Thursday, May 30, 2024

The underrated food coming out of the underrated Zaferia gem that is Commodity

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Tucked into the quiet-but-lovable pocket of small business that is Coronado Avenue in the Zaferia district, Commodity—Alan Gomez’s once-a-coffee-popup, then a coffeeshop, now a full-blown space of coolness all on its own—has anchored itself in an intersection where Los Compadres and Pho Hong Phat have long ruled the plates of passersby.

Having taken over the quick-lived-but-much-loved butchery-meets-sandwich shop that was Working Class Kitchen, it was always in the thoughts of Gomez to have more than just coffee—and in that regard, the space has truly evolved since moving into Zaferia in 2017. He has cups and books. Wine and beer. And a kitchen that begs to be used.

And while Gomez has dug into that dining scene with stellar popups—Hamburgers Nice, Chef Jairo Bogarín’s genuinely stellar smash-burger operation, has been its most worthy anchor—the desire to create a more formal menu direct out of Commodity’s kitchen has long been desired.

And that is where Long Beach chef Josh Haskal of Breakfast Dreams enters, offering (for now) a weekend menu that has grown out trial and error, R&D, and some genuinely great partnering with Gomez. 

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Commodity in the Zaferia District in East Long Beach. Photo by Brian Addison.

Think of Haskal as a consultant with knives: Commodity is his client and once Gomez and Haskal have found the menu that works, Haskal will then train the kitchen and move onto another space. And the chef-gone-vagabond—despite an immense amount of experience, from managing Beer Belly to working at the higher echelons of the SoCal food hierarchy—is where he wants to be. 

Affable, charismatic, and collected, Haskal can be found sitting in one of Commodity’s bright pink chairs on the sidewalk when he is, of course, not behind the counter and in front of the burners. 

“I might be sharing a controversial opinion here but I don’t think Long Beach—or anywhere, really—should have every type of food… I feel like food should reflect the people and experiences of a community—and that means not having everything but focusing on what is great that is already here.”

Between discussing the love of Gen Z and the pitfalls of his own generation of Millenials, stories of anxiety when applying for a job at a Chef José Andrés space and his adoration for the food of Los Angeles, Haskal has moments of vulnerable truths that makes one love his food even more.

“I will not lie: The food industry burnt me out there for a second,” Haskal said. “And it’s not like I wasn’t warned. One of my first big gigs at Roosevelt [Hotel in Hollywood] was met with my boss telling me: ‘You have to really want this and be willing to give up a lot.’ You don’t realize how toxic it can all be until someone is throwing something at you or calling you names… The relationship is so important in taking on these types of endeavors—and really when taking on anything, be it romantic or friendly or professional; the relationship has to be respected and this one was just right.”

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The crab tostada from Commodity. Photo by Brian Addison.

Echoing the sentiment of many—like that of Seabird’s Chef Stephanie Morgan’s admission that finding creativity is hard in these pandemic-lathered times—Haskal’s love-frustrated relationship with the food industry has also created a sense of resilience. Even though he was burnt out, re-approaching food on his own terms also enters with another observation that also gives you insight into his food.

“I might be sharing a controversial opinion here but I don’t think Long Beach—or anywhere, really—should have every type of food,” Haskal said. “I know so many want dim sum but we don’t have a strong Cantonese community here like they do in Downtown L.A. We have strong Thai and Cambodian communities that offer some genuinely great food. I feel like food should reflect the people and experiences of a community—and that means not having everything but focusing on what is great that is already here.”

That sentiment is one that should be properly weighted because, in a deep-seated sense, Haskal is right: Sure, our yearnings for the food of other places is one that is strong—but we had that food in that place for a specific reason. Haskal uses the example of Shake Shack, one of his former favorite New York visits when he would visit family he has out East: With the dose of Shake Shacks invading the West Coast, its appeal has lost its lure.

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The entryway into Commodity’s interior space, shared with All Time Plants. Photo by Brian Addison.

So while Haskal would love to dive into other flavors, he uses this philosophy in food: As a SoCal native, the influence of Mexican and Mexican-American food is one that is deeply engrained, from having Latino neighbors to the need for late night tacos after too much tequila.

That Mexican influence is the one sole line of differentiation in a menu that is hyper-minimal—five items—and spans the breadth of Californian food.

His salsa macha—an almond-meets-arbol and guajillo mixture that doesn’t pack an needed punch of heat as much as it offers a wonderfully savory delivery—is found one both his brussels sprouts and his avocado tostada which is joking introduces as “avocado toast… ada. Get it?” he smiles cheerily.

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And these two dishes—the main veggie stars of the menu—are dangerously good. 

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The Commodity Burger from Zaferia’s Commodity. Photo by Brian Addison.

The sprouts—which are now being warmly welcomed back after every menu of 2016 had them —is halved and deep-fried before being lathered in said salsa macha, a happily herby hoja santa aioli, and crumbles of cotija. The result? A creamy, salty, earthy, pinch-of-spicy concoction that is probably one of my favorite veggie dishes this year.

The avocado to(a)stada sits on a blue corn tortilla shell, where layers of an avocado mash, salsa macha, and cucumbers lie beneath a dazzlingly pink pile of grassy red amaranth. Add an egg and some charred cheese and it is a stellar, lighter alternative to toast.

The other tostada, however, is tethered a bit more to my heart and stomach: The crab version, also sitting on the blue corn tostada of its veggie sibling, is a creamy bit of ocean-meets-earth. A hefty heap of crab, layered with chile dustings and oil, sit under bright Fresno chile slices, red onion, micro cilantro, and another drizzle of that chile oil and dusting of that chile powder. The subtle heat measured with the umami of the crab mixture sitting against the earthiness of the corn tostada? Simply marvelous.

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The avocado toast…ada from Commodity. Photo by Brian Addison.

These lighter options are met with the two heavyweights of the menu: A stacked burger and a sweet potato taco that alters what most find a taco de papa to be defined as.

The burger uses a Hey Brother Baker brioche—which, just worth noting, is probably one of the best French-focused bakeries in the region and is based right here in Long Beach—as its outer layers and a Neiman Ranch ground beef patty as its base.

Eschewing the smash burger trend, the Commodity Burger is a hefty, thick boy, topped with a healthy ooze of melted cheese, charred Anaheim chiles, and the best onion rings I’ve had in a quite a long time.

I want to home in on these onion rings, folks, because they’re more like corn dog-batter onions than onion rings. Multiple rings of onion—not just single ones—are found inside a golden pillow puff of a batter coat. They’re sweet, delightfully as light as they are weighty—and honestly, deserve to be a side of their own.

And when they’re on this burger? They become the star.

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The sweet potato taco from Commodity. Photo by Brian Addison.

Perhaps the most surprising dish on the succinct menu is the sweet potato taco.

Using Kernel of Truth tortillas—the East L.A. tortilleria that churns out some of the most beautiful corn rounds—as its thick, earthy base, Haskal tosses a heap of shredded quesito, the magically melty cheese of Oaxaca, onto the griddle before slapping the hefty yellow corn tortilla until the cheese crisps to a brown, creating a crunch, cheesy insider wall. Atop that sits chile-dusted Japanese sweet potatoes, who subtle sweetness and nice starch percentage create a crisper bite. And that subtle sugar is cut with a genuinely great charred scallion crema that would work wonders a dip for those corn dog-batter onion rings. 

The menu, offered Saturday and Sundays from 11AM to 5PM, has sold out each weekend and rightfully so. It reflects Commodity’s dedication to limited but quality products while also offering a type of food that is reflected of Haskal’s experience while not mimicking other offerings nearby.

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An array of offerings from Commodity. Photo by Brian Addison.

And as for Haskal’s future once his client that is Commodity is pleased? One thing for sure, it will not be a food truck. 

“I love visiting them but have no interest in running them,” Haskal said. “Everyone in the food industry can come from so many angles because it’s not just the creative aspect; it is also the running-a-business side of it, making sure you can survive out there. So I hope to keep doing this, jumping from kitchen to kitchen and helping communities find what they want in their local food.”

We’ll be happily waiting. 

Commodity is located at 1322 Coronado Ave. Their soon-to-be-permanent menu is now being previewed on weekends, 11AM to 5PM.

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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