Long Beach’s most underrated restaurants: 2020 Edition
Fan of food listicles? Click here for Brian Addison’s full listicle absurdity.
When my first underrated restaurants list was published, it was, at the time, my most popular piece, a testament to the fact that Long Beach’s culinary scene was flourishing.
That’s been going on for a few years now and, with it, comes change.
I’ve tightened this year’s list, especially compared to last year’s list: You will not find Tito’s Bakery, Prime by Shenandoah, Long Beach Beer Lab, Flamin’ Curry, Chinitos Tacos and more because I’ve had them on this list for several years running. And while I know they might fly under the radar still, it is time for others to move in and readers to move on—so here are the underrated joints that deserve love.
In no particular order…
3721 E. Anaheim St.; 562-494-4903
Like many of Mexico’s grand states, Jalisco is one that is filled with culinary glory, from being the birthplace of torta ahogadas and birria to being home to brilliant interpretations of classics, like the Jaliscan version of flan known as jericalla. So, it is no shocker that the owners of Cañadas Grill in Long Beach’s Zaferia hail from this area, given their menu.
Their food is just stellar—the wet shrimp burrito is a thing of wonder—but there is one particular standout and that is their utterly delectable caldo known as carne en su jugo, roughly translated as “meat in its juice”—and one of the most satisfying, hearty representations of Jaliscan cuisine.
This chunky soup, where minced and roasted bits of beef marinate and stew in their own juices with tomatillos for hours on end, combines that beefiness with chunks of bacon and whole white beans. Cañadas gives you a healthy side of lime slices, raw onion, cilantro, cabbage, roasted jalapeño and pickled onion to add to your liking.
Grab a cerveza and I promise that you’ll be in gastronomical heaven.
A&J Seafood Shack
3201 Anaheim St.; 562-386-2000
It has perpetually baffled me as to why the seemingly perfect little food shack that sits on the northeast corner of Anaheim Street and Obispo Avenue hasn’t seen a restaurant able to keep its home there.
For years, I lamented the loss of its original food space, Sliced and Diced, a bright purple box that owners Amy Eriksen and Griselda Suarez filled to the brim with some of the city’s best tortas. After that, it became the lackluster Frank & Fries, a concept that, despite being mediocre, I was sure would hold well because its concept was easy-to-grasp.
Perhaps my hopes of a more permanent grub haven will be fulfilled with A&J Seafood Shack. Opening mid-pandemic, this Cambodian-centric hub of awesomeness is quite possibly my new favorite restaurant—and that is perhaps because of the emotional attachment I had to the food.
Take, for example, their stellar House Special Lobster (or crab). Chunks of these spiny sea creatures are thrown into an ultra-hot wok while drenched in sweet-meets-salty fish sauce concoction, tossed with fresh jalapeños, garlic, and onion. The result? A flashback to my first Cambodian wedding—a Long Beach rite of passage—where this was the final entree.
And it’s not just the solid seafood. Lemongrass beef sandwiches remind me of my backyard gatherings in Central Long Beach. Their delectable kaw koh—a Cambodian beef and rice sausage whose distinguishing characteristic is its heavy dose of galangal, a more peppery, ginger-like root—is a wonder atop simple white rice. Their fried whole squid put any form of calamari to shame.
In other words: Go.
Rasselbock Kitchen & Beer Garden
4020 Atlantic Ave.; 562-912-4949
Bjoern Risse’s German-centric biergarten is what I would venture to say is somewhat the definition of this list.
I say this because it isn’t new—it’s been around for years—it doesn’t garner the fame of staples—because it’s not that old—and its quality remains consistent to the point of being wondrous, particularly in the time when COVID has prompted mass menu changes, alterations in food prep and shifts in presentation.
Risse has the simple wonders of German food down pat: A plump, perfectly chewy housemade pretzel offers one the choice of spicy mustard or a wonderful concoction of cream cheese and paprika, which can easily be enjoyed on its own. There is sauerkraut so perfectly tart and balanced that one can get it as a side (and I suggest you do). Cucumbers and fresh dill tossed in a sour creamy coat. Mini potato pancakes, fried to a salty crisp that is cut with a dollop of apple sauce, mascarpone cheese, and chives—add a drizzle of fresh lemon juice and they’ll easily become your favorite new appetizer.
And there are the more complex. His schnitzel, braised and breaded pork loin fried to a perfect crisp, is heavenly on its own, but one can amp up the decadence and choose a style, like the house Rasselbock Schnitzel, which has your loin glazed with a garlic cream sauce and topped with an overeasy egg. His selection of wurst—ranging from the traditional brat to one stuffed with jalapeño and cheddar to two vegan options—reminds one that even the knottiest, almost grotesque of sausages, with their excessive plumpness and charred skins, have an elegance all their own.
Taishi Hainan Chicken
1388 Daisy Ave.; 562-275-2219
Hainan chicken can mean many things when it comes to stepping outside its birthplace of China—and “taishi,” meaning “Thai style” adds more to that meaning. But what will never change is the fact that this staple from Hainan in southern China is something that is so ubiquitous throughout Asia that it is outright odd it is only now finding a footing in SoCal.
The second location of Taishi, whose flagship is in a tiny strip mall in Redondo Beach that has garnered a cult-like following, is a welcome addition to Long Beach, adding a much-needed expansion of our Asian food offerings. Surely, we’re good on Thai—Manaow taking the cake along with arguably dozens of other spots—good on ramen, and good on pho.
Now it’s time to dive into the specifics and Taishi happily helps to fill that void. While they have many options which are great—check out their herbal chicken soup—the Hainan chicken, poached to perfection, is the reason you go. Want to get extra decadent? Get it fried on top of being poached.
The only question now: Can we please get a dim sum joint?
Gypsy’s Persian Grill
21 S. 39th Place; 562-433-8850
Tucked into the food-centric offshoot of 39th Place on the westernmost edge of Belmont Shore between the Belmont Brewing Company and kitchen for Primal Alchemy Catering, sits Gypsy’s.
Open for nearly two decades, this hole-in-the-wall space—walls and ceilings and entryways draped with colorful curtains and decorations, tiny tables shoved together in a way likely not to happen in the post-COVID world—has long offered Long Beach some of the best offerings that span the heavy link between Levantine food and Mediterranean fare.
Their hummus is the best this side of Ammatolí’s. Their dolmades—soaked grape leaves used to wrap a filling of rice—are also on par with some of the best versions in town. Their lamb shank is like a Middle Eastern ode to osso buco. Their judicious use of Middle Eastern spices like sumac—a tart, wonderfully bright, rust-colored berry that is dried and ground, found in their Turkish chicken kebob—and zereshk—Persian barberries that one can add to their rice, creating a beautifully sour mate to the rice’s creaminess and salt—are but parts of their overall dedication to balance and consistency.
And while you won’t find the more obscure offerings of Levantine food—like fattet hummus, a Levantine bread pudding that combines savory and tart qualities into an overall nutty, creamy dish—what you will find are the basics made right.
3396 Atlantic Ave.; 562-424-3340
This tiny-but-mighty little red-and-white burger shack is one of Long Beach’s hidden gems, a joint filled with the array of burgers that range from classic to gluttonous.
My suggestion? Go classic.
Much like In-N-Out (which I think is vastly overrated), Dave’s allows you to add as many patties and slices of cheese as your heart desires, despite not being listed on the menu. (How can one not respect this triple cheeseburger masterpiece?) Here, grilled onions are the norm (you have to request raw onions), and as for the gluttonous, well, that comes in the form of their Cubby burger: a burger, size of your choice, topped with hot dogs.
990 Cherry Ave., #102; 562-248-2741
They go by many names: tacos de guisado, tacos de cazuela, tacos mañaneros…
But the one thing that unites them is the fact that the meats or veggies stuffed in the tacos are all stewed in singular cazuelas, pots that are traditionally earthenware but have shifted to metal tins as the growth of food trucks and fast-casual restaurants spread. We’re talking birria, chile verde, tinga de pollo…
They harken to the stewy fillings created at large family gatherings, where soupy dollops of meats that have been simmering for hours in clay cazuelas are stacked onto a fresh corn tortilla with minimal toppings. Maybe some onion and cilantro, maybe some salsa, maybe just meat. Eating six is common, eating more is practically unavoidable.
They are rather ubiquitous throughout Mexico—places like Taco Gus in Mexico City and Taco Guadalajara in Guadalajara have made them outright common—and they have spurred food tours in states ranging from Guanajuato to Quintana Roo. Stateside, Los Angeles’ Guisado’s has turned them into a beyond-popular small chain that spans Boyle Heights to West Hollywood.
In Long Beach, there weren’t any taquerias dedicated to the almighty tacos de guisado—but this hole-in-the-wall space, tucked into a tiny strip mall at the southeast corner of Cherry Avenue and Tenth Street, has offered not only a solid introduction to these tacos locally but a wonderfully unpretentious, warm, vibrant atmosphere to enjoy them in.
For Brian Addison’s original piece on La Chancla, click here.
The Wild Chive
2650 E. Broadway; 562-588-9421
The Wild Chive, the brainchild of vegan chef Soozee Nguyen, has been a vagabond staple across the city that has finally found its forever-home in Alamitos Beach, and with it, has introduced a steady place where the public can experience Nguyen’s spectacularly creative and solid vegan grub.
Four years running in Long Beach, but 10 years in the making—she left Long Beach to train and learn in what is arguably the most competitive food market in the nation, New York—Nguyen now offers her famed vegan brunch on a regular basis within her own space and joins the growing vegan scene that has taken hold throughout the city.
Nguyen’s keen sensibility for high quality vegan food kept vegans and non-vegans alike returning for signature dishes such as stuffed french toast filled with housemade chocolate hazelnut spread, fresh strawberries, bananas, coconut whip and topped with maple and almonds. Or a breakfast bánh mì filled with tofu, tempeh bacon and ham, pickled veggies, cucumber, cilantro, chile, fried shallots, and a chive-cilantro aioli.
Highlights for this space? Vegan Vietnamese Coffee with housemade condensed milk, French Quarter beignets, a vegan Monte Cristo sandwich and vegan mac ’n’ cheese.
Phở Hông Phát
3243 E. Anaheim St.; 562-498-3754
For those in the know, this place isn’t underrated, which is why its closure for nearly a year left many frustrated while having to visit more middling places like Pho America and 123 Pho—or the very definition of mediocre pho that was Number Nine, now home to the recently opened Little Coyote.
However, I’ve learned that those in the know are in the few.
Phở Hông Phát’s focus is spectacularly simple: beef pho. And that beef pho is served in a tiny, packed, loud, no-A/C, Cash Only joint that eschews complexity or costly extras and sticks to doing one thing incredibly well. Sure, they have three options outside of beef pho—an all right chicken soup, a noodle-only soup, and a seafood soup—but these options are the only ones out of a list of nearly 20 beef-centric pho offerings.
From rare flank to beef balls, everyone appreciative of consuming beef will find something they like but my inner Creature of Habit always goes for the #10, Pho Tai Gan Xach with meatballs added. It is a concoction of rare steak, tendon, and tripe—a homage to the heifer if there ever was one as pink bits of beef float toward the top while swimming alongside the parts of the cow frowned upon by most American palates.
1626 Orange Ave.; 562-269-0486
When you bite into the creation of Adriana Moran’s tamal, you are transported.
Unlike the smaller, heartier Mexican version so ubiquitous throughout California, tamales guatemaltecos are bigger. Much bigger. Wrapped in banana leaves, giving the masa a hint of grass and earth.
Moran’s creations come with hints of pumpkin seed and cinnamon and, on the larger plates she serves, she adds a tamal on the side. This is just one of the one the many wonders to be discovered at La Esperanza.
With Adriana’s mix of Guatemalan, Mexican and Salvadorian food—make sure to get a pupusa, topped with a wonderfully tart and crunchy slaw—this spot is not only a hidden gem but a wonderful break away from the dominance of Mexican cuisine in regards to the array of Latin American food.
Fire Bird Nashville Hot Chicken
3630 Atlantic Ave. (inside Liberation Brewing Co.); 562-543-3911
The fact that a piece of fried chicken holds as well during delivery as Thyda Sieng’s does, is nothing short of a miracle during these times. Thyda and her husband Chet Sieng’s ode to the Tennessee staple comes in many forms—a stellar sandwich a la Howlin’ Ray’s, mozzarella sticks, jalapeño poppers—but the true star of Fire Bird are their whole, three-joint wings.
Here, in the Nashville tradition, the talents of the cook are laid bare. You get nothing but two whole wings sitting atop a slice of white bread and topped with pickles, the latter accouterments designed to help with the heat. Completely on par with Hotville and, in some ways, surpassing Howlin’ Ray’s—yeah, I said it—Thyda’s fried chicken is so succulent, so perfectly crafted that I encourage some folks to order them without the heat so one can have the simple enjoyment of stellar fried chicken.
But I am a glutton for pain with an inner masochist so itchy to express itself that I find myself unable to escape the heat. Ordering wings at Fire Bird’s fourth level of five different heats, dubbed “Ex-Wife,” I definitely found myself in a sublime state of pain and adoration. I can only imagine what the “Suicide” levels might induce.
With the wing, beware: unlike the sandwich, there is no barrier between your lips and that spice. For those willing to endure the suffering, it is a trip unlike any other.
For Brian Addison’s original review of Fire Bird, click here.
Vino e Cucina
4501 E Carson Street, Suite 105
Vino e Cucina is the type of place that lacks any sense of pretense, like many of the restaurants in owner Lorenzo Mottola’s home country of Italy. Bright yellow walls meet white tiles and various hung knick-knacks. It reminds me of a place my Grandpa Natalino and Mom would enjoy and, more importantly, one they would both cook at.
This East Long Beach staple—right by the airport and Long Beach City College—was admittedly off my radar, but with friend after friend telling me to visit, I made a few treks and tried the things I judge Italian joints on when they have the audacity to offer it on their menus: gnocchi and the cioppino. I judge on these because, while common, they’re difficult to execute.
Gnocchi—basically a potato dumpling in pasta form—can often come out excessively hard, excessively chewy, or excessively flour-y. Vino e Cucina’s version is none of that. Instead, it’s rolled into soft, pillowy goodness and garnished with either a wonderfully creamy gorgonzola and walnut cream sauce, slathered in a cheesy basil pesto, or doused in a tangy, bright red sauce with chunks of fresh mozzarella and strips of basil.
It’s straight-forward pasta at its best, all made in-house and fresh. You’ll find the giant tubes of rigatoni tossed in any sauce you can imagine. Even their takes on things that are starter bites like crudo—here, they’ve taken Sicilian yellow tuna, thinly slice it and pair it with white cannellini beans and polenta, create a chèvre polenta with mushrooms and drizzle a bit of truffle oil over it—are on point.
Not fussy, not complicated; simple, straightforward Italian food made great.
2064 Santa Fe Ave.
Becky Teter and her husband John, the pastor at the Fountain of Life Covenant Church in West Long Beach, sat down with church members Michael Martinez, Sharon Im-Lee and Sara Culver one day, and all of them fell into the same idea: their church, as an organization in which supporting your neighbors was essential, had to do more for West Long Beach.
And 5,000 Pies was birthed.
According to the founders, the name comes from the Book of John, Chapter 6, where Jesus fed 5,000 people from a few loaves of bread.
Since opening in 2017, 5,000 Pies has become a place to work for former gang members, locals in need of a job and those trying to better their lives, and with it, they have brought stellar deep-dish pizza. Forget Rance’s—support this truly local joint (and even go for their regular crust pizza, which is an all-American ode to the pie with chewy, doughy crust and plenty of goopy cheese).
Cali Shrimp & Wingz House
1169 E. 10th St.; 562-528-8911
The Wing Lover is often a scorned one.
Dismissed as always being a side, never a main entree, when it comes to pairings with beer, tacos and pizza will always win—rightfully so—over beer and wings.
But like all basic foods, when done well, they’re genuinely comforting. Cali Shrimp and Wingz House and Victor Peña do wings really well. Not only are his wings genuinely great—perfectly fried and wonderfully crisp even after a heavy bath in sauce—he creates, in house, a wonderfully wild array of sauces that go from bringing the heat to hints of sweet.
Classic buffalo sauces sit with dry habañero rubs, honey lemon pepper ride alongside teryaki, made, as as it should, with oyster sauce. Jamaican jerk, Korean rub, honey hot barbecue.
Add onto this his seafood boils, where pounds of prawns or, if he has them on hand, and crab legs are thrown into a boil of your choice. There are four options: the house sauce, “Diabla” sauce, garlic butter or lemon pepper, with potatoes and cobs of corn. My suggestion? Get the Real Deal, which sees Peña mixing all the sauces into a single boil. And also make it Louie Style, where he adds corn, potatoes and Louisiana sausage to the mix.
2380 Santa Fe Ave.; 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 having been on this list several times in the past—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—if you should get the chicken attached, it creates some of the best chicken pesto you’ll have—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.
Brian Addison is a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn
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