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Photo above by Brian Addison.
For the decade I have been writing about this city, I have refused to do Best Of lists on anything, let alone food.
I do “places” lists, something I lovingly but judging-ly call “listicles” because of society’s obsessions with lists. And I do lists that lack ranking and simply point to what I think are great things.
While the philosophy behind this refusal to name The Best with a Capital B is far more complicated inside my own head, the main thrust behind it, particularly when it comes to food, is quite simple: I find it extremely difficult to separate the things made for us from the folks who make them. When I meet a maker, it is hard for me to sit there, looking at something I myself didn’t make, and judge its merit.
(Also, the aforementioned men point to something problematic in food writing: the glaringly obvious absence of females. Thankfully, Long Beach has Sarah Bennett, who recently scored the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award’s top spot for food and cultural criticism.)
I love to be academic on a lotta things—and some subjects I feel often lack the lofty, cerebral side in journalism—but food writing is much more than, “Here is good food. This food is bad. That food is whatever.” And the reason why writing about food from more than the critical, academic side is so important is because food is one of the most fascinating conundrums within the human condition: at its core, it’s nothing more than a substance we need to survive and yet, we continually strive to create family, memories, and experiences with it; we attach ethics and conscientious to it; we have abused it, politicized it, and deified it.
This year, when taking all this into account, marked a distinct turn in what kind of food Long Beach is making, and this new influx of food highlighted even more the old-school spots continuing to churn out solid cuisine.
Given this, my list might be odd to some, wrong to many, annoying to those over there, even overrated to them over here (which is an almost impossible notion to argue when it comes to listicles)… And yes, many of these places are places I’ve discussed before so I could very well sound like a broken record. Those sentiments are a given.
But the main thrust of this piece is to show that Long Beach actually has great cuisine; not good, not decent—great.
Let the countdown begin…
15. Beer Belly (255 Long Beach Blvd.)
Photo by Brian Addison
Let me offer a frank admission, Long Beach: gastropubs are now banal. I know you know what I’m talking about because Long Beach itself helped usher The Gastropub Wave in by way of staples like Congregation and Beachwood (the latter named one of the best in the world at the World Beer Cup).
But they’ve become terribly redundant: stellar craft beer taps paired with excessively decadent offerings that include a bacon or egg on seemingly everything along with appetizers ranging from poutine to poutine with tots to poutine with clarified butter-fried organic single-source heirloom potatoes and a bacon fat gravy from the ever ubiquitous “Grandma’s Recipe”
Much like anything, excessive intake can lead to tiredness which then leads to boredom—which is why the work of Chef Wes Lieberher (who also headed the flagship Beer Belly’s menu as well as the sadly defunct Whiz) is even more welcomed.
Surely, you can find Death By Duck Fries—fries lathered in duck fat and duck confit and a signature of the OG Beer Belly—but you can also find other wonders of a menu that rotates and alters with Lieberher’s own feelings on the place he now calls home: Long Beach. He becomes inspired by the food within the city, the farmers markets within the city, and the folks within the city. Beer Belly’s Long Beach location? It’s a reflection of Long Beach itself.
14. Padre (525 Broadway Ave.)
Photo by Brian Addison
When owner Jay Krymis first opened Padre, it quickly became a hit—but then came the many ups and downs. Sifting through chefs, it didn’t really have a clear vision and that, in turn, caused the quality of food to fluctuate.
Until Guadalajara-based Chef Manuel Bañuelos came along, the guy who once served up the area’s best torta ahogada at Balam in Lynwood (which is still open and still good), and creates tacos filled with mole alemandrado and witty twists like chicken tinga masala.
But with Padre, Bañuelos creates what he calls “chef-driven Mexican food.” (Not uncommon to our neighbor to the north with joints like Broken Spanish and Taco Maria and certainly not uncommon to a few other mentions on this list.)
And the food works.
Bañuelos even embraces vegetarian food by creating a vegan—yes, vegan—ceviche: asparagus and hearty chunks of hearts of palm are thrown into a citrus-y 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).
And just look at his pork belly [pictured above]: eschewing the chicharrones– or carnitas-like pork belly, Bañuelos creates a morita—the spicy chile blend you’ll often find as an additive to pozole—but he uses hibiscus. The result is a tangy, sweet, and tart glaze that, when heaped upon pickled onions, oregano, and mint, creates a type of pork that is hard to find elsewhere.
13. Jongewaard’s Bake-n-Broil (3697 Atlantic Ave.)
Photo by Brian Addison
In the words of Russ Parsons, in a perfect world, every neighborhood would have a Bake-n-Broil.
Birthed in 1965 by Roger and Carol Jongewaard, it is the epitome of a classic American coffeeshop and diner—the one cringe-inducing joints like Chuck’s wish they could remotely be like and the kind that spawned one-too-many offshoots and lost its quality along the way.
Carol, let me be frank, is the essence of Bake-n-Broil.
This masterful baker could churn out an orange-glazed muffin that would simultaneously fill you with warm and wonder just how one managed to get a muffin that moist, that flavorful, that decadent. And the two bakers who have been roughly running the joint for the past three decades are direct descendants of Training By Carol.
Her peanut butter cookie—one of the best ever—is slathered with fresh peanut butter on top. Her carrot cake is perfection, its cream cheese frosting not too sweet and just enough tart. And her 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.)
Of course, it goes beyond the baking as well: the “broil” part of Bake-n-Broil is just as solid.
It’s comfort food—unquestionably so. But it’s comfort food that you wish was always within arm’s reach.
12. Michael’s Restaurant Group (Mulitple Locations)
Photo by Brian Addison
Is listing a restaurant group on this list a tad bit unfair? Sure. Has Michael Dene and his restaurempire altered the culinary landscape of Long Beach? Yes.
The group’s knack for providing continually contemporary, high-end Italian food has garnered accolade after accolade.
Michael’s on Naples, the original restaurant of the group’s trio offerings, was the restaurant that became attached to the now-famous year that Zagat called it the best Italian restaurant and the second-best restaurant period in Southern California.
Michael’s Pizzeria, the group’s second venture with three locations across SoCal, including two in Long Beach, was named one the best pizzerias in the nation by Zagat.
Chianina? It’s the sole place in the nation you can score a piece of Italy’s prized Chianina beef, thanks to a persistent if not outright determined Dene courting the only farm in the nation to raise the cattle.
And at Working Class Kitchen, the group’s ode to the Italian deli in the Zaferia District off Anaheim, their crew churns out burgers, sausages, cold cuts, and more.
See, it goes past the group’s seemingly simplistic presentation that isn’t simple at all.
It goes beyond getting a house-made pappardelle pasta (one of my absolute favorite pastas) with nothing more a light wine sauce and tons of freshly shaved truffle at a pizzeria for $20.
It goes beyond their Meyer lemon-cured branzino (European sea bass), delicately laid on top of a crostini.
It surpasses way they add bits of hazelnut brittle and droplets of basil oil over their beet and apple salad.
It goes much past how they stuff a pork loin with housemade rabbit sausage and then wrap the loin in smokey speck.
It’s the fact that they respect the mouths of their customers as much as they do the food they plate: they’ve simultaneously brought new forms of fine and casual dining to Long Beach—and that is no small feat.
11. 555 East Steakhouse
Photo courtesy of 555.
The 555 is indicative of two things: DTLB’s lost (but slowly returning) era as one of the region’s epicenter of a place to show your loved one the high life and the fact that the all-American steakhouse shall never die. (Forget the fact that pictured above is its famous Oscar Style filet, topped with lump crab and hollandaise sauce; all you need is the 60-day aged porterhouse cooked rare).
I first stepped into this Rat Pack-y joint when I was hired to oversee the Long Beach Post. It was where I wanted to photograph then-Mayor Bob Foster for our cover issue. Why there? Because Foster had this bulldog-meets-Italiano feel about him and what better place than one that both Frank Sinatra and Al Capone would feel comfortable in?
After the photoshoot, then-publisher of the Post and my sorely missed friend Shaun Lumachi asked me if I would like lunch—so naturally, I ordered a New York Steak. However, upon my grinnin’ and chucklin’ at their Cooking Chart attached to the menu (where well-done isn’t even an option, thank the gods, reflecting the way Europeans respect their cows), I fell in love with the 555 by ordering my steak cooked Black and Blue: charred on the outside and raw on the inside.
Since then, and ever since then, it has remained one of my favorite steaks. If I feel like taking it up a notch, I order their bone-in New York cut cooked rare or very rare—depending on if I want to talk a little during my meal or not at all—and once done, order a Last Word cocktail, a perfect concoction of dry gin, green chartreuse, fresh lime, and maraschino.
If only I actually owned a tux…
10. Lola’s Mexican Cuisine
Photo by Brian Addison
Some call Lola’s overrated. To an extent, I understand. Not necessarily because I am judging their taste—the food at Lola’s is more than solid and I have yet to lack success in converting folks onto that—but due to the fact that most never met Lola herself and associate it with her son, Luis Navarro.
See, Luis is everywhere, all the time. Smiling. Jolly. Exuding everything great about happiness, the restaurant business and its stresses, and having a reputation. (I can relate, Luis.) And it gets people talking about Lola’s a lot. This, in turn, prompts a sense of annoyance for a group of bitter folks. They want $8.95, enormous platters of meat served with rice and beans and free chips’n’salsa. If this is what they are seeking, yes, Lola’s will not be for them and they will call the joint “overrated.” One person even said Lola’s was “one step above Taco Bell” in a comment thread of mine.
While you enjoy the culinary expertise that is a Chalupa 7-Layer Crunch Nacho Beef Burrito Wrap, I need to repeat a story I’ve told time and time again.
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.
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.
And it was here—after telling me that she would never serve birria di chivo to anyone, be it in her house or restaurant—that I truly understood, 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.
Since Lola has sadly passed, Luis and his underrated, under-appreciated, under-acknowledged wife Brenda have taken a loss and turned it into something that is not only delicious but an experience that doesn’t require rice and beans.
09. La Parolaccia Osteria (2945 E. Broadway)
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, by pointing out certain Mexican joints on this list, offensive to our neighbors to the south as well.)
And while I am honored and happy to see my heritage’s cuisine reaching the upper echelons of fine dining, 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.
In other terms, it represents accessible and quality Italian food in an atmosphere that somehow lacks pretense and yet encourages to speak Italian as properly as their servers.
08. Restauration (2708 E 4th St.)
Photo by Philip Pretty
Ever since Restauration’s Dana Tanner took on Chef Philip Pretty as their Head of Kitchen, the restaurant has been booming with creativity, color, and coolness. 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.
Even more, his support of urban farming—using urban farms, supporting urban farms, hosting dinners at urban farms—is a testament to the type of way he approaches food and reflects what Tanner has been trying to achieve since day one: represent Long Beach as its first contemporary, all-Californian bistro.
Restauration has his its own plot at Organic Harvest Gardens in North Long Beach, where it procures over half of its produce from. Pretty visits three times a week while the garden, in return, visits Restauration twice a week.
This harmonious relationship shows not only the power of keeping it local but allows Pretty to offer spectacularly gorgeous plates like roasted with carrots with sorghum grain topped with watercress leaves and radishes. Or arguably one of the best appetizers he’s ever created: my favorite, beef carpaccio, made from raw flat iron steak and topped with a tad bit of dijon aioli and garlic scape chimichurri, while slathered in pickled fresno peppers and fried shallots that create a sweet-and-sour tinge to the wonderful umami-like flavor of the carpaccio.
07. taste wine-beer-kitchen (3506 E. Broadway Ave.)
Photo by Jared Diaz
Creating good food and creating new food are two different talents that don’t necessarily coincide with one another all the time.
And like the aforementioned Restauration, taste wine-beer-kitchen somehow makes that happen on a continual basis in a space that can only handle a handful of pairs and groups that, since my first visit, has often reminded me of the tiny spaces throughout Mexico and Europe that make you never want to leave—just keep ordering and ordering and ordering…
The brainchild of Olive Grocer founders, owners, and—damn right, ladies—loving couple Erin O’Hagan and Laurie Semon, this joint has for two years learned to introduce its patrons to new discoveries without offending them by the removal of favorites. (My stomach still misses their outright awesome Vietnamese meatballs.)
While many comparisons can be made between it and Restauration, the latter tends to keeps it Californian-driven cuisine, while taste is unabashed about its internationality: harissa and tamari sit on the same rack as do pancetta and ono.
06. Robert Earl’s BBQ (703 E Artesia Blvd.)
Photo by Brian Addison
Real barbecue—whether you’re talkin’ Texan or that of Carolina—is actually extremely difficult to find on the West Coast. But the best Texan barbecue west of Texas is right here in Long Beach.
Honestly, the lack of recognition for Long Beach’s BBQ scene—and yes, that includes you, Bigmista—is, at least for me, offensive by this point. 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.
05. El Pollo Imperial (5991 Atlantic Ave.)
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 KFC drive-thru (that they still keep active and even mock ever so slightly with their Inka-ed our chicken logo) filled with classic, unapologetic Peruvian grub.
Surely, if you’ve never had Peruvian before, this is the way to start: the space and food lack pretense—and not in the sense that it lacks quality and flavor but in the sense that it offers the best of Peruvian at its least Westernized.
This isn’t to say I wouldn’t love to see a place like the sadly shuttered Mo-Chica, a DTLA hidden gem that served me some of the best Peruvian ceviche I’ve ever had and, for lack of a better term, “elevated” Peruvian food. It’s just that El Pollo Imperial is pure in its intentions: to offer Peruvian classics with little fuss and enormous deliciousness.
It is here where one can easily be introduced to staples like lomo saltado (the OG carne asada fries) and the aforementioned 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 if you’ve had Peruvian food, it is here where you can also explore beyond the saltado. 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, over wonderfully light beans.
04. Phnom Penh Noodle Shack (1644 Cherry Ave.)
Photo courtesy of the Noodle Shack
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—and for that reason alone, Long Beach is home to the most authentic Cambodian cuisine.
This family-owned shop opened in 1985 and has since been serving the best forms of Cambodian foodin 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.
03. Playa Amor (6527 Pacific Coast Hwy)
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…
Long Beach should be honored to have a place that is even remotely like Playa Amor.
02. 4th & Olive (743 E. 4th St.)
Photo courtesy of Daniel Tapia
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: 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 great. 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. In fact, many of the dishes near perfection and, echoing Sarah Bennett, it saddens me whenever I see how empty it is.
01. Ellie’s (204 Orange Ave.)
Photo by Brian Addison
I’ll just be frank: I am prepared to get shit for this one but I don’t care. Has it only been open a few months? Yup. Did it replace a much beloved old-school spot? Yup.
But Ellie’s is more than being the home to the city’s best burger (on par with the creation at Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s Petit Trois on Melrose), best meatballs, and best bread appetizer. (I am being entirely serious when I say that last one: their five-buck bread and pork butter appetizer is genuinely a thing of pure, simple splendor; it’s almost on the level of the first time I had Nancy Silverton’s bread paired with the best olive oil I’ve ever had: so simple, it made you wonder why we complicate food).
You’re witnessing Chef Jason Witzl, the culinary powerhouse that has taken a chance and invested his and his wife’s entire savings on the spot that used to occupy the beloved-but-never-changed-their-menu-in-a-decade At Last Cafe, and him adapting to a city he ultimately doesn’t really know.
But if there is one thing about Witzl that I know, it is, first and foremost, that he is unabashedly unafraid of flavor.
You’ll find dishes topped with generous shavings of Grana Padano. Your pasta, handmade daily, will be topped with dollops of burrata that, wanting to cut through the saltiness of the cheese, Witzl will add a bit of citrus and herbs that create a creamy sauce all on its own.
You’ll find him being incredibly playful—like when Thanksgiving was approaching, he wanted “the entire dinner table on a plate” by mixing apples, roots, squashes, salts, and sweets in a harmoniously beautiful and colorful plate [pictured above].
In other words, it’s food that is hard to find in Long Beach; truly quality bistro fare that takes a hard ponder to think of when it comes to Long Beach grub.
You’re seeing the work of a man who made a name for himself heading the famed Herringbone, with its packed locations in West Hollywood and Santa Monica. He’s been a part of Jonathan Gold-list-topping Campanile. He’s been associated with Michelin-starred joints (Water Grill) and James Beard-recognized joints (Manhattan Beach Post).
You’re seeing a culinary artist take his own savings, his own risk, and planting them in Long Beach—and that, if anything, deserves not just our applause, Long Beach; it deserves our patronage.