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Too many years back, I wrote a very self-indulgent listicle that was about so-called “essential” Long Beach dishes; dishes that I loved and could depend on as long as that place existed—and I wrote it because there’s something so elemental and useful about a specific great dish at a specific place. It was less about some grander proclamation than it was about, “This is just great food.”
And after a year of not doing such lists, I want to return to it. Not some grand list of “essential dishes”—that is too hard of a burden to put on a restaurant: You better have this and you better have it all the time. But for now, in this moment, I am happy to share some of my favorite things.
In other words: Why not just own the moment? Without further ado, here are the favorite things I’m eating right now…
Birria lasagna at El Barrio Cantina
210 E. 3rd St.
I’ve always said that Chef Ulises Pineda-Alfaro’s food comes from that old-school ideology that food should speak for itself—leaving aside seemingly endless conversations about food diasporas, what defines undefinable things such as “authenticity,” and the politics behind food.
No matter how you dice it, though, you can’t help but notice how the very neighborhood that shaped the chef—Los Angeles—plays a role in one of his best and most comforting dishes to date: birria lasagna.
For us in SoCal, we often take for granted the kaleidoscope of cultures that come to play with us side-by-side on a daily basis—and that includes dishes in which two separate cultures firmly shake hands to create something magical.
Green tinged lasagna sheets infused with onion and cilantro, stuffed with Barrio’s birria de res and layered with cilantro-infused requeson-style whey cheese, and topped off with a marinara-inspired salsa (that is essential; drizzle it all over the damn thing).
Frog legs at Bar Envie
4000 E. Broadway
Bar Envie—ever since unveiling its inaugural menu this past spring—has quickly become a neighborhood haunt, with locals coming in for everything from a bowl of gumbo from Chef Carlos Jurado (of the stellar Selva) to a drink from one of the city’s best cocktail programs led by bar manager Mike Borowski.
Even more, the space at the southeast corner of Anaheim Street and Termino Avenue had not fared well since The Red Leprechaun had successfully made the space a neighborhood restaurant but eventually closed: Tennessee Jack’s followed, a pair of liquor store owners stepping into the world of food hospitality and, with it, bringing a string of chefs coming and going, a reputation of rowdiness, and an overall middling appeal—hence Bar Envie’s warm welcome.
Here, Jurado saw an opportunity to uplift one of the country’s best cuisines, that of New Orleans.
And there is little more NOLA than a plate of fried frog legs, where Jurado has managed to create a light but heavily textured crust to enwrap the succulent bits of protein. Dip ’em in a smokey aioli and you have yourself a wonderfully perfect starter to what will be a rather rich meal.
Cabeza burrito from Joliza’s
2233 Pacific Ave.
It actually made sense when Yelp!—the ever-nauseating, when-will-it-die rating site that often brings out the worst in online reviewers in terms of shitting on small businesses—named Joliza’s burrito the best in California.
While it spurred a brief, impossible-to-get-into frenzy with lines stretching down Pacific Avenue for blocks, there is no doubt that the burrito lives up to the hype: Savory as hell, filled to the brim with protein, rice, beans, onion, and cilantro, these hefty sacks of comfort define everything one wants from the almighty burrito.
My personal fave? Cabeza, a rare offering that I feel should be more accepted as Americans still tend to steer clear from offal of any sort (which leads to a waste that I find unforgivable but alas, I shall steer clear of the pulpit). Creamy, slightly greasy, full of flavor, this burrito is easily one of the best in the city.
Chicken katsu from Sura Korean BBQ & Tofu House
621 Atlantic Ave.
Yes, yes, Sura is known as the longtime purveyor of Korean flavor when it comes to Long Beach, largely being both its steward in terms of introduction to Korean dishes (like yukgaejang) and a friend during hangovers on the weekend (with dishes like tteokbokki or budae-jjigae).
And for the regulars of Sura, their persistent push toward remaining both respectful of their Korean roots but also innovative—keeping up with the food trends that span Korean food proper and fusion food trends—is a given.
But their chicken katsu? Quite the nice ode to the Japanese classic, where a perfectly fried piece of panko-crusted chicken is slathered in a apple-y, soy sauce-y, silky gravy that is the perfect accompaniment.
Pancit palabok from Gemmae Bake Shop
1356 W. Willow St.
It goes without saying that Gemmae is one of the city’s most cherished gems and has long been a steward in representing Filipino grub for over 30 years. It was then, three decades ago, Prescilla Tolentino decided to uproot herself from the Philippines in order to embark on a trip to the United States. With 13 Gemmae bake shops in the Philippines, she sold ten of them on a gamble to take on a different coast: Long Beach.
Come 1993, at the southwest corner of Willow Street and Easy Avenue in West Long Beach, Priscella opened the first (and only) American Gemmae in what was then a small but growing Filipino and Filipino-American community—and celebrating 30 years of business, has become the heart of Filipino food in Long Beach.
While the shop is known for its sweets, one should not skimp on their savory options—I’ve noted their lumpia, the famed Filipino egg roll. And their Long Beach Food Scene Week special that was their stellar Kamayan plate. But I am returning to one of the Filipino basics: pancit palabok, where bits of pork and shrimp amid noodles it with hard boiled eggs.