Thursday, May 30, 2024

The creamy, dreamy, silky, milky, cheesy world of Long Beach’s Oh La Vache

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It was a wafer-thin slice of flat black milkiness, like a creamy, magical chunk of charcoal had been masterfully shaved into papery sheets.

First hit was that lactose, second was lemon, third was the combination: a sweet, citrusy, dessert like flavor that enveloped the entirety of your tongue. It was the first time I had tasted a cheese and felt like I was eating full-on dessert: Put it atop a piece of bread and surely most would think it was some sugary creation with a bit of sophistication. 

It’s Anati Black Lemon Gouda—and it is one of many cheesy wonders to be found at Erika Ponzo and Jessica Sarwine’s Oh La Vache cheese shop on Retro Row. 

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Oh La Vache serves up slices of Amanti’s black lemon gouda cheese with Hey Brother Baker baguette slices. Photo by Brian Addison.

Genuinely kind, insanely intelligent, and above all warmly welcoming, the pair have given Long Beach—and particularly the Alamitos Beach neighborhood—something it has long deserved: a cheese shop that lacks pretense and is solely filled with the gastronomically admirable goal of sharing the love of The Holy Trinity: the wondrous cornucopia of dairy delights that come from cow, sheep, and goat’s milks.

This isn’t to downsize the wonder that is Bixby Knolls and Belmont Shore’s Cheese Addiction shops—before Oh La Vache, they were the sole, stand-out stalwarts of cheese purveyors in the city—but to actually emphasize it: That long stretch between the Knolls and the Shore is a mighty big one. And Oh La Vache enters not only geographically in between it but also philosophically, where accessibility and approachability take center.

Yes, cheese can be luxurious and expensive. But cheese is nearly as old as civilization itself, predating writing and metal weaponry with its nearly 8,000 B.C.E. birthday in the Fertile Crescent—and with Oh La Vache’s focus on accessibility, it can also be monetarily manageable and easily explorable.

“We like to think of throwing pretentiousness out the door,” Ponzo said. “We want to be approachable and get rid of those things like buying minimums. We’ll let you taste a cheese and discuss it with you before you buy it. We want you to love cheese as much as we do and know it doesn’t have to be pretentious.”

Coming from a two-person household, this approach is personally admirable: The thought of not having to dedicate myself to pounds of a particular cheese, patrons can truly span the eclectic palate of tastes that Oh La Vache offers. 

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An assortment of cheeses from Oh La Vache. Photo by Brian Addison.

Even more—much like the worlds of craft beer and specialty coffee, each doused in their own pretentiousness that true lovers of beer and beans despise—removing the sense of uppity-ness within cheese was an essential part to Oh La Vache’s growth. 

And that paid off considering they opened the store mid-pandemic, in a time where restaurants were closing up shop and food purveyors were struggling with everything from distribution to selling.

“‘You’re opening now? Like, right now?’ was something we heard over and over,” Sarwine said. “But with people stuck inside, they actually educated themselves about things like cheese—so I was pleasantly surprised to see that people aren’t just spending their money at restaurants [now that they’ve mostly reopened] but coming in to support food businesses like our own.”

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Erika Ponzo [left] and Jessica Sarwine [right], owners of Oh La Vache. Photo by Brian Addison.

One of the most wonderful aspects of an otherwise horrifying two years is that being stuck inside allowed people to explore and experiment—and along the way, understand the quality of things, from bread and beer to, well, cheese.

The idea that cheese is a luxury item is one that is both slightly correct and slightly misinformed. 

Yes, cheese can be luxurious and quite expensive: Think Britain’s stellar Wyke Farms cheddar, fetching up to $200 a pound or Wisconsin’s own Hooks Cheese Company’s 12-year-old cheddar, which Oh La Vache itself offers for $60 a pound, the most expensive cheese in the shop.

“We like to think of throwing pretentiousness out the door,” Ponzo said. “We want to be approachable and get rid of those things like buying minimums. We’ll let you taste a cheese and discuss it with you before you buy it. We want you to love cheese as much as we do and know it doesn’t have to be pretentious.”

But cheese is nearly as old as civilization itself, predating writing and metal weaponry with its nearly 8,000 B.C.E. birthday in the Fertile Crescent—and with that, it can also be monetarily manageable and easily explorable. 

Sure, the Hooks cheddar was something of a wonder: White lactate crystals—those wonderfully crunchy, salty bits found aged cheeses—lace a deep, golden orange square of cheese that is a roller coaster of flavors, smooth and buttery at first followed by an explosion of nuttiness and caramel-y-ness. The result? A cheese I would happily eat with a bourbon neat—no joke. 

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Daily sandwich specials are on open-air display inside Oh La Vache for customers to grab-n-go. Photo by Brian Addison

But then there’s cheeses from places like the wittily named Ewephoria sheep farm in Holland, where the almighty gouda stands proud and comes in various stages of age. The younger, the more mild, soft, and pale; the older, the harder, saltier, and funkier. The nine-month aged gouda may be $28 a pound but you definitely don’t need a pound—and given Ponzo and Sarwine cut to order, you can easily walk away with $5 of excellent, nutty, sweet aged gouda that would easily be over $15 at Whole Foods.

In fact, it’s common for Sarwine to take out a wheel and, with the edge of her cheese knife, create an invisible line: “This is about a quarter pound. Do you want more or less?” she would ask.

“Or some will say, ‘I want about five bucks worth,’ and we have to put our cheese cutting skills to the test,” Ponzo said, laughing. “Either way, we want to emphasize that the one rule about cheese is that there are no rules. You can eat it and enjoy it however you like.”

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The window display of Oh La Vache greets passersby on 4th Street in Long Beach. Photo by Brian Addison.

The laidback-but-knowledgeable approach to cheese has already garnered the pair a devoted following: It isn’t uncommon to run into someone—I myself ran into friend and fellow food lover James Tir (aka @LBFoodComa on Instagram)—or see patrons of Little Coyote meander over while waiting, only to find themselves buying even more cheese while waiting for their cheese pizza.

“It’s unquestionably my favorite cheese shop around,” Tir said. “It’s impossible for me to be even somewhat nearby and not pop my head in.”

The warmth of the beautifully bright shop—a wonderfully gorgeous faux-marble, white epoxy floor, white walls, white shelves, white subway tiling, boldly cut with the store’s forest green-meets-gold branding—is likely due to Ponzo openly admitting what she was trying to mimic: Los Angeles’s beloved and sadly closed Cheese Store of Silverlake, whose 15-year-plus presence is precisely where Ponzo fell in love with cheese.

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Ewephoria, a Holland sheep farm, sells their aged gouda across the the globe, including this nine-month aged gouda available at Oh La Vache. Photo by Brian Addison.

“When I was 22, I saw a sign that said, ‘Cheese Store,’ and I was like, immediately turn around,” Ponzo said, initiating the sound of screeching tires. “So I’ve had a long love affair with cheese.”

That love affair has never wained and, as with All Things Pandemic, her experience was unique and specific: Tired of commuting for her last job involving a deli in Highland Park and exhausted while raising her just-born baby, she looked to her longtime friend and co-spouse Sarwine. (Sarwine and Ponzo’s husbands were best friends in high school, cementing each pair for a friendship post-marriage.)

“Erika has been the cheesemonger for 15 years,” Sarwine said. “She’s the one with the cheestory. But there’s something really empowering about owning your work—so Erika’s idea was something I think we both knew we needed but didn’t know how much we would actually appreciate the end result.”

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A creamy chunk of Saint Agur sits in front of Hey Brother Baker baguette slices and an opened wheel of Vella Sonoma County dry, aged jack cheese. Photo by Brian Addison.

Coming from Long Beach’s esteemed Beachwood Brewery, Sarwine had plenty of service industry hours tucked into her career and, with Ponzo, created a hospitality power couple with their combined experience and genuine amicability. 

And that end result is more than Just A Cheese Shop.

The pair offers daily, stellar sandwiches that evoke the charm of Italian and French cheese shops, where sandwiches are pre-made and lined up before being wrapped in brown paper to take along the walk of patrons. 

Using the astounding, vastly underrated bread that is Hey Brother Baker—the gluten-centric child of local master baker Jesse Hellen-Lloyd—these sandwiches are deceptively simple and wonderfully crafted. One you might find meats from San Francisco’s famed Molinari or a smokey, dry-aged lomo embuchado from Harbor City’s much-loved La Español Meats. 

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Let the cheese come to you at Oh La Vache. Photo by Brian Addison.

Or you might find a slathering of pâté on the inside of your sandwich, like Fabrique Delices’s genuinely mind-blowing pheasant terrine, where the fat of duck and pork are combined with the leanness of pheasant, layered with figs and pistachios, and offering you a terrine that will make you want nothing more than a bowl of it with some bread.

Either way, Oh La Vache is bringing something new by returning to the old: A cheese shop which is a pseudo-market, kinda-bistro, and entirely filled with quality and taste.

“It’s a bit surreal,” Ponzo said, “how positively everything has gone considering everything we’ve been through. But we’re so proud to be here, on 4th Street, welcoming in new people every day and seeing regulars every day.”

At the risk of sounding cheese, Erika and Jessica, we’re happy to welcome you to the neighborhood. Mind putting a grilled cheese on the menu for me?

Oh La Vache is located on Retro Row at 2112 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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