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Above: El Pollo Imperial’s seco de cordero. Photo by Brian Addison.
Surely, Long Beach’s culinary scene has been undergoing a renaissance for a few years now. It has garnered the interest of both massive restaurant groups—Cohn Restaurant Group’s $7M-plus investment into its BO-beau location in DTLB reflects an entire shift in how powerful restauranteurs look at us—while budding restauranteurs look to Long Beach for expansion—Luis Navarro, originally with the Retro Row Lola’s joint, now has another Lola’s in Bixby Knolls and The Social List across from the OG Lola’s.
Amongst all the gastronomical growth hide underrated wonders, both old and relatively new. We all know the staples and we definitely know the Googled-listicles of LA and OC publications but I want to shed light on some of my favorite, under-the-radar joints that definitively deserve a bit more love.
In no particular order…
El Pollo Imperial (5991 Atlantic Ave. in North Long Beach)
Unwitting Angelenos and OCers 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 take-over 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 $14 no less—is slow-cooked to perfection in a cilantro sauce that is inimitable.
La Parolaccia Osteria Italiana (2945 E. Broadway in Bluff Heights)
Photo by Brian Addison
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 amongst any Italian 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—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.
Prime by Shenandoah (3701 E. 4th St. in Belmont Heights)
Photo courtesy of Prime.
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 4th & Temple) 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 [pictured], 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.)
Callaloo Caribbean Kitchen (4137 E Anaheim St. in the Zaferia District)
Photo by Brittany Murphy
In Jamaican cuisine, created in the kitchens of the beach-centric humans occupying Trinidad and Tobago, 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.
Beyond this humble-but-mighty dish that will be served to you, Callaloo introduces you to roti—think pita-meets-tortilla, used to wrap a genuinely wonderful mixture of curried potatoes, chick peas, and any meat ranging from chicken to goat–and jerk chicken [pictured] the way you never thought was supposed to be the standard. There’s even homemade ginger beer and mauby, a Trini staple libation with a genuinely awesome bitter’n’sarsaparilla vibe.
Cesar’s Bistro (6240 E. Pacific Coast Hwy. in Bay Harbor)
Photo courtesy of Cesar’s Bistro
I talked about the beauty of simplicity above when discussing La Parolaccia—and Cesar’s Bistro, the tiny-but-mighty joint hidden in the small shopping plaza at Loynes and PCH, is the same for Argentine cuisine.
It’s flat-out, straight-up great Argentine food (with hints of’n’inspiration from Colombia, the Caribbean, Peru and beyond).
Chef Cesar Villarreal showcases the wonders of Latin American food with an Argentine focus (which, by the way, Argentina holds a deep Italian influence and that is why pizza and pasta are amongst its most common dishes and something Cesar offers himself with spectacular results).
Their empanadas? Arguably the best in Long Beach: rich, flakey, buttery, and wonderful, these pockets of white corn dough filled with your choice of meat are addicting (and I highly suggest the seafood-stuffed ones—no joke).
Their pollo gaucho? It’s pictured on the right. And if you thought you’ve had any form of a gaucho dish before this, you are mistaken.
Robert Earl’s BBQ (703 E Artesia Blvd. in North Long Beach)
Photo by Brian Addison
Honestly, how in the hell is this joint not impossible to get into on the daily? Have I not screamed my praises loud enough that Jonathan Gold will finally move past Bludso’s and into the smokey Church of Robert Earl?
Beyond Robert’s smiling mug and humble demeanor and beyond the straight-forward paper tray with red-and-white checkered paper that everything is served in, it is the meat and the talent of the man cooking the meat that makes Robert Earl’s BBQ the best of the best.
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. Should one be resistant to clogged arteries, 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.
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.
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.
Public Beer & Wine Shop (121 W. 4th St. in DTLB)
Photo by Jennie Chapman
For a lot of Mexican food lovers, the closure of Bell’s Corazon y Miel was devastating. A definitively modern take on Mexican food, this joint headed by Chef Eddie Ruiz brought plates like ox tail served with a squash purée and pickled chayote.
Fear not, Long Beach: he has made DTLB his new home and, unbeknownst to most that relate Public to a habitat solely for libations, Ruiz has taken over the bottle shop to bring Long Beach some of the best ceviche and tacos stuffed with cheese and served over bone-marrow beans dubbed Tacos di me Abuelita.
But I do not serve him justice as much as Long Beach writer Sarah Bennett does in her wonderful review of Ruiz’s new digs:
“In addition to occasional dishes that fit his whimsy[,] Ruiz added things like bacon-wrapped hot dogs, brisket sandwiches and macaroni and cheese to the weekend food menu. Since closing Corazón y Miel last summer to focus on a new gig with Chicas Tacos and SLS Hotels, however, the chef says he’s been treating Public like his home kitchen and is ready to debut yet another menu revamp, one that goes back to Ruiz’s roots with barbacoa burritos, lengua tacos and the triumphant return of the ceviche de corazon.”
Monorom Cambodian Restaurant ( in Cambodia Town)
Photo by Brian Addison
For anyone in the trenches of Central Long Beach, Cambodia isn’t just a country nor are its people living here just immigrants. They are an integral part of our city, with families carrying the heavy weights of their elders escaping genocide and their children learning to balance their very American-centric lives while simultaneously trying not to dismiss their heritage.
Yes, it’s that heavy—so when I say that this place is underrated, I do not mean to dismiss joints like Little La Lune (underrated) or the very popular Phnom Penh Noodle Shack (rightfully popular because it’s amazing and easily my top choice).
But there is something about Monorom that proves its underrated: its incredibly fantastic food, including some of the best Bai Sach Goh Jong Gac, aka beef sticks, and Num banh chok, aka Cambodian rice noodle soup, you can have… Its incredible vibe, including how they respect so many aspects of the human experience (like when I witnessed them catering to a birthday party in a way I’ve never seen before in a restaurant)…
When the line at Phnom Penh is too long, it is here you should visit.
Honduras’ Kitchen (1909 E 4th St. just outside Retro Row)
Photo by Brian Addison
Have you ever had great plantains? I mean the kind where the server asks you beforehand whether you want unripe, ripe, or very ripe before they’re even served to you?
That’s Honduras’ Kitchen—just across from the far more popular Pike Bar & Restaurant, home to the city’s best fish’n’chips (yes, still) or if you happen to be Huntington Park, at their other location—which is the kinda place you might notice and when you do, unsure if they’re perpetually celebrating the World Cup or just another bar along one of Long Beach’s most revered bar crawl-able strips.
You’ll be introduced to baleada, a massive flour tortilla stuffed with beans and deliciousness… Pollo frito, their version of fried chicken… Or just go all out and get the Parrillada Hondurena, which comes with—no joke—chicken, pork chops, shrimp, chorizo, platano fritas, beans, rice, and baleadas.
Get your Honduran on, complete with a straw-roof mini hut inside and club lights (because you can always dance with good food).
Natraj Cuisine of India (5262 E 2nd St. in Belmont Shore)
Photo by Masumi Tu
For many, buffets are slowly becoming a dinosaur in the culinary world—and for good reason. (The recently-opened King Buffet in DTLB is the most recent disappointment in eyebrow-raising and stomach-turning buffets.) Buffets have a quantity-over-quality approach that easily turns our appetites south when see heaps and heaps of food, often wasted once the lunch crowd leaves, tossed lazily into steam-heated trays.
Natraj is precisely the opposite.
Not only is their $10 lunch buffet ridiculously awesome—and worth even a commute midday toward—their handling of classic Indian cuisine is astounding and goes beyond their buffet.
Their lamb tikka masala is unlike any version you’ve had before, chicken or otherwise. And when it comes to vegetarian dishes—from aloo gobi (stir-fried potatoes and cauliflower with an intoxicating aromatic of countless Indian spices) to one of my favorites, Mutter Mushroom Cashew—and paneer, a wonderfully rich Indian cheese that holds up well in warm sauces, they have you covered.
Cheko el Rey del Sarandeado (343 E Market St. in North Long Beach)
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.
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.
Playa Amor (6527 Pacific Coast Hwy in East Long Beach)
Playa Amor is Chef Thomas Ortega’s very personal love letter to Mexico. And like any great confession of love, it comes with challenges to the status quo-definition of love. This is modern, intellectual Mexican cuisine for which Ortega is unapologetic about—and he is unapologetic because his homage to Mexico is not lost but simply cascading a new light on a cuisine that has become a direct part of California culture.
When you have a veteran chef that hails from some of Los Angeles’s most respected restaurants, from Lucques to Water Grill, one can expect some hype to surround it. But ever since opening nearly two years ago, Ortega’s efforts must be repeated as love letters to the origins of his family and the cuisine that defined them.
His verison of pescado zarandeado, a fish that is slow-cooked over extremely hot coals [pictured above] is proof that he can be playful but careful to the point of being respectfully referential: using Chilean sea bass instead of the more traditional snook, you’re offered a cleaner but direct descendent of the classic Sinaloan dish.
However, don’t think he won’t slyly throw in a full-on wrench into what you think defines Mexican food. He, indeed, has a pasta dish: bucatini, a spaghetti-like paste with a hallowed center running through, is tossed with roasted New Mexican Hatch chiles cream sauce, garlic, and pecorino.
Either way, whether you play it safe (in my opinion) with Chamoy-glazed pork belly or short rib birria or become adventurous by trying a bowl of chapulines, grasshoppers that Ortega classically fries to a crisp and tosses with citruses and spices, or getting his Mexicano shrimp’n’grits with house-made hominy…
Tito’s Bakery on 4th (1107 E. 4th St. in Alamitos Beach)
Photo by Brian Addison
Here, Long Beach, is the home of the best breakfast burrito in town. Nope, this isn’t your heavy-cheese-and-egg concoction that borders the American palate preference but this is a goddamned taqueria rolled into a tortilla for $6.
One of the few places who isn’t afraid of refried beans, one gets a slather of those delicious kernels of protein (and surely lard, considering how smooth and delectable they are) paired with potatoes, eggs, onions, cilantro, and your choice of chorizo, chicharrones, 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 breakfast 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 okay, because you can always order another if you dare—or you can just go full beached-whale status and have some pan dulce.
Bigmista’s BBQ & Sammich Shop (3444 N Los Coyotes Diagonal)
Photo courtesy of Bigmista’s.
The thing with Bigmista’s is that they’re already well known for the BBQ—and rightfully so. Pullin’ a food truck around LA, the most charming wife’n’husband team, Phyllis and Neil Strawder, garnered a bigger following in LA than they did in Long Beach—even after opening their brick-and-mortar near the Traffic Circle.
But like any tried-and-true Long Beacher, these folks kept it LB, refusing to step outside the city limits despite their almost cult-like following in LA. After success, they keep striving to reinvent themselves.
Whether it’s pulled pork baked potato or brisket over a pile of greens for the low-carb crow, Phyllis and Neil keep their BBQ game tight.
taste wine-beer-kitchen (3506 E. Broadway Ave. in Belmont Heights)
Photo by Brian Addison
A dear friend of mine recommended this—and the first time I tried it, he also happened to be there.
Taste is that place where you will: 1) spend money; 2) keep spending it; 3) understand at the end, it was all worth it.
I am not going to ramble. From Hitachi crudo with blood oranges to beet tar tar, the best damn chicken liver pâté to Vietnamese meatballs, Taste is some of the most direct, high-quality cuisine you can currently score. With a rotating menu, a stellar wine selection, and an intimate space, it’s become a favorite of mine—and hopefully, one of yours as well.
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