes beyond Angie’s masterful drink skills: silky cappuccinos, gorgeously spiced chai, a perfectly pulled shot of espresso…
There are layers to their food that harken to some of the best in the region, reminding me of moments I’ve had at Republique and Sqirl in Los Angeles: Chewy, thick slices of Gusto bread layered with a bright, housemade green hummus and topped with pickled carrots and radishes, citrus-soaked bits of kale, purple cabbage, avocado, and a healthy sprinkling of black sesame seeds. A cream-egg cooked so perfectly that you wonder why we ever tried to one-up the French on eggs. A cheddar biscuit sandwich, lathered on its sides with herbed chèvre and stuffed with silk, deep yellow scrambled eggs that, once again, make you wonder why we ever tried to one-up the French on eggs.
And this is all for a spot that isn’t open for dinner. It’s genuinely wondrous.
12. Chinitos Tacos
11130 Del Amo Blvd., Lakewood; 562-403-0343
Hidden in an unassuming strip mall sits a taco joint whose “owner y chef” is a disciple of Chef Thomas Ortega, the man behind Playa Amor, one of the city’s best restaurants, and Amorcito, home to some of the city’s best tacos.
Meet Cambodian-American Chef Beeline Krouch and welcome to his world of Chinitos Tacos.
(“Chinitos” is Krouch’s nickname in the kitchen and it translates to “Little China Man.” Some will tell you that given the addition of “ito,” is a term of affection, others find it blatantly offensive. Krouch makes his feelings perfectly clear on the subject when he proudly informs you, “That’s me. I’m Chinitos!”)
The influence of Ortega on Krouch’s cuisine is clear: the bright magentas of pickled red onion, in-house crafted tortillas, the melding of heritages. But Krouch holds his own with wonderful nuances, a dash of togarashi on top of an egg here, Thai tea with a splash of horchata there and, like any good Cambodian kid in Long Beach, a straight-up fried chicken special on Thursdays.
The span of Krouch’s reach is astounding. He, at one point, honors the famed fantasma taco from Tijuana’s Taconazo by creating a burnt cheese taco shell that is as decadent as it is blissful while, at another point, honors his own heritage by melding flavors like lemongrass, ponzu and a house-made Chinese five spice into Mexican styles of protein, from barbacoa to carnitas.
11. Casa Chaskis
2380 Santa Fe Ave., West Long Beach; 562-612-3305
There are a few things to say when there is a battle for the best Peruvian food in Long Beach.
Firstly, there is the tower of El Pollo Imperial—also on this list—having long held the title of not just having Long Beach’s best Peruvian food but some of the region’s best Peruvian dishes.
Secondly, the fact that the competition comes from a kid who used to sell his plates on Instagram is wonderfully smirk-inducing.
Chef Agustin Romo began delivering plates of tallarines verdes—strands of pasta lathered in creamy pesto that, if paired with chicken, creates remarkable chicken pesto—and empanadas—buttery pockets of pastry stuffed with a tangy ground beef mixture—to those who’d place orders on his social media account. Saving penny by penny, Romo opened his brick-and-mortar on the Westside and now serves up some of the best Peruvian food in the city.
A stellar example of his craft is his lomo saltado, the dish which epitomizes Peruvian cuisine: French fries and tomatoes tossed with tender slivers of beef and red onion, sitting atop an addictive au jus of sorts made with vinegar, soy and love.
4150 McGowen St., East Long Beach; 562-420-5005
With Amorcito, Chef Thomas Ortega’s head-first dive into a taco-centric joint with his Amor familia restaurant group, his love of the almighty, hand-held Mexican dish is intensified, honed and played with. And to talk about his taqueria, we need to have a chat about “pocho cuisine,” as Ortega calls it.
Within the Amor family, “Pocho cuisine” began at Amor y Tacos in Cerritos and serves as the starting point in understanding what Ortega is trying to achieve. Pocho, a derogatory term given to Chicanx by Mexican natives for fleeing the motherland, is very much the semantic flip side of something more respectable in Ortega’s world. It is Ortega wittily noting that he is not here to fight for a Michelin star but, rather, create solid Mexican cuisine that is as much about comfort as it is complexity. Think tangy, complex chilaquiles made with, well, Doritos.
Then he took Pocho Cuisine to his next concept, his first Long Beach restaurant, Playa Amor (look up on this list). Again, it was with wit: Think tots, just tots covered with a chocolatey, peppery, smokey mole crafted with the love of a Oaxacan abuelita.
And when it comes to Amorcito, he not only returns to harnessing his Pocho powers but also gives Long Beach the taco shop it deserves.
Though, not a taco shop, Playa Amor’s tacos offered Long Beach its first glimpse of taco heaven with an equal blend of the talent of its Tortilla Lady, Maria Barraza from Sinaloa, as well as his cooking skills and kitchen. (His business partner at the Amor familia is his childhood best friend Todd Tsujioka, while managing partner and sidekick in the kitchen is Jon-Erik Carpo, a man who worked under none other than culinary icons Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon.)
With Amorcito, Ortega’s focus on one of the greatest hand-held foods is intensified, honed and available to enjoy by the mouthful.
9. El Pollo Imperial
5991 Atlantic Ave., North Long Beach; 562-612-3315
Unwitting Angelenos and OCers might claim El Pollo Inka or Picca or Aji Limon as the best Peruvian joint. But in reality, it has always been El Pollo Imperial in North Long Beach.
Surely, if you’ve never had Peruvian before, this is the way to start: the space, a former KFC drive-thru (that they still keep active and even mock ever so slightly with their Inka-ed our chicken logo) filled with classic, unapologetic Peruvian grub lacking in pretense—not in any way lacking quality and flavor but in the sense that it offers the best of Peruvian at its least Westernized.
It is here where one can easily be introduced to staples like lomo saltado (the OG carne asada fries) and Peruvian ceviche (one of the best you’ll ever have with its blend of lime juice, onion, salt and ají paired with sides of choclo and cancha, boiled corn and dry-roasted corn kernels).
But if you’ve had Peruvian food, it is here where you can also explore beyond the saltado. Take, for example, the dish pictured: seco de cordero. This braised lamb shank—for $14, no less—is slow-cooked to perfection in a cilantro sauce that is inimitable, over wonderfully light beans.
8. La Parolaccia Osteria Italiana
2945 E. Broadway, Alamitos Beach; 562-438-1235
Italian food was America’s first Mexican food. By that, I mean that it was largely described as basic and inexpensive. While I am honored and happy to see my heritage’s cuisine reaching the upper echelons of fine dining, I am discovering more and more that high-quality, simple Italian food, the kind that made “The Silver Spoon” so important, is no easy feat to find. Much like a good mole on the Mexican end.
La Parolaccia, one of Long Beach’s longest-running Italian joints, does just that with a never-ending supply of sophistication and simplicity. Long before Michael’s, La Parolaccia was slingin’ out pizza Napoletana and handmade orecchiette on the regular.
I am talkin’ some of the best arancini (deep-fried risotto balls) this side of the Mediterranean. I am talkin’ vitello piccoso that makes you understand just how impactful a plate of veal scallopini really is in the food world. I am talkin’ ravioli di astice e gamberetti, the beautiful pasta plate that has lobster meat, shrimp and ricotta-filled, handmade ravioli in a limoncello liquor cream sauce with cherry tomatoes and shallots, finished with lemon zest.
It represents accessible and quality Italian food in an atmosphere that somehow lacks pretense and yet encourages you to aspire to speak Italian as properly as your servers.
7. Phnom Penh Noodle Shack
1644 Cherry Ave., Cambodia Town; 562-433-0032
Cambodian food in Long Beach is more than a cuisine, it is the essence of a community that was nearly annihilated from history. Those that escaped the genocide made their home here in Long Beach after being taken to Camp Pendleton by rescuers from the U.S. military. For that reason alone, Long Beach is home to the most authentic Cambodian cuisine.
This family-owned shop opened in 1985 and has since been serving the best forms of Cambodian food in the region.
Their House Special, typically served dry but which also comes as a soup, is nothing short of wondrous: ground pork and sliced pork, paired with slivers of pork stomach and liver and shrimp, placed atop noodles and served with as little or many accoutrements as you would like.
It’s more than a cup of noodles; it’s a beautiful display of culinary art and cultural resilience.
2708 E. Fourth St., Fourth Street Corridor; 562-439-8822
After a fire that all but burned down the entire building, Restauration, the Fourth Street bistro and patio owned by Dana Tanner and chef Philip Pretty, faced an uphill battle. Lagging insurance compensation, an expensive re-build and attempting to maintain optimism with each passing month, it took nearly a year before the space—Long Beach’s first introduction to a contemporary California bistro—reopened its door.
And Pretty has come out swinging with a fall-meets-brunch-all-day menu that is fun, playful and wonderfully delectable.
What this means are many plates worthy of attention—a gorgeous duck leg confit, a beautifully braised-then-fried octopus, a perfectly charred pork belly. Still, one of the menu’s most distinct offerings is also one of Pretty’s best: sweetbreads.
This plate of Nashville hot sweetbreads, gorgeously displayed on a swirling of crème fraîche and buttermilk, red Belgian endive, slivers of pickled onion and plucks of fresh dill, is delicious and addicting.
5. Panxa Cocina
3937 E. Broadway, Belmont Heights; 562-433-7999
I admit it. At first, I didn’t get Chef Arthur Gonzalez’s Panxa.
This wasn’t because the food wasn’t good, it was. No, it was because I was naive if not outright ignorant of New Mexican cuisine. I was placing one too many weights on the “Mexican” part, not realizing the depth with which the state was enveloped in Native American, American and Mexican traditions, and that makes it not just complex but immensely complex. And in this sense of wanting to desperately pin it to something, I missed the point.
Even more, the way in which Gonzalez blends his own heritages—he is half German, half Oaxacan—into his New Mexican experiences of cooking under Chef Eric DiStefano’s touted restaurant Geronimo, is nothing short of great if you take the time to understand what it is he is doing.
There are words there you’ll likely have a conception of—enchiladas, ceviche, albondingas—but they come from Gonzalez in a way that is distinctly New Mexican and distinctly not the Mexican so many Southern Californians are used to.
His enchiladas come with an abundance of options, but if you really want to delve into style, get short ribs as your filling and get it “Christmas” style, where a red sauce and a Hatch green chile sauce are sliced with a bright, perfectly cooked sunnyside up egg.
His ceviche is adorned with pepitas and pico de gallo, tart with cubes of pickled onion that makes a wonderful ode to the seafood dish.
And his albondingas con spaetzle, a dish that is as intimate as it is warming, is Gonzalez’s ode to his heritages: beautifully chunky pork meatballs, like those made by his abuelita, meet the creamy pasta dish of his German relatives.
His dishes reflect a chef who is smart, comfortable (not in the bad sense), and confident in his cooking.
4. HiroNori Craft Ramen
610 E. Carson St., Bixby Knolls; 562-676-4234
The experience of HiroNori’s ramen is like the first time I stepped into Little Tokyo’s Daikokuya: a steaming bowl of Hakata-style ramen was presented to me in a space that is tiny, packed, and loud.
Chef Hiromichi Igarashi’s hefty bowl of creamy tonkotsu Kurobuta pork broth is paired with a hefty serving of house-made noodles. I prefer their thicker noodles that give more of a bite than their thin noodles, which tend to overcook quickly. Then there’s green onion, some spinach, seaweed and the star: two hefty pieces of chashu, braised pork that is then wonderfully charred and caramelized so that their small edges of fat are consolidated with the creaminess of the broth.
It brought back the memories of first experiencing tonkotsu broth in that tiny booth in Downtown Los Angeles.
But HiroNori achieves something even greater. Eschewing the hyper-minimalism of Daikokuya, they offer spectacular vegan ramen and Asahikawa-style ramen. Of course, here is where you can amp it up with HiroNori. For one, get an egg added to your ramen; ajitama is a soy broth-soft boiled egg that is nothing short of delicious and is usually included in every bowl of Hakata ramen.
But specific to HiroNori is their gluttonous black garlic sauce, a dreamily dark, lard-based oil that includes a heap of whipped garlic. Pour this fatty liquid carefully into your ramen as it is both hefty on flavor and intensity, leaving endless garlicky remnants throughout the rest of your ramen experience.
Adding onto this, their vegan ramen deserves another mention because HiroNori is home to the best vegan ramen in the city. They play off of Sapporo ramen—based out of the Hokkaido region of Japan like its Hakata sibling—using miso to create a creamy base. But rather than seafood and butter to add depth and richness, HiroNori layers sesame oil into the miso, mimicking the fatty quality of tonkotsu and adding beautifully charred broccoli, quinoa, tofu and bamboo.
285 E. Third St., Downtown; 562-435-0808
Oh, Chef Dima, let me count the ways…
I still sit, a mixture of feeling blessed and amazed, by the fact that we are home to a place—squished between a design firm and açai bowl joint on its west and a now-shuttered fast-casual space on its east—that has some of the region’s best Levantine food.
There are moments when taking in an inhalation of the fumes given off by her shawarma, the heavy doses of clove and cardamom drifting from its steam plumes, that I become calm. I don’t say this to be hyperbolic, I say it because once you’ve experienced her shawarma, there is a sense of misplaced nostalgia: “How had I not grown up with this on a regular basis?” There’s a deep comfort there that beautifully sways beyond culture.
Dima has hit me with this many times, even with her brunch.
One time, I looked in awe at a piece of toast; a crusty, chewy, thick slice of sourdough from the local bread masters at Gusto, its edges barely holding a brightly fuchsia-tinted spread. That spread, a tart and earthy blend of house-made labneh and red beets, is sliced with more bright colors. Plucks of vibrant green dill, purple violets and bits of white chickweed are nestled between golden fried bits of cauliflower with drops of deep black sesame painting the top-most layer.
The result, like an abstract of saturated colors from nature itself, is a playful eschewing of the all-too-common avocado toast that makes way for a meshing of California and the Levant, and it is but one of many examples of Chef Dima Habibeh’s ability to play with the Levant’s gorgeously complex cuisine while catering to our western palates.
Chef Dima’s hyper-focus on Levantine cuisine is one which not only exemplifies accessibility—you’ll find a divinely spicy hummus, perfectly assembled falafel, and wonderfully wrapped dolmas—but, with seamless skill, entices patrons to dive deeper into the restaurant’s ambitious ideas.
2. Playa Amor
6527 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Alamitos Bay; 562-430-2667
This is something I’ve said before and I really want people to understand: Playa Amor is Chef Thomas Ortega’s very personal love letter to Mexico from the United States.
That dichotomy is important in his food: Like many Mexican-Americans—too “pocho” for their Mexican relatives still living in the motherland and too Mexican for white Americans—his food simultaneously uplifts and reinterprets Mexican food. Playa Amor is Ortega’s confession: He loves Mexico and the United States.
And like any great confession of love, it comes with challenges to the status quo. This is modern, playful food for which Ortega is unapologetic.
His version of pescado zarandeado, a fish that is slow-cooked over extremely hot coals, is proof that he can be playful but careful to the point of being respectfully referential. Using Chilean sea bass instead of the more traditional snook, you’re offered a cleaner but direct descendant of the classic Sinaloan dish, with a side of deeply smokey salsa that doesn’t need to be slathered on the fish but, rather, lightly brushed. It is a dish that is enlightening and mind-blowingly executed.
His octopus is brined before being carefully fried and grilled at ultra-high temperatures. And don’t think he won’t slyly throw in a wrench into what you think defines Mexican food. He, indeed, has a pasta dish: spaghetti tossed with roasted New Mexican Hatch chiles, cream sauce, garlic and pecorino when the chiles are in season (which is right now, by the way).
Either way, whether you play it safe with Chamoy-glazed pork belly or short rib birria or become adventurous by trying a bowl of chapulines, grasshoppers that Ortega classically fries to a crisp and tosses with citruses and spices, or getting his Mexicano shrimp’n’grits with house-made hominy, you should feel honored to have a place that respects Mexican and American cuisine the way that Playa Amor does.
204 Orange Ave., Alamitos Beach; 562-437-4837
What has been most fascinating to witness is not watching Chef Jason Witzl’s menu evolve—every major menu change is linked, giving new plates a sense of familiarity for regular patrons—but watching him adapt to a city he didn’t know when he arrived.
Taking a chance and investing his family’s savings on the spot that used to be occupied by At Last Cafe, Witzl has exploded over the past three years. He has two more restaurants on the way—Ginger’s, his intimate, 12-seat taster concept opened Dec. 18 and Lupe’s, his mariscos concept honoring his mother’s Mexican heritage, opens in 2020—and that is because he created food that people genuinely love by connecting with those people.
For me, Ellie’s goes beyond the food.
It goes beyond something as simple as grilled bread—thick, crusty, doused in butter, thrown on a grill—paired with pork butter—silky, salty, dangerously savory.
It goes beyond his crudo, an array of fresh fish fileted and arranged with such a gorgeous simplicity that you wonder why you never put thin slices of pickled serrano peppers, pomegranates and a quick drizzle of olive oil on, well, everything.
It goes beyond the masterful pasta, churned out on the daily, that molds to each masterfully created sauce.
It goes beyond Witzl’s love of odd cuts, from guanciale to lamb and venison necks, that are tenderized and prepared with such exceptional skill, you wonder if you’re getting bits of short rib in disguise.
It is the fact that Witzl and his team have really created a sense of community for those that genuinely needed it. It is Witzl knocking on the doors of neighbors and touching each table. It is manager Molly Sirody, running such a tight ship that she will recognize the last time you ate there or if it’s your first time. It is wife, Alexandria, coming to the restaurant after her own work day is done, to welcome patrons, bus tables and clean up shop.
Ellie’s created a family for its neighborhood, a family that feeds you the best food in the city.