In a one-bathroom household with five children and two parents, Chef Jason Witzl understood—or, in the least, was forced to understand by his Mexican mother and a chancla—that not everything is solely yours. The world is a blend of leading and depending, of living within your means while occasionally indulging, of using your family for its strengths while not abusing their resources, of understanding that one comes from many places and many histories.
I know this seems like an extremely odd introduction to a food piece—and perhaps I’m waxing a bit poetic. But Lupe’s, Witzl’s mariscos-centric space where the former(ly disastrous) Table 301 used to be, seems to be Witzl’s fine-tuned extension of these lessons, a well-balanced tip-of-the-hat to his Mexican roots that is also a simultaneous grand salute to the skills he has learned in kitchens that were largely Westernized.
There is the blunt achievement of what Witzl himself has tossed our way with Lupe’s: By the third time I had visited, I realized that his plates had taken me to many places that Long Beach had never really truly transported me, for it was the coasts of Mexico that made me fall for seafood in a way that was as intimate and mind-blowing as the first time tasting crab.
I was taken to Tulum, where I was reminded of the fresh pulpo slapped onto a piping hot grill until its edges were seared to a blackened perfection within minutes. I was taken to Ensenada, where I experienced a fried fish taco unlike any other, all the while standing on a curb, reaching between other long-armed grasps for the cart’s array of salsas. And at that same place, annihilating oysters that were pulled straight from the ocean and shucked before me. I was taken to Mazatlán, where I was mesmerized by the chiltepines and Serrano peppers being pulverized in lime juice to create a fiery soak for Sinaloa’s famed aguachile.
He does this through what is possibly my favorite dish he has ever cooked, his al pastor pulpo. A meaty octopus leg—its fire-induced char marks contrasting with the bright reds of a guajillo-achiote marinade—is sliced and curled around an iron skillet laden with lentils. Those dark, beluga lentils are braised in a base that includes chile toreados, serrano peppers slipped into hot oil until their skins are blistered and its heat amped, a heat that is cut through with a herb-spiked coolness of crema. The result is a steady burn that keeps you wanting to return for more but never lets up the heat on your tongue.
He does this through a deep fried fish taco that was so reminiscent of Ensenada that it was outright shocking, all of it topped on a deep, blue born tortilla whose sweetness is wonderfully different than yellow corn that it makes you wonder about the way blue masa is distributed and why there aren’t more blue corn tortillas in the world being made by the hands of stellar women behind a comal.
He does this through grilled El Chingone Mexican oysters, roasted in butter and chile while being topped with breadcrumbs. Or through his tenderly created scallops, clams, and mussels dish where the seafood is lathered in Witzl’s velvety mojo de ajo and—never one to fear flavor—dusted with crisped slices of fried garlic and bits of bitter greens.
He does this through deliberately curated crudo dishes—an always-stellar-choice at his Ellie’s spot in Alamitos Beach—and raw bar options.
He does this through a wildly innovative take on camarones a la diabla, where bright shrimp sit atop a bed of rice that has been thoroughly melded with coconut milk—think of it as a Mexico-meets-Thailand risotto—and a fiery guajillo salsa, spiced with extra heat. It’s a culminating creation that is also an all-new diabla experience.
One can easily tell that the ocean holds a very special place for Witzl and Mexico’s interpretation of the food our oceans have to offer hold an even higher space. This is his very personal love letter to mariscos, albeit one framed through a multitude of experiences and abilities.
And he even achieves this intimacy with Mexican cuisine at Lupe’s when escaping the ocean and creating reminders of, say, Guadalajara, where the wonder of huitlacoche—an outright eyebrow-raising corn fungus-turned-delicacy—was introduced to me in all its dreamy, earthy creaminess. Witzl has managed to allow me to re-experience that wander through deep-fried squash blossoms, lathered in a tangy salsa verde and stuffed with a creamy, fluffy combination of huitlacoche and crab—an appetizer worthy of dreams if there ever was one.
Or creating an utterly stellar taco al pastor whose heat, sweetness, and peppery quality transport me to Jalisco. Or a genuinely beautiful sunchoke taco—escaping the exasperating trend of using jackfruit to imitate barbecue pork or pastor—that would appease meat eaters as much as it would vegans. Or, or, or…
In three visits, I’ve yet to order bad food at Lupe’s—and that is the accomplishment of The Chef-with-a-capital-C Witzl and what he has done, if not solely on his own, then surely mostly on his own.
But it is when he leans on others that Lupe’s escapes the great and solid and moves toward the grand and stellar.
It is his trust in his three tortilleras, ladies who have mastered the art of blue corn masa to create fresh tortillas that act as everything from taco shells to tostadas.
It is in Witzl’s letting-go-of-the-front-of-house that allows the spectacular service headed by manager Molly Sirody to shine, paired with an equally spectacular interior that offers a versatility that few spaces have in Long Beach. You can feel casual sitting at one of its two bars—indoors or outdoors—as much as you can feel special if not happily bougie. You can sit among diners or sneak into a quieter space. Paired with stellar service and it is an experience worth returning for.
It is in the faith behind bar program manager Chauncey Davis that a truly wondrous cocktail program shines as brightly as the food offerings. This detail is key: with Lupe’s dual bars, including an astoundingly beautiful, interior bar that serves both indoor and outdoor patrons, having a cocktail is as much an experience as having food.
Of course, Chef Witzl will appear at your table—his gregarious, social-butterfly of a nature cannot be contained by that tiny-but-mighty kitchen space—but Lupe’s is really about letting his restaurant family shine. Unlike Ellie’s and Ginger’s, contained by the inability to expand beyond its tiny walls, Lupe’s is where patrons and the Witzl family can hang out, spend time and chat. Where the strongest of the team can exercise their hospitality muscles and patrons can extend their legs and palates.
In other words, it is the perfect addition to Long Beach and one in which we see one of its culinary stars and his family arise to the opportunity they’ve taken hold of.
Lupe’s de la Mar is located at 301 The Promenade North.
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