Monday, April 22, 2024

It was supposed to be a bodega: The unlikely story of Little Coyote Long Beach

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Cringing with anxiety, Little Coyote Long Beach owners Jack Leahy—the pie master—and Jonathan Strader—the marketing master—watched as they saw their precious pizza oven moved into the former Number Nine space piece by piece in the late summer of 2020. Praying the key part of their new business—disassembled and shipped from an old pizzeria up north—would make it, this was one of the final pieces of their happy little oh-shit-we’re-in-a-pandemic Plan B.

And that Plan B was coming along swimmingly for the most part—albeit a bit stressfully—and it certainly wasn’t the bodega they had in mind but it was something.

Little Coyote Long Beach was to be a bodega—well, kinda sorta…

Strader nor Leahy initially had plans to open a pizzeria. They hadn’t even looked on 4th Street. They were already in on the space at the northeast corner of Broadway and Cherry, a longtime mini-market whose owners were done and whose landlord was ready for a new tenant. And they had hoped that the space would become their newest culinary child: an always-evolving, patrons-constantly-coming-and-going bodega.

Strader had been in Long Beach since 2018, having bought a house in Wrigley when he began taking the grueling daily commute back and forth between Long Beach and Culver City to oversee his regionally recognized Hatchet Hall. 

There are those who discovered how to make sourdough during the pandemic and then there was Jack Leahy’s gastronomic gluten laboratory inside his apartment: various doughy concoctions in buckets and bowls, rising room temp or sitting in the fridge, hoping one day they will become the base for what would soon be some of the city’s best pizza…

And despite said commute, things were looking up: Strader was in escrow on the space right across from Hatchet—Roy Choi’s much beloved A Frame, which closed after serving Culver City for nearly a decade—with hopes of doing a Mexican concept.

But then that fell through, leaving Strader with an increasing amount of stress.

“Jonathan straight-up called me, pitching the same idea: a bodega,” said Leahy—former chef de cuisine of Hatchet and, at the time, head chef at the much-lauded L&E Oyster Bar in Silverlake—laughing and referring to the time when he and Strader combined brains to alleviate their combined stress. “I was at L&E at the time—which was great and wonderful—but as a chef there, you’re not exactly empowered to redefine boundaries or even step outside of the seafood box.”

With a lack of culinary inspiration on one side and a frustrating vis-a-vis with the real estate market on the other, a bodega was the dreamy escape both needed—well, or so they had hoped.

Pivoting toward the Little Coyote Long Beach concept

“The partnership [with Hatchet Hall’s co-owner and chef Brian Dunsmoor] has thankfully remained great—we’re still friends,” Strader said. “But it rained on us at Hatchet: Our accountant passed away. Then the pandemic hit. And then everything from there, obviously, collapsed.”

Drama ensued: With threats of unilaterally selling the business from Dunsmoor, Strader now father to a child and a mortgage, and a build-out of the pretty-much-dilapidated space at Broadway and Cherry Avenue, a pivot was not only smart but necessary.

And what they needed was something which was a fast turn-around—or at least fast in terms of the restaurant industry within a global pandemic. And pizza fell both smart and safe: loved by all, easy to make to-go, and pandemic-proof.

Clearing out his apartment, unemployed and feeling creative, Leahy began “fuckin’ around with dough.” Surely, this comes off as humble—and Leahy is one of the most remarkably humble, chill people you’ll meet—but we’re also talking about someone who’s a perfectionist.

You see, there are those who discovered how to make sourdough during the pandemic and then there was Leahy’s pizza dough laboratory inside his apartment: various glutinous concoctions in buckets and bowls, rising room temp or sitting in the fridge, hoping one day they will become the base for what would soon be some of the city’s best pizza..

“It became a little bit surreal at one point,” Leahy said, “because I would have these alarms set, trying to perfect the rising and resting process. So at, like, 2AM, a timer would go off and it’s like, ‘Welp, time to make some pizza.'”

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Going back and forth between different flours and formulations, reading books and going on late-night rabbit holes down the wonderful world of YouTube, Leahy searched for his inner Nancy Silverton with one goal in mind: If he could achieve a dough that is the equivalent of the Greenwich Village institution that is Joe’s Pizza, he would be good to go. 

And his testing after testing, switch of the dial here-meets-turn of the knob there eventually laid the groundwork for what would become the base of some of the city’s best pizza.

And that last part is not hyperbole.

Little Coyote and ‘Long Beach pizza’

Little Coyote—much like its frenemy counterpart, the incredibly delectable 4th Horseman in DTLB—seemingly skipped the Long Beach Approval Process, where leery, local skeptics often force a new restaurant to lovingly suffer for a few months before handing off its formal stamp of approval. 

Even Los Angeles Times food critic Bill Addison—not to be confused with yours truly and no, we are not related—took the extremely rare dip below the 10, not only mentioning Little Coyote in 2021’s best new restaurants but also named it some of the best pizza in the entire region.

“In fact, we were so happy with what Jack was churning out, we abandoned the idea of mimicking New York pizza,” Strader said. “This isn’t New York pizza. It’s not Californian pizza. This is Long Beach pizza.”

The pizzeria’s popularity grew so quickly, the pair became worried: With a dough mixer whose capacity lacked and a space whose storage lacked, they went on the search for another location and stumbled upon a gem: The former Lou & Mike’s space along the apropos Los Coyotes Diagonal in East Long Beach.

Even better? Attached to the small strip mall was a full on commissary, allowing the pair to have a separate operation to handle dough, maintain overall prep for things like sauce, and administration work—and in turn, opening up both kitchens to run more smoothly with clearer pathways and more room. 

And as for the bodega at Broadway and Cherry? All has not been abandoned: They are working through the grueling permitting process that comes with renovating a building that hasn’t been touched in decades. They are working with nonprofit design studio City Fabrick on the interior design of converting the former liquor store into what will be Alamitos Beach’s newest food destination.

But for now? Go ahead and mow down on that pizza. 

Little Coyote is located at 2118 E. 4th St. on Retro Row and 3500 Los Coyotes Diagonal in East Long Beach.

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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