I When my first underrated restaurants list was published, it was—at the time—my most popular piece. I don’t mean this as a humblebrag (honestly), but if that was to say anything, it was a testament to the fact that Long Beach’s culinary scene was, and is, undergoing a renaissance.
That renaissance has been happening for a few years now and with it, changes happen—including changes to lists like these. Surely, you’ll find some repeats from last year’s list—an inevitable outcome of creating such things—but you’ll also find some noteworthy newbies. (Of a sad note: one of the places I had longed bookmarked for this year’s list, Villas Comida Mexicana—the only place in Long Beach to score solid pambazos—suffered a fire that the family couldn’t afford to repair.)
When it comes down to it, amid the gastronomical growth, both good and questionable, hide underrated wonders, both old and new. We all know the staples and we definitely know the sadly Googled-listicles of LA and OC publications but I want to shed light on some of my favorite, under-the-radar joints that deserve a bit more love.
In no particular order…
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken (2580 Long Beach Blvd.)
There were officially two places to go to for fried chicken in the region: Howlin’ Rays in Chinatown and Gus’s Fried Chicken in Arlington Heights, both in L.A.
Well, that is, until Gus’s finally opened a location in Long Beach. And, in my own bafflement, I have yet to understand why there isn’t a constant line snaking its way out of its humble doors.
This tiny but mighty altar dedicated toward the almighty cluck is dedicated to the style that is Memphis hot chicken—not quite on par with Nashville hot chicken made Easterly famous by Prince’s in the city of country music and made famous here in SoCal by Howlin’ but a damn close second.
Emphasis needs to be made: While not quite Howlin’, Gus’s is spectacular; it’s the type of chicken that looks overcooked in Instagram photos because of its bleeding red color, a pepper’n’cayenne-y heat that doesn’t immediately hit your tongue but when it does, you questionably keep plowing through—perhaps dipping pieces in your greens or beans to cool it off a bit or grabbing a spear of a fried pickle that puts Beachwood’s own version of the salty apps to shame.
It’s the stuff of magic and, like the magic of Robert Earl’s BBQ, comes on a disposable plate that is removed from pretense, a couple of slices of starchy white bread, and your choice of sides, from fried okra that is the best I’ve had since visiting Missouri, to corn.
El Pollo Imperial (5991 Atlantic Ave.)
This isn’t only one of Long Beach’s most underrated restaurants; it is also one of its best.
Unwitting Angelenos and OC’ers 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, with its takeover of an old drive-thru (that they still keep active) filled with classic, unapologetically Peruvian grub.
Surely, if you’ve never had Peruvian before, go for the country’s staple dishes first, 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 my suggestion will be to always try something new. Take, for example, the dish pictured: seco de cordero. This braised lamb shank—for $15 no less—is slow-cooked to perfection in a cilantro sauce that is inimitable.
Flamin’ Curry (3344 E. Broadway)
If there one thing that should never be downsized or maligned, it is quick’n’cheap food that is also wonderfully satisfying. In the land of immigrants that is SoCal, perhaps no place exudes this quality more than the almighty taco truck—but others lurk in the shadows and shine bright once discovered, like Flamin’ Curry, the newest restaurants featured on this list (and therefore culpable in questioning its underrated-ness).
But great Indian food is actually difficult to find in Long Beach—I slightly regret having Natraj on my list last year as subsequent visits have satisfied me less and less—but this joint is unapologetically straightforward, a line of steam trays offering up a splendid array of Northern and Southern Indian staples that help my inner cravings for channa masala and biryani and, of course, various curries with the type of spiciness to transcend dining experiences.
(A note has to be made: SoCal’s palate is often used to the heat of Mexican and Thai/Chinese foods, centered on things like Serrano and Sichuan peppers; Indian heat is like discovering these spicy peppers for the first time but in a different place, a kind of hot that doesn’t hit suddenly like a hookup with a habañero but sneaks up like a lingering kiss of a Kashmiri chile, a long lost lover of sorts.)
Surely, some of the dishes can lean toward the salty but that being said, it is quite possible that the city’s best biryani—the dish that defines the city of Hyderabad in India and is centered on two things: Rice and meat—is right here at Flamin’ Curry.
If I were to be entirely forthright with any eater—at least the meat eaters of Long Beach—this plate should be ordered with the goat. (As should their curry.)
Succulent, bone-barely-clinging chunks of marinated goat sit atop a bed of basmati rice, where strips of steam tinged with the aromatics of lemon, coriander and saffron lurk up from the pile of food when you open the lid of its black styrofoam vessel. It’s nothing short of wondrous.
Long Beach Beer Lab (518 W. Willow St.)
When the announcement that the Beer Lab was opening in Wrigley came, it was heavily focused on the beer—and rightfully so: Co-owner and founder Levi Fried is a beer enthusiast-meets-fermentation nerd that churns out incredible brews.
But hidden in the fabric of this brewhouse was a baker, co-owner and founder Harmony Sage, a woman creating some of the city’s best sourdough boules (made from their witbier), garlic rosemary loaves, and more carby wonders that should be garnering more attention.
Using wild microflora harvested from local fruits and then incorporating malt grains from the brewhouse, Sage creates baked perfection on a level that perhaps—emphasize the “perhaps”—no other baker achieves locally. (And that is saying a lot considering powerhouses like Saint & Sinners Bakeshop in DTLB and cottage businesses like Colossus Bread and Gusto Bread are churning out astounding loaves of gluten greatness.)
And Sage doesn’t just stop at bread.
Her sourdough starter is used in the mash of multiple beers, like their spectacular Trueberry Blast, a blueberry sour with a hint of salt that pairs perfectly with, well, Sage’s sourdough. In fact, expect the cicerones pouring your beer to offer pairings—and I deeply suggest you take them up on their offer.
Her pizzas are spectacular, with an extensive list of vegan offerings that are nothing short of impressive and oddities like her wonderful blue cheese’n’walnut pizza. Her sandwiches? Wonderful. Her soups? Awesome. And her food overall? Underrated and damn tasty.
Phở Hông Phát (3243 E. Anaheim St.)
For those in the know, this place isn’t underrated—hence why I never had much discussion about it on an underrated list because it easily outshines other joints like Pho America and 123 Pho and the definitive Wypipo Pho that is Number Nine. 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 pho offerings that revolve around beef.
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. A cow-centric concoction of rare steak, tendon, and tripe—an 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.
Seabirds Kitchen (965 E. Fourth Street)
In all frankness, I don’t think this place will be underrated for much longer given it is one of Long Beach’s best new restaurants.
Vegans and veggie lovers should be ecstatic that food truck pioneer Seabirds Kitchen opened a brick-and-mortar at the former Bond’s Home Appliances building, bringing in a style of vegan cuisine that is truly unparalleled in the city.
Inventive, witty, and outright addicting, Seabirds creates and serves vegan food that smacks down almost every meat eater’s assumptions and stereotypes about what vegan food is and how it can be prepared.
Chef Stephanie Morgan opened her Seabirds food truck in 2010 with the sole mission of “pushing the boundaries of vegan cuisine.” That mission proved successful, giving the restaurant, well, an actual restaurant with a location at Costa Mesa’s The LAB (whose owner, Shaheen Sadeghi, is looking to alter the way North Long Beach looks and shops and interacts).
Pricey for the offerings? Sure. But it is not only a welcomed and much-needed vegan option—directly across from a McDonald’s, by the way, scoring extra points for Awesome Dichotomy—for the stretch of Fourth that is home to everything from Hole Mole’s fast Mexican to The Social List, there is simply no question that Morgan creates food for everyone. And it just so happens to be food that has not one drop of animal product in it.
La Parolaccia Osteria Italiana (2945 E. Broadway)
Italian food was America’s first Mexican food—and by that, I mean that it was largely described as basic and inexpensive, despite both of those accusations being offensive falsehoods among any Italians in the kitchen.
And while I am honored and happy to see my heritage’s cuisine reaching the upper echelons of fine dining—much like the cuisine of Mexico is achieving as of late with joints like Broken Spanish, Tacos Maria, and — I am discovering more and more that high-quality, simple Italian food, the kind that made The Silver Spoon such an important text, 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 of a plate veal scallopini really is in the food world. I am talkin’ ravioli di astice e gamberetti, the beautiful pasta plate pictured that has—wait for it—lobster meat, shrimp and ricotta-filled, handmade ravioli in a limoncello liquor cream sauce with cherry tomatoes and shallots, finished with lemon zest.
Wide Eyes Open Palms (416 Cherry Ave.)
I’ve touted Long Beach’s coffee scene, particularly its roasting scene, and Wide Eyes Open Palms, located at the western edge of Retro Row, is part of that touting—but beyond the powerful caffeinated offerings they serve, it is their food that shines just as brightly.
Girlfriend team Kat McIver and Angie Evans have a menu of edible offerings that is genuinely great and speaks to the inner Italian and Californian of many.
Their olive oil cake? A perfect pairing of olive oil’s earthiness and the sweetness of a cake, all held together with a grainy polenta.
Their jam and ricotta toast? Almost on the level of LA’s Republique: a thick slice of a rustic country loaf slathered with house made ricotta and jam—is nothing short of addictive. My suggestion? Get the half-and-half if they have two jam flavors because I guarantee you that you’ll love both.
Add to this frittatas, cocottes (cream-baked egg), granola, and more, and, well, you’re set.
Plunge (1900 E. Ocean Blvd. on floor above front lobby)
Perched inside the massive luxury apartment tower on Ocean just a bit west of Cherry sits Plunge, a hidden gem of a restaurant filled with great food that matches its stellar views of the city’s shoreline.
Owner Randy Kolstad is not only one of the most down-to-earth folks you’ll encounter at Plunge, he has created an enclave for food lovers wishing to escape the concrete metropolis of Ocean and enjoy an almost secretive space.
There’s wine you can score by various sizes through an incredible system that lets you load whatever amount of money you want to load on a card and have at it. You determine the pour and how much you wanna spend while wine remains consistently fresh thanks to an air-tight preservation system that keeps oxygen from getting into the bottles.
You have fantastic comfort food—a pastrami on rye, mac’n’cheese—that supersede their commonality as home food and become some of the best versions of the dishes you’ve ever had—their mac is made with a wondrous blend of smoked gouda, parmesan, and cheddar while their pastrami is stacked to heights that will induce carnivore envy.
You have a healthy array of vegan options, including spectacular vegan ceviche (made with lentils and strawberries) and chickpea tuna that puts Ahimsa to shame.
And, perhaps the oddest bit of it all, you have tower residents coming in to either fill up on wine themselves or lounge around because, well, you’re in their apartment complex. Strike up a conversation—but most importantly, order some food.
****Tito’s Bakery (1107 E. Fourth Street)
Here, Long Beach, is the home of the best breakfast burrito in town and certainly one of the best burrito joints period
Nope, this isn’t your heavy-cheese-and-egg concoction that borders the American palate preference but this is a hot-damn taqueria rolled into a tortilla for $6.
One of the few places that isn’t afraid of refried beans, any burrito of your choice—breakfast or otherwise—gets a slather of those delicious kernels of protein (and surely lard, considering how smooth and delectable they are). This is then paired with onions, cilantro, and your protein of choice. At breakfast time, that’s chorizo, chicharrones (when available and they’re wondrous), bacon (chopped fresh and cooked right there—not precooked for days beforehand so specifically request crispy if that’s your preference), shredded beef, or chicken (though the pollo is not listed).
Wrapped, tossed into a small paper bag with a grilled jalapeño and your choice of red or green salsa—get both, FYI—this is the kind of burrito that by its end will be soaked, hard to hold, and bring a sense of sadness when the last bite is consumed. But that’s OK, because you can always order another if you dare—or you can just go full beached-whale status and have some pan dulce.
The Pan (3550 Long Beach Blvd.)
I am baffled as to why The Pan doesn’t get more love—at least in terms of its breakfast menu, which is what everyone needs to stick to.
The place is constantly filled with diners awaiting Pan-specific concoctions like their Loaded Hash Browns–a massive plate of hashies scrambled with eggs, cheese, bacon, green onion, and chili aioli—or their crazy assortment of pancakes.
Their pancake list is the stuff of legend. From Chocolate Peanut Butter Pancakes (complete with peanut butter butter) to their mythical Banana Pancakes (that comes with this addicting banana cinnamon purée)…
It’s just great food in a homey joint filled with good vibes and good people.
Prime by Shenandoah (3701 E. Fourth Street)
As each year passes since Prime has been open, I remain entirely miffed that it is not constantly mentioned as much as other Fourth Street hubs like its neighbor, Coffee Cup, or Taqueria La Mexicana or Lola’s or…
The space occupied by Prime holds a bit of history: it is the OG locale of MVPs Burgers (which moved into the space formerly occupied by Shillelagh at Fourth & Temple a couple years ago) and formerly the Whistle Stop, which came and went with the blow of its namesake.
But Prime surpasses each of these unquestionably in finding a fusion cuisine that is neither offensive (go home, Ramen Burrito, you’re drunk) nor gag-inducing (when fashion met food in this trainwreck).
Here, they have happily married Mexican food with some Southern grub love—we’re talking brisket tamales, mac y chorizo, “boaritas” tacos, and green chorizo quesadillas—Prime offers spectacularly quality food with almost overwhelmingly kind service. (I can assure you that the charm of their servers will surely win you over along with their fun, if not outright witty cuisine.)
****Cheko el Rey del Sarandeado (343 E. Market St.)
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 introducing us northerners to the style 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. Yes, Long Beach’s best fish taco is found in this tiny-but-mighty North Long Beach restaurant.
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.
Vino e Cucina (#105, 4501 E Carson Street)
Vino e Cucina is the type of place that lacks any sense of pretense. Bright yellow walls meet white tiles and little knick-knacks hung on the wall. It reminds 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 LBCC—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 homey Italian joints on when they have the audacity to offer it on their menus: gnocchi and, as it was the special one time I visited, 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 to soft, pillowy goodness and garnished with either a wonderfully creamy gorgonzola cream sauce or slathered in a cheesy basil pesto.
It’s straight-forward pasta at its best, all made in-house and fresh. Even their takes on things that are starter bites like crudo—here, they taken Sicilian yellow tuna, thinly slice it, and pair it with white cannellini beans—and polenta—they create a chèvre polenta with mushrooms and drizzle a bit of truffle oil over it—are on point.
And the cioppino? While it is not my Grandpa or momma’s version, it’s a wonderfully rich, aromatic plate of seafood, tomato, and red pepper. (My suggestion, chef? Try some fresh fennel in the broth.)
Appu’s Cafe (3816 Woodruff Ave., suite 100B)
This pseudo-Indian, maybe-fusion joint is an underrated, hidden vegetarian gem (that also heavily caters to the vegan lifestyle right when you walk in with a sign written on a paper plate: “Please advise the cook if you are vegan”).
Fear not: it’s not because they cook meat but, given that the owners are from India, they have vegetarian-friendly dollops of yogurt or paneer (or, amusingly, straight-up quesadillas).
My suggestion? Go for their pav bahji or one, some, of their incredible soups. From both yellow and black lentil offerings to a mushroom soup that is genuinely stellar (and make sure to get the croutons added), there’s little to go wrong with. But their mulligatawny soup is where it’s at: black pepper, an assortment of split legumes, and overall deliciousness.
Knead Donuts & Tea (3490 E. Seventh Street)
The sweetest of places on this list I save for last: Long Beach, this place is not only home to the best classic blueberry donut, it also rolls out some of the most creative donuts in the city.
Ran by Cambodian family patriarch Huey BeHuynh and his endless array of charming, kind, and outright lovable family members, Knead took over the old Gladstone Donuts at Seventh and Redondo and brings with them their long tradition of making donuts.
And I’m talkin’ creations like crème brûlée donuts, Tiger Tails, strawberry-banana delights, Drake’s passionfruit donut—yup—and the best damn blueberry donut this side of Maine.
Donut making has a rich history in Cambodian culture and, therefore, a rich history in Long Beach given the Cambodian community’s extensive influence on local culture after escaping the Khmer Rouge to build new roots here. It became a way for these immigrant families to sustain the future of their children while assimilating into a culture beyond opening a noodle shack. (Hey there, Phnom Penh.)
This is the place where you’ll often run into Amy, the daughter of owner Huey, who not only takes me through the menu item-by-item if there are any updates to be had but is honestly one of the most genuine people to talk about in support of her family’s endeavors. Hell, when one customer asked if they had their maple bacon donuts, she said would be willing to whip some up if they gave her a few minutes since they were sold out.
It’s that kind of joint; filled with love and the aromas of an old-school donutery but with contemporary flair.
Their Tiger’s Tail, a twisted strip of chocolate cake intertwined with their yeast-based dough, is nothing short of addicting; the sweetness of the chocolate pairs wonderfully with the sourdough-y flavor of the yeast dough.
Or their crème brûlée donut, a cream-filled round wonder topped with caramelized sugar that gives the I-have-to-get-out-my-spoon crack of the French dessert’s traditional topping paired with the creaminess hidden underneath.
And that blueberry donut.
Taking a glance, one expects the typical, heavy-cake that comes with the history of this esteemed piece of fried dough. But like my go-to Sidecar’s famed huckleberry donut, Knead’s blueberry concoction is light, sitting perfectly between cake and donut—and therefore, creating the perfect blueberry donut.
On top of it all, they offer taro milk tea, Vietnamese iced coffee, boba, and a plethora of other Asia-centric sweet drinks on top of some spectacular house-made croissant breakfast sammies.
In other words, go.
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