Thursday, July 18, 2024

East Long Beach’s Remix to formally rebrand to Bar Becky—bringing some of the city’s sexiest, most comforting food

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The idea was, initially, a test run: Chef Ross Pangilinan of Remix would relinquish the reins to his first restaurant outside of Orange County in order to let “Hell’s Kitchen” runner-up Chef Johnathan Benvenuti use the space as a popup under the brand Bar Becky—and should it prove fruitful, it would become a permanently rebranding of the space.

That permanent rebranding has officially happened, with Bar Becky having its first formal service this Friday, April 5—and should Benvenuti’s future menus be as thoroughly playful as his inaugural one, Bar Becky is sure to be a place that is not only needed in East Long Beach but beyond deserving of it.

Bar Becky is an ode to Chef Benvenuti’s mother, his everything when it comes to all things food

“I don’t know if you saw ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ but I cry a lot—especially when it comes to my Mom,” Benvenuti said with an earnestness that is as infectious and it is authentic. “We hosted every holiday across this huge table so it was always 20-something people at our place on any given excuse to celebrate… It was truly my mom’s love language and I didn’t know any different when I was a kid. Y’know, people assume: Oh, you’re from Orange County, different tax bracket—but it wasn’t that way at all. My Mom just somehow made it all work.

“And as an adult, I’ve discovered it’s my love language—and it was definitely her who instilled that in me.”

Becky Benvenuti, before her untimely death last year, was a force to be reckoned with when it came to instilling nostalgia in her children’s long-term memories: Using the apple tree in the very yard of their Huntington Beach home, she would create a liquid potpourri when Johnathan would have friends over by boiling pots of apples and cinnamon, creating the illusion that something tangibly sweet was churning up in the oven of the house.

When Chef Benvenuti would be practicing in his earlier though unformed career as a musician, channeling his teenage youth’s love of Pierce the Veil—or “some fuckin’ screamo band,” as he would describe it—his mother would happily interrupt sessions with plates of BLTs. Or, after too much thrashing with said screamo band, would be happily woken up with coffee. Or, upon letting the newly minted father that her son became sleep in, he would discover them creating pancake art in the kitchen upon waking up.

“I’ve really taken a second to step back, because I idolize my Mom so much,” Benvenuti said, a sentiment echoed by others. “All my friends, my Dad and his side of the family, everyone we knew: ‘Your Mom is the best cook.’ And in a way, I wanted that for myself.”

If there was any testament to Becky’s ability to remain in her children’s lives in any way she could, she had somehow—miraculously even—survived two strokes to see her own son appear on the season finale of “Hell’s Kitchen.” A few months later, she would be onlooking Johnathan from the heavens.

Bar Becky is the amalgamation of chefs supporting one another while being humble—something needed now more than ever

“Chef [Ross Pangilinan] told me he feels it too: He feels my mom around everything I do,” Benvenuti said. “And that sits with me because he lost his father right before opening MixMix [his first restaurant]. And my place, where I am at in my career, it’s reminding him of that.”

And in this revelation—their shared pain, their shared profession—there is still a need to remind one of the deep humility it requires to look at something and notice it is not working. In this case, the restaurant Pangilinan opened shortly after losing such an important figure in his life.

“In Orange County, I kind of have this built-in audience—something I am so lucky to have,” he told me nearly one year ago amid beautiful plates of French-ed out lumpia and and ube mousses. “Here [in Long Beach], I’ve admittedly been struggling to connect with the community and I want to genuinely alter that.” 

Pangilinan has always been quite honest about Remix: Something never quite clicked with patrons when he opened his first Long Beach location.

It was unclear just how determined Pangilinan was when he said he was being genuine about wanting to alter that, doing something that—at least pre-pandemic—would have been unheard of it: Hand over the reins of his entire space at the Long Beach Exchange retail complex to a newly minted Orange County rising star of a chef.

“We are all amazed when we look at this, at how we all found each other when we needed each other,” Benvenuti said, referencing both Pangilinan and his business partner, sommelier and overall restaurant master Jason Scarborough. “I will go on the record and say me and Scarborough believe in the universe creating moments that are meant to happen. And I can’t accredit that more to my Mom. She’s orchestrating up there.”

The inaugural prix fixe menu at Bar Becky is impressively comforting and lacks gravity in the best way possible

The reason for all this context, all this pre-game in the article before actually getting to Benvenuti’s food should be clear by now: His food is directly informed by said context, harkening to a genuinely authentic nostalgia that doesn’t read either contrived or cheap.

And this hit at several moments—as in when there was this very subtle hint of surprisingly supplementary sourness to Benvenuti’s excellently executed pappardelle plate: Reminiscent of some beef stroganoff gone Italian, the beautifully photo-perfect, punctilious ribbons of pappardelle are melded with bits of succulent beef cheek and sour cream and mushroom and tomato. Each somehow stand out—but the subtlety is that back-in-the-mind ode to a humble plate of stroganoff which, for almost every American kid, reeks with nostalgia.

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Speaking of American kids, there are usually those of two camps when it comes to roasted carrots: a love and a hate. For those blessed with kitchen heads, be they mothers or fathers or both, that knew what to do with the mighty root, they can be sublime. Mixing traditionally sweet—a maple reduction of sorts—and creamy’n’salty—a whipped burrata that comes off as a saltier ricotta—Benvenuti has created a dish remarkably textural: There’s the toothsomeness-meets-softness of the carrot. The outright crunch of the roasted hazelnut. And the smoothness-gone-minimally-chunkiness of the whipped burrata. It’s a warming, wish-this-was-at-Thanksgiving dish.

There’s chunks of pork belly, whose fattiness is cut through with an acidic fennel salad—but most importantly, cut through with an agrodolce. Blown up and confused (rightfully so) with chimichurris and other sweet’n’sour sauces in American cooking during the 2010s, this Italian blend of herbs and pine nuts and acids is a sauce all its own. But for the sake of comparison: a chimichurri—and a goddamned wonderful one at that.

For Italian or Italian-American kids used to the pestos and agrodolces of their homes, there is something kindly sophisticated about the dish when nodding toward the mothers of their kitchen. Surely, the homely version sat atop eggplant or polenta—but here, Benvenuti lifts it up with a wink.

And then, as if one couldn’t be more happily at childhood comfort food—and by the way: this is comfort food if or if not you recognize it from your own childhood—there’s a good ol’ PB&J awaiting you. Deconstructing the Italian laminated pastry that is a sflogliatella—used, in this case, a flaky topping—layers of raspberry and peanut butter, accompanied with candied bits of peanuts, are amid an egg-rich vanilla semifreddo.

This is food from a space of someone both talented and in a deep sense of memory and loss—in this case, the memory and loss of his mother. And it is meant when it is said: Should Benvenuti’s future menus be as thoroughly playful as his inaugural one, Bar Becky is sure to be a place that is not only needed in East Long Beach but beyond deserving of it.

Bar Becky is located inside the Long Beach Exchange retail complex, located at 3860 Worsham Ave., and will start soft opening service on Friday, April 5. For reservations, click here.

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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. “Photo-perfect, punctilious ribbons of pappardelle…” You’ve outdone yourself Brian. ÷ ] Great article, of course. LOVE Chef Pangilinan’s shops — really looking forward to checkig this out.

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