Tuesday, April 23, 2024

El Barrio in Long Beach shares history with Mexican joints stretching back to 1950s


As we push toward celebrating Long Beach Food Scene: Last Call—a 10-day, 15-event celebration of our city’s rich bar culture and the people who make it happen—we will offer a series of features that highlight everything from our most stellar cocktail programs at restaurants to to the very events occurring (like this feature on Marlena in Naples)… All in order to lift a glass to a social and economic driver that rarely receives the love its deserves: our bar industry. For more information on Long Beach Last Call, tap here.

One of the most upfront facts about Chef Ulises Pineda-Alfaro’s El Barrio Cantina is that it comes from that all-too-old-school camp that food should speak for itself and for him, the reflections of his Mexican heritage, American upbringing, and mother’s influence shine perfectly bright on their own in his plates.

And like the Los Angeles he was born and raised in, his food mixes playfulness—odes to Taco Bell, plays on the humble fideo, creating chicharrón but with fish…—with serious culinary flare—his scallop crudo and mariscos in general are among the best in the city.

And if anything, what El Barrio represents best is the perfectly melded mixture of Pineda-Alfaro’s heritage, particularly the food of his mother, and his childhood in L.A.

“My food is here,” he once told me said. “I was born in L.A. and raised in it. I was surrounded by different cultures, people from different countries—and my food reflects that. Of course, it’s also a direct reflection of my Mom and her food, which I grew up eating.”

El Barrio’s history sits within one of the most storied dive bar spaces—and comes full circle

Stepping into the space that was once Ashley’s will provide a brief moment of culture shock for the Long Beach denizen who, like myself, learned to drink meandering the bars along 4th Street’s crawl: It’s dark days—even when the front slider wall open—are long gone.

But that history isn’t just a dive bar, where the outcries of losing Ashley’s have largely disappeared (though El Barrio was immediately bombarded with just that despite their continual efforts to be a community space, efforts that exist to this day).

It is the fact that, if anything, El Barrio has returned the space to its Mexican restaurant roots: Since at least the 1950s, the building at 1731 E. 4th St. has been, in some capacity, a Mexican joint.

Its earliest iteration, Ashley’s El Encanto, had a bold approach: A largely in-Spanish menu that, should patrons not understand what they were ordering, could refer to “Ashley’s Mexican food dictionary” and then decide what to pick for their $1.35, three-item combo.

That later changed: When Pineda-Alfaro and his crew began construction on El Barrio, they came across some nice time capsules, including a framed menu from Ashley’s that is likely from the late 70s and a ton of receipts.

“We found this small box and they were full of these receipts,” Pineda-Alfaro said, spreading a wide array of hand-written receipts that had orders of everything from chile rellenos and tacos to chile colorado and enchiladas. “It’s cool to see it come full circle.”

El Barrio’s exclusive Long Beach Last Call menu

These are the three cocktails El Barrio is offering for Long Beach Last Call, running Mar. 1 through Mar. 10.

Fruta Ahumada: Vago mezcal | Guava | Mango | Lemon | Sugar | Chamoy | Tajín

Penicillin: Tequila Ocho | Crème de mûre | Lime | Agave | Triple Sec

La Noche Negra: Tequila Ocho | Crème de Mûre | Lime | Agave | Charcoal | Chamoy

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Wait–you mention “Long Beach Last Call.” What is it?

After the success of my restaurant week last year during August, Long Beach Food Scene Week, bar owners and tenders rightfully asked: “What about a week for us?”

So I decided to oblige and present Long Beach Food Scene: Last Call, a ten-day long celebration of Long Beach’s amazing bar culture, it’s even more amazing workers, and the industry that often goes without recognition as one of our city’s largest economic and social drivers. 

Thanks to my collaborators—Scott Lennard of RNDC and Chris Lewis of Nosotros Tequila y Mezcal—we’ve created some 15 events across the ten-day span on Last Call. To say the least, we’ve worked our asses off and we hope you’ll come out and celebrate with us (that is, if we make it to Day 10 alive).

And Marlena is a part of that—so go order a drink.

El Barrio Cantina is located at 1731 E. 4th St.

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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