Blues Plate Special

In these kitchen-centric times, there are cookbooks to fill nearly every culinary cranny, showcasing the niche cuisines of dirt bikers, lactose-intolerant Klan members and tall short-order chefs. One thing notably missing is a book of recipes from rock nightclubs, and with good reason: with rare exception, the history of nightclub grub is one probably best left to health-care professionals.

A bit of that history is necessary to establish the rule to which Long Beach's Blue Caf is a happy exception.

Back in the day, if you ate a burger at a Hollywood rock club, you were taking your life in your hands—and possibly some club neighbor's pet. I'm talking clubs like the long-gone Starwood and other houses of the heavy, where the kitchen staffs—probably nascent metal gods just awaiting the nod from a major label—never got the message that cigarette butts do not qualify as garnish.

The ever-so-slightly upscale Roxy was better, but not so much so that a friend of mine didn't once ralph his Roxy burger all over a bunch of Smokey Robinson fans. An added hazard arose there in 1975, when Bruce Springsteen started the table-dancing trend. I mean, those shoes had been in New Jersey, and now they were on your garlic toast. And who even knows what wine goes with a Springsteen foot?

Orange County rock food tended to be a little safer. There are times I grow nostalgic for the oily spaghetti at the Golden Bear. On the nights that Safari Sam's bothered to open its kitchen, it made a serviceable jambalaya. The short-lived Spenger's in Anaheim offered the small-but-brilliant menu of Pop-Tarts and Cactus Cooler. In more recent times, the Coach House chicken has been pretty good, while the Sun Theatre and the House of Blues have offered consistent, if corporate, quality.

What sets the Blue Caf apart is its emphasis on fresh salads and semihealthy fare. I dimly recall their menu leaning even more in that direction in the club's early days, with several Middle Eastern salads and entres. While there are now more bar-food staples, the selection still offers a refreshing break from what one might expect.

Sure, you can get chicken wings (on which "our own spicy sauce" is scarcely more a proprietary blend than you'll find at Smart & Final; for appetizers, go with the fish tacos or onion brick instead) and a variety of hamburgers, including one named for OC bluesman James Harman (tonight or Thursday, July 19, you can eat a Harman while listening to Harman, if you're so inclined). But those burgers are well-made and served on a toasted, garlic-upped bun, and you can substitute turkey or veggie patties.

There are 21 sandwiches—priced from $5.25 to $7.95 and served with fries, potato salad or a green salad—which can get as messy as you want, with meatballs in marinara or corned beef with sauerkraut, both topped with melted provolone. Or you can go for the more uptown grilled ahi with kalamata olive dressing. Don't mistake that last for the sushi-like seared ahi you find elsewhere; these are fully cooked strips with an almost hamburger-like texture, and that's a good thing for those of us who are picky about where we eat our raw fish in dark rooms on Sunday nights.

The ahi is equally good on one of the Blue Caf's salads, where it is joined by mixed greens wherein romaine predominates, along with bell pepper pieces, cucumber slices, tomatoes and mushrooms (the advertised roasted pine nuts were notably missing from my salad), all topped with a creamy cilantro dressing.

Their best bowlful, the Blue Caf salad, comes with most of the above, minus the tuna and the already MIA pine nuts and abetted by grilled chicken, mango chunks, pepitas, blue cheese crumbles and apple slices, making a meal that is fresh, filling and doubtless packed with your recommended daily amount of something or other.

Among the eight other leafy choices—priced from $4.75 to $7.75—there is a good walnut-and-blue-cheese salad, a tuna salad, a Greek salad, and the sole remainder from the Middle Eastern menu, a hummus salad served with warm pita bread and kalmata olives and sundry knickknacks.

None of this is necessarily food that will send you spiraling into nirvana—the caf has its entertainment for that. But it is food you can be pretty damn grateful for—given its quality, freshness and very fair prices—if you've been stuck for endless hours in other clubs while chasing your love of music that rocks and rolls.

The Blue Caf, located at 210 The Promenade, Long Beach, is open daily, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. for food service. (562) 983-7111. Full bar. Dinner for two, $15-$20 food only, exclusive of cover charge. All major credit cards accepted.


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