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Photos by Brian Addison.
Above: shrimp and scallop coctele served with a shot of mezcal, adding a smokey contribution the tomato-based liquid and arguably my new favorite hangover cure.
This piece is not what was initially intended—I have to preface it with that because there is this odd hatred toward “fancy Mexican”/Mexican-food-that-isn’t-a-rice’n’refried-beans-combo in Long Beach. This isn’t an anecdotal observation. After saying I was ecstatic to share some food porn from longtime Mexican staple Lola’s, the comments were astounding.
One person said they’d be better off without the “fancy” stuff (a statement that any Mexican, be they from Jalisco like the heritage of Lola’s owners Luis Navarro and Brenda Rivera or Oaxaca or Quintana Roo or Nayarit or any of the other Mexican states, each with entirely different styles and flavors, would disagree about elevating Mexican cuisine). One person said it was “one step above Taco Bell”—no fucking joke. He also said that “as a Mexican American, I personally would not take my relatives (Mexicans) there because it’s truly not authentic.”
So we’re gonna have a discussion about so-called “authenticity”—a joke in the culinary world—and its attachment to Lola’s.
Lola’s chile verde with potatoes and egg.
Maria Delores Navarro—referred to by friends and family simply as “Lola”—came to Long Beach from Guadalajara in 1972 with nothing but fifty bucks and the dream of opening a restaurant. Little did she know that her dream, which became tangible with the opening of Lola’s Mexican Cuisine on Retro Row, would be celebrating its nineth year running today.
Food served to me from Lola herself made me hit a realization: like every other cuisine in the world, “authenticity” thrives not on rules but a knowledge of history, a talent at tweaking the traditions of those histories, and so much love that it requires you to share it.
For Lola, food was life: it connected communities, families, friends, lovers, and strangers. After having two children—Luis and Erica—food became even more important since it sustained her family while she cleaned homes after moving to the States.
By 2007, her children were grown but her dream still remained—and she decided to act upon it, opening up Lola’s Mexican Cuisine on 4th Street in the heart of Retro Row.
It was then that I first met Lola, a few weeks after they had opened. My curiosity was not just piqued by a sit-down Mexican joint hitting the heart of my own ‘hood, but a sign out front that made my heart burst with gastronomical joy: she was serving birria, one of my personal favorite traditional Mexican dishes where goat is marinated for hours on end in a spice-heavy broth that is nothing short of heaven. I was slightly skeptical, however, upon learning she turned the dish into something I initially felt made the dish either too uppity or awesomely uppity: rather than the traditional goat, she used pork and veal.
Lola’s ceviche with grouper, mango, avocado, onion, jalapeño, in an asparagus caldo.
“I have nothing against the goat,” Lola then told me. “But this is the way birria should always be made in my opinion.”
Having learned to never argue with a Mexican mother, I ordered the birria—and to this day, it remains my one of favorites and it made me hit a realization: like every other cuisine in the world, “authenticity” thrives not on rules but a knowledge of history, a talent at tweaking the traditions of those histories, and so much love that it requires you to share it.
So I am not going to go into details on their new food; you can read the descriptions in each caption and decide for yourself because I realized that a Long Beach restaurant, about to celebrate a decade of existence and serves quality food? It isn’t to be downsized because some are self-induced SoCal allergy to Mexican food that isn’t made from a truck and costs five bucks.
“It took me a while, not gonna lie,” Luis told me as he handed me a plate of chile verde [pictured above]. Nope, not the chile verde with short ribs that he had originally planned on having on the new menu but straight-up, no-apologies, pork-based, classic chile verde (that melts in your mouth and is even served in a taco-truck style burrito that comes wrapped in foil and voila).
Lola’s pork belly tacos.
“It took me this long to realize that the rat race of trying to outdo everyone else isn’t worth it,” Luis said. “I know what my mom did, I know what Brenda and I do—and after going back to Mexico over and over, it hit me that I had to return to the basics, find flavors that made me love my mom’s food growing up.”
“If you want some pre-made thing that’s re-heated and doused in sauce and cheese, I am not here to say you’re wrong for that. But I can tell you that it is not what we do. It’s never what we did. We do everything from scratch, to our taste—and to be honest, it’s hard work.” —Brenda Rivera
It worked: his new ceviche [pictured above] plate is one the cleanest and best dishes Luis has ever served me. Instead of that lime-burst you typically get with ceviche, he cuts the marinade with orange juice, letting the fish come out with more of the flavor of the ocean rather than citrus. He then creates a caldo of sorts with asparagus, tops it with mango and jalapeño, and creates a bowl of unstoppable grub.
The thing with Lola’s is this: sit there all you want behind your keyboard, trying to downsize the accomplishments of a Mexican mother trying to fulfill her dreams of serving her food to the people of Long Beach… Sit there all you want behind your keyboard, pulling out your Authentic Card that is as offensive to Mexican cuisine as it is every immigrant that has a strong hand in the kitchen… Sit there all you want behind your keyboard, throwing out hyperbole after hyperbole about how some shit doesn’t satisfy you and you want to return to the 1950s plates of pseudo-Mexican food drenched in yellow cheese and canned enchilada sauce… Sit there all you want. Go for it.
Because it doesn’t matter. Lola’s isn’t for your crowd.
Lola’s version of albondigas, made with ground beef and pork and served in a chipotle tomato sauce.
“If you want some pre-made thing that’s re-heated and doused in sauce and cheese, I am not here to say you’re wrong for that,” said Brenda. “But I can tell you that it is not what we do. It’s never what we did. We do everything from scratch, to our taste—and to be honest, it’s hard work. Choosing plates. Choosing chairs. Choosing colors. Choosing decorations. Coming up with a beer list. Creating a cocktail program. Figuring out side pairings. On top of creating entrées. It’s hard work but we love it and we create it for those that love it as much as we do.”
Lola’s has two locations in Long Beach: 2030 E. 4th St. on Retro Row and 4140 Atlantic Ave. in Bixby Knolls.
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