Friday, July 19, 2024

Chinitos Tacos continues to represent a distinctly Long Beach and Cambodian perspective on the almighty taco

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It is safe to say that Chinitos Tacos—the Cambodian-American-owned taco shop headed by Chef Beeline Krouch—is about as Long Beach as it gets. And in all frankness, there has been a continual frustration on my end, as both a writer and steward for the food community, by the lack of love Chinitos gets (even after multiple inclusions from me on my underrated restaurants lists and a glowing feature in the Los Angeles Times by the much-missed Patricia Escárcega all the way back in 2019).

It could very well be his location: Lakewood, love it or hate it, is different; as in much quieter and much slower. While the patronage is loyal, Krouch finds himself closing early—effectively shutting down his dream of being the late-night-go-to taco joint—and not really feeling much love from Long Beach.

The blunt reality is that while Chinitos might be in Lakewood, it is one-hundred-percent birthed out of Long Beach: Krouch, a Long Beach native, has been serving up some of the region’s most distinct, lavishly layered tacos with his melding of Cambodian and Southeast Asian flavors with Mexican grub, where rounds of melted cheese—burnt to a brown, crêpe-thin crisp—act as taco shells and lemongrass and Chinese 5 spice blend into meats.

And it’s about damn time we remind the city of his story and why Chinitos is a particularly special cog in the Long Beach Food Scene.

Beeline Krouch’s road to Chinitos Tacos has always been paved with food

“My parents had a donut shop—y’know, Cambodian family, gotta have a donut shop,” Krouch said, chuckling. “After that, my mom owned a Chinese food shop that she eventually sold—so I feel like I was born into food, that it was always there. But after high school, I found this passion in food that I really hadn’t tapped into until that moment.”

Jumping into the Long Beach City College’s rightfully lauded culinary program as part of its inaugural cohort, this formal education in the kitchen is really what cemented what would become his life’s passion: professionally making food. The move and Krouch’s experience echo the power of the program’s ability as well as compound the need for trade programs to be accessible for kids directly out of high school.

“The instructors at that program are really the ones who helped me kinda affirm that I could really do this, I could professionally cook,” Krouch said. “And from there, it was a lotta corporate stuff like Elephant Bar which led to gigs like Gaslamp and, eventually, Tantalum.”

Tantalum represented a sense of anxiety and intimidation—”I mean, we all wore chef jackets but the food coming out of that space, at the time for me, was something I was both intimidated by and jealous of,” he said—but also one of challenge: He walked over, applied for a job, and began his real journey toward making Chinitos Tacos a genuine reality (though the idea of that specifically hadn’t quite been birthed yet).

“That was the fuckin’ fuse that burned for me, where I realized this wasn’t just a job but a potential life-changer,” Krouch said.

The realization that owning his own restaurant was clutch for Chinitos Tacos

Partnering with Chef Thomas Ortega—the man behind Playa Amor and the Michelin-recognized Amor y Tacos—on opening Ortega 120 in Redondo Beach after both spending time in the Tantalum kitchen, Krouch came to one realization as he was essentially providing seemingly endless hours for a space that bore the name of another man: He needed to be his own boss.

“The hours I was putting in on salary really put shit into perspective, especially when it came to the value of being paid,” Krouch said. “So the thought of opening my own restaurant made me realize that, for one, I wouldn’t have to be rich and I didn’t have to be rich—and that’s okay because I’d be my own boss, I could make it work. And then, if I family—which I eventually did: my kid is my entire world—I would have a space that I can balance my family, have a place for them to visit and hangout and I could still work.”

This dual dose of self-care and the care for some future family that had yet not arrived defines Krouch’s ethos and character: Care-free but not reckless, kind but not boring, Krouch exudes ideals that are antithetical to most of the kitchens he grew up professionally in. Communication is calm and clear, not militaristic or derogatory. Aura is important—as in keeping it warm, welcoming, like the flow of water rather than the bombs of an avalanche when a chef isn’t having their way.

And that centeredness is what makes Krouch’s food, no matter how little or much of changes, consistently spectacular—and extremely Long Beach: Chinitos was birthed out of the Long Beach culture of late night drinking and visiting El Sauz (or what used to be Brite Spot)’s taco window.

“There was a blueprint of sorts in my head when coming up with Chinitos,” Krouch said, who said his wife Tiffany has always been a steering guide for his endeavors, including support after a meal prep concept fell through for Krouch. “And I just knew, with the taco culture in SoCal, if I didn’t have everything on point, it wouldn’t work.”

The food of Chinitos Tacos is truly a special cog within in the Long Beach food scene

When Krouch’s plate of piled cotija tots comes out—specks of white cheese crumbles and fried garlic clinging to them with scallions—there is something simply warming about it all. Upgrade to the loaded tots and you have yourself an immaculate take on the ubiquitous asada fries that have permeated Southern California culture: A house-made cheese sauce accompanied with a chili aioli coats the tots, scallions and pickled onions dotting the rest, while you can add one of the man’s masterful proteins.

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There’s a beautifully bright carne asada, where garlic and ponzu mix to create a take on the staple that renders other versions less desirable, especially when paired with his burnt cheese taco shell or on loaded tots, where that subtle hint of acidity in the asada cuts through the pure salt and fat of the fried bits.

He uses that ponzu and adds lemongrass for his chicken. A house-curated blend of Asian spices accompany his fatty-in-all the right ways carnitas, with Chinese five spice being added to his stellar beef barbacoa.

Then there’s slightly lighter, more beautiful takes on the taco, like his stellar pork belly taco. Chunks of slighty-sweet-definitively-savory pork belly sit atop browned quesillo on a small four tortilla before being topped with Beeline’s mom’s papaya salad. The result? A quite perfect taco.

These join other little tidbits that have made the space special, like his rice flour-drenched fried cauliflower sides and his playful array on aguas frescas, from Thai tea horchata to lychee jamaica.

It’s a space worth celebrating and one that, now over five years into its existence, worth stapling as one of the city’s classic contributions to the fusion game (though that word definitively cheapens Krouch’s culinary offerings). It is Cambodian. It is Mexican. It is American. And it is definitively Long Beach in a way that is worthy of expansion, worthy of becoming the late night taco space Krouch has always dreamed of.

But the reality and that ever present thing that is growing older offer a different perspective.

“I would love to expand but it can’t be in the way I was hoping,” Krouch would say. “It’s impossible to do another a brick-and-mortar—ten years ago, sure, that was the desire but it’s just way too expensive nowadays and it’s a money pit that doesn’t guarantee you even break even. So I am looking at a food truck, popups like the ones I did at Cambodian New Year’s at Trademark Brewing.

“But I’m still here, always repping Long Beach.”

Chinitos Tacos is located at 11130 Del Amo Blvd. in Lakewood.

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.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I’d like to know more of how he came up with the name. I think it’s interesting because growing up as Filipino that dated Hispanic women, I would always here “hey, where’s your chinito boyfriend?” It would always make me laugh

  2. I’m so glad to see Chinitos Tacos representing the Cambodian culture through their food. As a Long Beach resident, it’s inspiring to see local businesses embracing the diversity of our city. Their tacos are not only delicious, but they also tell a story of perseverance and resilience. Thank you Chinitos for keeping our community connected through food!

  3. Love the post! As a fellow Long Beach resident and Cambodian American, it’s great to see Chinitos Tacos representing our community and culture through the deliciousness of tacos. It’s a reminder that our diverse perspectives and experiences are what make Long Beach such a unique and vibrant place. Keep spreading the love for Chinitos Tacos and the Long Beach Cambodian community!

  4. I’m so glad to see Chinitos Tacos continuing to represent the diverse culinary scene in Long Beach! As a Cambodian American, it’s great to see our culture and food being celebrated in this way. The almighty taco is truly a culinary force to be reckoned with, and Chinitos is doing it justice. Keep bringing the flavors, Long Beach!

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