Thursday, May 30, 2024

A Beautiful Disaster: How the pandemic made Bungalow Long Beach pivot from lounge to full-blown kitchen

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“It’s a beautiful disaster.” These are the words of Bungalow Long Beach co-owner Brent Bolthouse, who never really thought “kitchen” was going to be the key cog in what was to be his third iteration of his Bungalow lounge spaces. After all, the Bungalows that were in existence cater to cocktails over cuisine, fun over forks, sociality over sustenance.

“I am really good at creating vibes,” Bolthouse said, leaning back into one of the hundreds of custom-made seats as he glances around the massive patio space that overlooks the Alamitos Bay marina. “That’s what I do best: I create hang-out spaces that cater to the bar life. But then this—” as he gestures to his mask, “—this came along.”

Bolthouse had taken over what was initially two separate places inside the 2nd & PCH complex, creating what is one of the area’s largest social and dining spaces in the process. With a small but formidable bar menu directed by Mina, Bungalow never saw its doors open before the pandemic hit—and with the hefty blow dealt to restaurants, Bolthouse witnessed the even worse hit given to the bar community.

“I am really good at creating vibes.” – Bungalow Long Beach co-owner Brent Bolthouse

“We were entirely vilified,” Bolthouse said. “When we opened in the previous summer—the Huntington Beach and Santa Monica bars—we saw the sales of those places drop by over 90% during the pandemic. All summer was hectic: We opened Huntington Beach for two weeks and then I shut it down. It was like, ‘Why am I even bothering?’ I knew we had to change our model because bars just weren’t surviving on any level.”

With little to no way the bar culture could swim or politick their way out of it, Bolthouse re-approached friend and partner, Michelin-star Chef Michael Mina: They had long been working on what would have been the first Bungalow Kitchen—a full, Mina-centric restaurant in one of the Bay’s most exclusive neighborhoods, Tiburon—but Bolthouse felt he could change the Bungalow at 2nd & PCH into a full-blown Mina kitchen.

“Michael was, admittedly, hesitant and nervous at first,” Bolthouse said. “We were talking all the time and, despite that hesitance, we both knew we had to shift our model. [While Mina was an investor in the bars since day one, he] was worried it would affect the brand [at the Tiburon location]. But when he saw what I built, he was taken aback—and he was really on board to really put his name front and center.”

Bungalow Long Beach is a masterful use of space and place

The entry to the Bungalow Kitchen is a wonderfully sly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it front door with a small desk and no other signage besides the small rectangle emblem that bears Mina’s name at every one of his establishments. 

Why so sly? It opens into a massive, multi-room space where each haven has its own vibe: There’s the North African-accented front room, there’s a music-centric billiard space, a more library-like lounge, the main dining room, and the massive patio space that planks the southwest edge—all accompanied by four different bars that will quench ant of your libation needs, be they alcoholic or not. (Bolthouse himself doesn’t drink so there is a “Zero proof” menu for cocktails that is both welcoming and well-curated.)

What Mina and Bungalow Long Beach mean in terms of the food scene

And while this is Mina “scaling back” to an upper-mid-range menu—you’ll find plates like a hefty portion of Grand Marnier-soaked fried duck wings, poke, shrimp toast, even a margherita pizza all for under $20 a piece—there are definitive points that allow folks to go all-out-bougie and glam—say, by adding an ounce of Tase Nicoulai Osetra caviar to their potato pancakes or take part in a $105 whole-lobster pot pie that is disassembled and reconstructed table side to showcase the lobster’s full body. 

And to be forewarned: Mina never sticks to the same menu forever, with items (possibly including the very ones mentioned here) constantly disappearing or reappearing re-imagined or…

But it really is in those more accessible moments that Mina shines. Sure, the massive and decadent cold shellfish platters are a wonder to behold—chilled Maine lobster and crab legs sit next to Kumiai oysters and massive, beautifully entangled shrimp all sitting atop an ice-filled silver bowl—but it is the more homey parts of Mina’s menu that really offer a glimpse of what the Bungalow Kitchen will grow into over time.

Those duck wings previously mentioned? They’re truly a wonder: The hefty orange-ness of the liqueur is the perfect addition for the fattiness of the wings, resulting in beautifully charred, caramelized bits of fried fowl that honestly don’t need the green, chimmichurri-like sauce that accompanies it.

Mina’s masterful shrimp toast—unquestionably the best I’ve had since Chef Melissa Ortiz served up her equally masterful version while she was heading up the Bamboo Lounge two years back—is a wonderfully simply but beautiful ode to the classic Chinese dish.

And his pastas—contributing the wonderful pasta game happening in Long Beach thanks to the likes of Ellie’s in Alamitos Beach and Wood & Salt in Bixby Knolls—is one that is incredibly welcoming: His mushroom-stuffed agnolotti are dreamy, cloudy pillows of wonder whose earthiness is taken to heights with the additional earthiness of black truffle. His rigatoni—thick, hefty tubes easy for gripping sauce—is slathered in a kale pesto that is as bright as it is wonderfully salty.

Even his late night bar menu—served 10PM to close—is an easy way to skip the line of the reservations required for dinner and experience some offerings. One suggestion? The late-night-menu-only item that are the porchetta tacos, an Italy-meets-Mexico mashup that is not only wondrous but outright addicting. 

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Surely, it is likely we are to see these more homey dishes disappear as the effects of the pandemic begin become less and less apparent and going out feels more and more normal. That could very well happen.

But there is no taking back the beautiful sight of a patio lined with diners eating the food of a chef that was, in all frankness, never meant to be here in such a permanent way.

“Chef Mina is obviously around the country and globe catering to his restaurants,” said Lino Suazo, operations manager for the Mina Restaurant Group. “Long Beach will be one of those places in the future as Chef returns to alter the menu according to seasons and accessibility. So yes, Long Beach is a new home for Chef Mina.”

And we are happy to have him. Oh, and one more thing: If you have the chance to be served by Linny, don’t bother picking cocktails of your choice; he is a wonderfully charmer master of pairings whose taste is a welcomed layer of frosting on an already great cake. 

The Bungalow Kitchen is located inside the 2nd & PCH retail complex in Alamitos Bay. Reservations are highly recommended though not necessarily required; walk-ups can oftentimes be seated depending on the situation. For those wanting to experience a limited menu of the space’s offerings without a reservation, the Bungalow Kitchen offers a late-night menu. 

Can’t get a reservation online? Call them directly to see if you can finagle your way in.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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