Monday, June 17, 2024

Bring on the botanas: El Barrio Cantina in Long Beach brings eclectic menu and ambition to former Ashley’s space

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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.

El Barrio has moved in, flush with an array of earth tones—a calm green there, a deep pink there, plenty of wicker, terrazzo bar and communal table, a purple pulpo mural—and plenty of bright white, showing off how massive the space actually is.

For some, there might be some lamentation over the loss of a dive that was, at least in the last steps of its life, trying to up both its food and ambiance game. After all, it is a space with plenty of pluses: a full kitchen, a backdoor space, plenty of parking…

El Barrio isn’t traditional Mexican—nor is it even really fair to call it Mexican period. Nor is it a taco joint. Nor is it a mariscos place. And, perhaps most of all, it isn’t confused with its identity. That’s what makes it refreshing.

For many, it could be a breath of fresh life, continuing to stretch the much-needed connect between joints like Lola’s, Little Coyote, and the Social List to places like Seabirds, Jounetsu Ramen, and Sideburns.

South Bay-born trio Chef Ulises Pineda-Alfaro and his fellow partners, Joe Lin and Jesse Duron, are no strangers to the food game—Pineda-Alfaro and Duron started off working together at a sushi joint in Redondo before building up the Barrio brand on their own with Lin—but their ambitions with their new Long Beach joint are much bigger than anything they’ve tackled before. 

The carne asada beef rib served with salsa macha, salsa verde, guacamole, and flour tortillas. Photo by Brian Addison.

“I’ve had a long connection to Long Beach,” Duron said. “I have family in Long Beach, some friends as well. My old sushi chef—kid from Japan—has lived in Long Beach since moving to the States. So there was that connection and the blunt reality that L.A. is flat-out too expensive and with how we were looking to make something really unique with this place. I know it sounds cheesy but we wanted to do something different—and Long Beach gives us that.”

And being different is definitely what they are, particularly in terms of 4th Street cuisine.

The taquitos de papa from El Barrio Cantina. Photo by Brian Addison.

“Yeah, no birria here,” Lin laughingly said, playfully prodding the trend that has seemingly taken over the Southland (and yes, is even served at their other Barrio locations). “And we don’t even have a taco menu, really… We wanted to focus on specific dishes, modernize those plates, and span many flavors.”

And span they do.

The braised-and-grilled pulpo from El Barrio Cantina. Photo by Brian Addison.

El Barrio isn’t traditional Mexican—nor is it even really fair to call it Mexican period. And it isn’t a taco joint. And it isn’t a mariscos place. And it isn’t what their previous Barrio locations are. Nor is it really fusion but maybe on some levels? And, perhaps most of all, it isn’t confused with its identity though it might seem so at first glance.

That’s what makes it refreshing: Temaki sits next to a crudo-style riff on Nayarit-style ceviche, echoing the smokey wonder that is the ceviche marinero at the much-beloved Coni’Seafood in Inglewood.

The camerones a la cucaracha. Photo by Brian Addison.
The camerones a la cucaracha. Photo by Brian Addison.

For those searching for a more traditional ceviche, you can go with Pineda-Alfaro’s red aguachile or his straight-up ceviche—but you’ll find Peruvian scallops in your aguachile instead of shrimp and a Japanese-tinged Kampachi with yuzu on the ceviche instead of a more common Pacific pescado.

Camarones a la cucaracha—yes, you read that right: The Cockroach Shrimp—is a dish I perpetually return to over and over in Nayarit, where shrimp are fried with skin on and soaked in a buttery’n’spicy Huichol sauce. Pineda-Alfaro opts for dehydrated prawns, which he slightly rehydrates before frying and, well, you having the enjoyment of eating their crispy, meaty bodies whole in a perfectly heat-driven salsa piquin. Get it with a beer, sit by the open window, and you’ll be a happy clam. Or cameron. Or cucaracha.

But these fried little bits of Nayarit sit right next to good ol’ fish and chips. But instead of cod or haddock, Pineda-Alfaro once again leans on kampachi and instead of a traditional tartar sauce, leans on that subtly sweet yuzu.

Pork belly with a mole verde join a squash tamal with a dark mole. 

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Mexican hot chicken—tending to the Nashville hot chicken trend only in name; this dish’s spirit is something else and equally as fun to explore—sits atop cornbread and is drizzled with a sweet, piloncillo drizzle.

And that slab of golden fried fowl sits next mussels and garlic, albeit a Puerto Rico spin with the mojo de ajo.

The menu is all over the place in a genuinely wondrous way—meaning it works and it works on a level that compliments rather than detracts from its nearby neighbors. Sure, there are nearby joints that have fish and chips and tacos, but what El Barrio is offering isn’t in form of competition.

The mini-potato tacos are as addicting and they are delectable to mow through: chunks of an avocado salsa, slathered in crema and queso fresco. Try to eat one before you’ve noticed it’s been three. 

And then there is the marvel that is their carne asada beef rib. 

This marvelous mound of meat from Pineda-Alfaro is truly a hefty plate, easily shareable between multiple people and playfully plated on a cafeteria platter with literal jars of aguacate salsa, salsa verde, and salsa macha—the mighty chile paste out of Veracruz—to remind you: This is a plate to dig in on. 

Pineda-Alfaro’s use of a hefty rib—a perfect line of charred, crispy fat mixed in with succulent, just-pull-it-off-with-a-fork meat heavily marinated in his own carne asada rub—is both beautiful to look at and better to eat. Served with flour tortillas, it is a taco that is as mighty as it is soulful.

And with a fairly palate-spanning menu comes an opportunity-spanning whirlwind of ideas from Lin and Duron with the space itself.

From opening the back for a beer garden—a hidden space that connects the front main building with their offices in the back—along with the possibility (very, very, very questionable possibility) of opening the roof.

“We’ve received such great feedback from the neighborhood so far,” Lin said, with Duron quickly interrupting to note that they’re “still exploring the entire city’s food” and to expect a visit. “And that’s been genuinely helpful. But to be honest: We just want to open our doors.”

And open their doors they shall: With some final touches being put on the food and cocktail menu—they inherited Ashley’s full liquor license so expect a cocktail menu spanning rums and mezcals, tequilas and gins—they expect El Barrio Cantina to open in the coming weeks.

And with that, arms and mouths wide open.

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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