Essential Long Beach Dishes List: 2017 Edition • Long Beach Post

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Photo by Brian Addison. Above: the Chianina Burger at Working Class Kitchen.

The one time I met Mario Batali was in New York. A random group of whomevers were surrounding the chef and, in my brief moment with him, he and I talked about a Sicilian dish that used paccheri pasta and an almond pesto made with anchovy paste and red chile. It was one of my favorite dishes and I was lamenting that staple dishes—dishes that stay at a restaurant—are becoming a thing of the past, as one of the restaurants I was expecting to find the dish had moved beyond it.

And he said something very un-Millenial, un-Chef, and un-New School: “Staple dishes should always exist and we need to stop being, for some odd reason as chefs, obsessed with always creating the new while ignoring what people want to return for over and over. That return is the real part of great food.”

In that vein, there are Long Beach restaurants with staple dishes that are absolutely wonderful and must-eats, whether you’re a local or visitor.

In no particular order, here are 15 essential Long Beach dishes, from street cart food to some of the best slabs of steak in the nation…

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House Special at Phnom Penh Noodle Shack (1644 Cherry Ave.)

Cambodian food in Long Beach is more than a cuisine; it is an inherent part of a culture that was created from a massive loss: the militant and destructive Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot in Cambodia, took over the country in 1975—and it led to the murder of millions of Cambodians, with estimates claiming the loss of 2.4 million Cambodians (of the 3.3 million deaths that occurred during the time of civil unrest).

An entire community was almost annihilated from history and those that could escape made their home here in Long Beach after being taken to Camp Pendleton by rescuers from the U.S. military.

This family-owned shop opened in 1985 and has since been serving the best forms of Cambodian cuisine in the region. Their House Special, pictured here dry but can also come in soup form, is nothing short of wondrous: ground pork and sliced pork are 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.

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Moules Frites at Pier 76 (95 Pine Ave.)

Photo by Brian Addison

The best part about Chef Chris Krajacic’s style is his cleanliness in his approach to food. Eschewing complicated preparation, his plates are simultaneously simple and complex—and this shines best in his moule frites.

Pier’s tin bucket filled with a plethora of freshly steamed California black mussels atop a pile of fries is Krajacic’s take on the seafood classic—and I first experienced at Walt’s Wharf in Seal Beach, which just happened to be under the direction of Krajacic when I had it.

We’re talking brilliant execution here with a white wine broth—beautifully balanced to the point where one could easily use it as a soup—that the fries happily bathe in, mixed with onions, roasted poblano peppers, and chunks of bacon. Add a cold serving of the Tank 7 saison they often offer on draft (or any other farmhouse ale) and you have one of the most addicting dishes in town (and even better: the restaurant’s order-at-the-counter, eat-and-go style can handle lunch seekers with the most limited of schedules).

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Falafel at The HipPea (2023 E. 4th St.)

Photo courtesy of Francesca Houghton.

Speaking of New York in my intro, it always had the best falafel—even the shittiest of food carts would offer up some spectacular version of the Middle Eastern staple, each with its idiosyncrasies and nuances that defined their subtle differences.

Then enter The HipPea, the tiny-but-mighty falafel shop that replaced The Flea Espresso Bar in the minuscule space on the west side of the Art Theatre on Retro Row—and there’s a reason it has an astounding five-star overall rating on Yelp! (which, I must state here, is the definition of evil when it comes to harboring community around food; I wish I could prompt a mass exodus of Yelp! but alas, I don’t have that power).

Based on owner Vered Azari’s grandmother’s Egyptian recipe, this wonderfully bright green ball of deliciousness will fulfill any meat eater or vegan. Served Israeli-style—a little bit of parsley, a little bit of cilantro, chickpeas, onion, cumin, some other magic—and put into a pita pocket, you can either walk-and-eat or enter the struggle of attempting to find a spot at the small diner (which is unlikely because there is usually a line to begin with).

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Smoked Marlin Taco at Cheko el Rey del Sarandeado (343 E. Market Street)

Photo by Brian Addison

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.

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Any Form of Beef at Chianina Steakhouse (5716 E. 2nd St.)

Photo by Brian Addison

There’s a reason that Michael Dene’s famed Italian steakhouse consistently makes lists for having some of the best steaks in the country—and that’s because it does.

Whether it’s their spectacular Piedmontese slabs or the marbly wonder that is their namesake beef—which, by the way, this Long Beach restaurant is the sole place in the entirety of the U.S. where you can score a Chianina steak from a Chianina cow raised locally—these steaks not only make you question how other cows are raised, butchered, and cooked, but the slabs are so massive that they must be shared.

And that’s for good reason: Dene and his team follow the strict Italian guidelines for cooking Chianina and Piedmontese beef—and that means nothing other coals, salt, and olive oil. Yes, you read that right: the meat is seasoned with nothing other than salt and olive oil, and I can assure you that you wouldn’t want it any other way.

Will you be breaking your bank? Yup. Will you be sad at the last bite? Absolutely. Will it be one of the best steaks you’ve ever eaten? Undoubtedly.

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Pambazo at Villas Comida Mexicana (755 W Willow St.)

Photo by Brian Addison

While Los Angeles has long been able to enjoy the Mexican response to a panini-meets-dipped sandwich—DTLA’s Casa La Doña immediately comes to mind though this Long Beach version is even better, to be frank—there’s never been the offering here in Long Beach that I know of.

The pambazo is essentially a griddled version of a torta ahogada—and the result is spectacular: a charred, smoky sandwich—its bread dipped a spicy chile sauce—filled with melted cheese, chorizo, and potatoes, and then cooled with some cold toppings like lettuce and Mexican crema.

They’re served everywhere from but Mexico City is their birthplace and the pambazo is a staple in the rich, unrivaled food cart culture that pervades Mexico.

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Tomahawk Pork Chop at 4th & Olive (743 E. 4th St.)

Photo by Daniel Tapia.

If there is one thing to applaud 4th & Olive owner Daniel Tapia for, it goes beyond his much-talked about focus on hiring veterans to serve and work in his restaurant; from a culinary perspective, he is actually bringing something forth that not just Long Beach but the entire region needs.

And that is Alsatian food, where the finesse of the French meet the flavor profiles of the German. I am talking lotsa fennel, mustard seed, onion, sauerkraut, liver mousses… There’s not a place like it in LA, let alone Long Beach.

But what is perhaps most impressive is that the food is genuinely good. It’s not thoughtless, it’s not quick, it’s not compulsive; it’s food that was deeply thought about, cared for, and presented—and that is because Tapia was brilliant in snagging Salt’s Cure Chef Alex McGroarty, the man who has served me the best bacon I’ve ever had…

…and the best pork chop I’ve ever had. This succulent, dreamy, fat-rendered chop is no easy feat—and to be frank, I would have never ordered it had Tapia not insisted I do. Why? Because I am as picky with pork chops as I am with steaks: many fail to brine or even care about the chop before it even hits a grill, creating a dry piece of pig that leaves a pocket of pain in my heart and bowels.

But this piece of meat, paired with Nantes carrots that are on par with The French Laundry’s astounding version, and you have yourself a wonderful—nay, perfect dish.

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Lena’s Fried Pickles at Beachwood BBQ & Brewing (210 E. 3rd St.)

Photo by Brian Addison

Firstly, forgive the picture’s excessive amount of stouts and porters—though ridiculously delicious, they are not to be paired with Beachwood BBQ & Brewery’s equally delicious fried pickles.

I had these badboys for the first time when owner Gabe Gordon first opened up shop on Main Street in Seal Beach, long before he ventured into the world of brewing and turned Long Beach into one of the most respected independent beer cities in the country.

You might think I’m crazy for putting these on here but as a lover of Southern food, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ordered this basket of joy. Unlike the over-breaded counterparts that other joints often serve, the buttermilk batter Beachwood opts for creates deep fried slivers of salty’n’sour wonder. In all honesty, they’re some of the best fried pickles you’ll ever have. Pairing suggestion? Any IPA or pils.

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Oxtail Donut at Restauration (2708 E 4th St.)

Photo by Philip Pretty

Ever since Restauration took on Chef Philip Pretty as their Head of Kitchen, the restaurant has been booming with creativity. Their Instagram alone proves that. And while Pretty may think his bacon is the best in town—sorry, that honor goes to 4th & Olive—his knack for creating tasty and beautiful dishes should not be dismissed.

In fact, Long Beach writer and fellow foodie Sarah Bennett said it best when she said that Restauration represents the city’s only all-day modern American bistro—and in that sense, Pretty and his crew deserve applause for keeping it fresh.

With a constantly evolving menu, sometimes it is hard to find a staple at Restauration but their oxtail donuts are definitively where it’s at: a house made salted drop doughnut, black garlic salsify purée, brown sugar, and oxtail jam. A savory donut unlike any other.

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Trini Doubles at Callaloo Caribbean Kitchen (4137 E. Anaheim St.)

Photo by Brian Addison

In Jamaican cuisine, created in the kitchens of the beach-centric humans occupying Trinidad and Tobago—lovingly referred to as “T&T” by locals—there is a soup that is synonymous with its culture: callaloo, a wonderfully deep green concoction commonly made of amaranth leaves (known as callaloo leaves on the islands, though States-side, spinach is often used), tannia (a native sweet potato), okra, and a ton of other ingredients.

Like the molé of Oaxaca or cioppino of Genoa, callaloo is a dish that can only be described as itself; it is the noun and the adjective, an introduction of new flavors that introduce you to the palate of the Caribbean in one spoonful. It’s… callaloo-ian.

Hence why owner Hamid Latiff Jr. named his restaurant after it.

Well, Latiff has weekend specials that are special for a reason—and that’s because they’re amazing. As was the first time you had a torta ahogada from Mexican cuisine or a falafel pita from Middle Eastern culture, you will remember the first time you had Trini doubles.

The staple street cart food of Trinidad, the dough is a heavily seasoned, beautifully yellow disc that is fried. The result is a cumin-tumeric base that sits between a slather of curried chickpeas, hot sauce, and cucumbers.

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Chianina Burger at Working Class Kitchen (1322 Coronado Ave.)

Photo by Brian Addison

I mentioned Chianina beef above—and, well, the folks at Chianina Steakhouse don’t waste a drop of it, including the chuck which they ground into ground beef for their spectacular Chianina burgers.

Firstly, one should know a very important fact: this is the only burger of its kind in the States (since the peeps of Michael Dene’s restaurampire have the sole access to the cherished Italian cattle this side of the Pacific). But more importantly, this eight-buck wonder is genuinely wonderful. Beyond wonderful.

And they’ve expanded their burger options. Beforehand, what is pictured was the sole option you could score: a straight-forward burger with carmalized onions, cheddar, a wonderful pepper remoulade, and bacon if you want it. Now they have options like pickled serranos and avocado, house-made mozzarella and balsamic reduction, and house-made pastrami with sauerkraut and pickles.

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Vegan Ceviche at Padre (525 E. Broadway)

Photo by Brian Addison

Finally, Padre has the food it deserves thanks to Guadalajara-based Chef Manuel Bañuelos. Do not get me wrong: I adored the work of Frank DeLoach, Padre’s OG chef—but the reality of the matter is that the food he served me wasn’t always the food I would get.

It is time to leave that behind.

Bañuelos’ food—one which has brought him across the world from London and Morocco to Chicago and LA—is nothing short of spectacular.

And his embracing of vegetarian food including vegan—yes, vegan—ceviche is one of his most spectacular dishes: asparagus and hearty chunks of hearts of palm are thrown into a citrusy coconut milk bath, tossed with some lemon basil and drizzled with a lime-basil oil. The final unveiling is a beautiful concoction of ceviche-like flavors that matches the acidity and flavor profile of his Santa Barbara shrimp aguachile (minus the rich herbal addition of hoja santa that makes his aguachile dangerously edible).

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Brisket at Robert Earl’s BBQ (703 E. Artesia Blvd.)

Photo by Brian Addison

A friend of mine told me once that this picture looks like the mangled nether-regions of someone in a situation gone terribly awry—and for that, I thanked him. Immensely offensive humor aside, this is Robert Earl’s brisket and it is spectacular.

Sure, 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.

And yes, their links—bites that look over-cooked yet pop with a moist spiciness that makes them spot on—are one of many pork options and that is a testament to the fact that their beef and pork is where it’s at.

And undoubtedly, the ribs are simply and generously seasoned with salt’n’pepper, charred to perfection and slathered with Earl’s not-too-sweet sauce that makes it extremely difficult to not overeat.

But if there’s one thing at Earl’s that will certainly make you gluttonous, it’s unquestionably 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.

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Tripe Taco at El Taco Loco #3 (1465 Magnolia Ave.)

Photo by Brian Addison

In the picture above, you’ll see two tacos—and surely the buche on the left is legit but when it comes to the best tripas I’ve ever had, it’s shoved into that little tortilla pocket on the right.

Handmade tortillas—not too small, not too thick, and plenty of room for a meaty filling—come with a healthy dose of tripe, marinated and wonderfully charred to a perfect crisp, slathered in salsa and topped with onion and cilantro. This is the classic taco at its finest, served with a part of the cow all-too-often dismissed by boring appetites.

Even better? The joint is open 24/7—just make sure when you get to the counter after waiting in line, you’re not the one holding up the hungry paisas behind you.

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Anything from the Bakery at Jongewaard’s Bake-n-Broil (3697 Atlantic Ave.)

Photo by Brian Addison

Not fair, I know: an entire bakery versus an individual dish. But Bixby Knolls’ Bake-n-Broil is famed, iconic, a staple—and for damn good reason: they are arguably the best bakery in town, serving up carby’n’classic sweets that can even put Grandma’s skills to the test.

Their peanut butter cookie—one of the best ever—is slathered with fresh peanut butter on top. Their carrot cake is perfection, its cream cheese frosting not too sweet and just enough tart. Banana Cream Pie? LA Magazine thinks it’s the best in the region (though it runs damn close with The Apple Pan’s magnificent banana pie.) Speaking of cream cheese frosting, the same goes for their Red Velvet cake.

And their muffins? Unlike any you’ve ever had. You think you’ve had a blueberry or a lemon or a banana walnut or an apple cinnamon muffin but in all honesty, you haven’t until you have had Bake-n-Broil’s absurdly large, muffin-top-expanding-into-impossible spaces muffins.

In other words, just go.

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