There is such a thing as “happy food.”
I had Chef Luis Navarro’s happy food last December when he asked to cook dinner for no other reason than to cook dinner. Out came a plate with two massive tacos, stretchy flour tortillas stacked with rounded slivers of octopus, cabbage, cotija and a wonderfully creamy drizzle.
“Why aren’t these on the menu at Lola’s?” I asked. “They’re amazing.”
Navarro noted that he had them on the menu once. Briefly. And that was it because “no one ordered them.” There was a pang there when he said this, a sadness at realizing that something quite common to his own heritage was so foreign to the patrons who handed Navarro and his family a taste of success.
People wanted the enchiladas suiza. They wanted a chicken burrito. They wanted chile rellenos. They wanted nothing new, let alone something challenging, and that, in turn, meant Navarro was unable to explore the parts of food he wanted, leading to repetition.
The way chefs and restaurateurs take care of themselves—mentally, physically, socially, professionally—can deeply affect the way their food is shaped and ultimately created when it arrives on a plate. Navarro has been very open with me lately about the stresses of his life and the way it has altered his menus.
When it comes to Navarro, Long Beach eaters need to understand one thing: Navarro was thrown into representing a restaurant when his mom, Maria Delores Navarro, passed away from cancer just two short years after opening her restaurant, Lola’s. Many don’t quite get that Navarro, raising a son and figuring out family life with his wife Brenda, had to become the face of Lola’s at a time when Retro Row was beginning to find a new identity. The restaurant scene was sparse and banal, and he felt a community needed to be better connected.
With it, Lola’s became synonymous with Long Beach; you’d be hardpressed to find a nonprofit event or fundraiser that Navarro and Brenda weren’t at. But, as with all businesses, you need to create a product that people continue to come back to, even at the cost of creativity. Navarro, through the years, has attempted to alter his menu but has faced an uphill battle in doing so. During my last visit to the Bixby Knolls’ location, I overheard a patron request cheddar cheese for their tacos, and though yellow cheese and the golden taco are a specific facet of Mexican food, it isn’t what Lola’s, especially Navarro, represents.
The stress of running two Lola’s locations, The Social List and Long Beach’s first formal distillery, Portuguese Bend, compounded with maintaining a jolly facade, supporting the community and pushing aside his personal desires for his menus in the name of popularity, came at a price: for the first time in his 20-year career, Luis Navarro took a sabbatical.
Breaks can free up a lot of the mind’s clutter and, for Navarro, it was here he realized there was one of two paths to take: begin to let his patrons understand where he comes from in creating Mexican cuisine or continue to let the I-want-my-Lola’s-this-way crowd dictate what the space churns out culinarily.
Ultimately, he chose to shift the relationship he has with his patrons.
The menu updates at Lola’s—fear not, regulars: you still have your menu standbys—aren’t strange things though the regular crowd might be shocked to find octopus, duck breast and a change in preparation to their much-loved birria. But for me, it’s Navarro’s ode to his frequent trips to Mexico, the country where his mother was born and the people who taught him about food.
Take, for example, his cochinita pibil. A rarity at even the most seasoned of Mexican joints because of its complexity, this Yucatan-based pork dish, wrapped in banana leaves and slow-cooked over coals for six hours, is both wonderfully savory and smoky, with deep flavors of achiote and salt cut with tart pickled onions and a thin layer of garlicky refried black beans beneath the pile of meat. It reflects Navarro’s love of Yucatan and its food, something that has been rarely expressed on Lola’s menu.
This exploration of Mexico continues. Oaxaca is given a tip-of-the-hat with the latest mole at Lola’s. While the restaurant has never shied from moles, this mole negro—deep, dark, delicious—is the best the restaurant has churned out, especially when it is slathered on a sweet, decadent duck breast. The smoothness of the mole paired with its complexity makes it a genuinely addicting dish, almost nearing the perfection of Bell’s La Casita Mexicana or East L.A.’s Moles La Tia.
Navarro even plays with his mother’s ode to Jalisco, her famed birria. One of my personal favorite traditional Jaliscan dishes, it is typically made with goat and marinated for hours on end in a spice-heavy, Ancho-meets-Guajillo-chile that is nothing short of heaven. Lola herself, however, preferred a combination of pork and veal and this detail was essential in creating that Lola’s-specific birria.
Navarro has not changed much except for one key thing: presentation. Now, the birria stands in its more traditional glory, piled on a plate, surrounded by its own juices, topped with a healthy dose of chopped onion and cilantro, with tortillas on the side. To have Lola’s birria served like this, pools of that magical broth for the taking with a spoon, somehow elevates it by removing it from taco form.
There’s even a playful side to food with the new menu changes, exemplified best in a watermelon salad glazed with a guava vinaigrette and Tajín, like an elevated fruit cup from a vendor that slathers cubes of fruit in lime juice and chile.
And, of course, there are those octopus tacos he once served me but never put on a menu again because he was so terrified of the response. It’s joined with other octopus offerings—a stellar octopus and shrimp ceviche along with a creamy, decadent octopus and shrimp quesadilla.
When you have these paired with incredible cocktails—there’s a coconut margarita that is genuinely divine along with a yuzu-meets-orgeat tequila drink that is so distinct you can almost forget you came there for Mexican food—then it becomes a really solid experience from a restaurant that has helped define our local food culture.
This is happy food.
And while I am sure many of the regular patrons will continue to go for the enchiladas suiza and Bixby Knolls Burrito—they’re popular and this is a business—I will be basking in pulpo and conchinita pibil and birria while non-judgmentally poking fun at the fact that you ordered a chicken burrito.
Lola’s has two locations: 2030 E. Fourth St. and 4140 Atlantic Ave.