For the first few years of its existence, whenever I would mention that I'm going to Berlin, I would be met with the kind of dead stare that told me they thought I was about to get on a transcontinental flight. Thankfully, the reputation of Berlin Bistro and Coffeehouse now precedes it and when I say I am going to Berlin, I am more often met with either announcements of love for its food and parklet-patio or jealousy at the fact that I will be hanging out adjacent to the best record store in the area, Fingerprints.
That's because Berlin--which has the same owner as legendary Long Beach coffeeshop Portfolio--is embedded inside the same adaptive-reuse structure that houses Fingerprints, a project that was completed in 2011 and has since ushered in a new era of foot traffic and creative energy for the once-desolate stretch of 4th Street.
And even though most of my trips to Berlin are still merely for a cup of coffee and some wifi (it's enthralling, this writer life), I do sometimes take advantage of the fact that unlike its big sister Portfolio--where counter-ordered sandwiches and coffeecakes round out the food offerings--Berlin's table-service and full menu of filling meals is a lunchtime focal point.
It takes a little getting used to, this hybrid coffeeshop-slash-sit-down café. Instinct is to order your iced tea and fig mascarpone crostini at the register and take a number-on-a-stick to the next open seat. However, if you're dining in, they much prefer you take your seat first (tables along the left wall and on the parking-spot-turned-patio are reserved for dine-in parties anyway) and let the servers do their thing.
The menu goes far beyond coffee accompaniments too. Entirely unique from anything Portfolio has or ever will serve, Berlin features seasonal salads (like this summer's spinach and strawberry) for noshing, flatbreads for nibbling, sandwiches and burgers for grubbing and a selection of main courses, which pull from cuisines around the world.
The burgers are hearty and layered with flavor, each one served on a brioche bun and creatively crafted to complement the different kinds of patties within. An 8-ounce bison burger, for example, gets the BBQ treatment (bacon, caramelized onions, flame-roasted habanero), while the seared ahi comes topped with ginger slaw, wasabi mayo and microgreens. Even the basic beef burger (here, called the "Arugula Burger") has a twist with goat cheese, crispy shallots and bacon.
Berlin's flatbreads similarly fuse the familiar and the imaginative with a seen-before BBQ chicken version as well as a more off-kilter smoked salmon one, which puts a basic jewish breakfast (smoked salmon, heirloom tomato, red onion, dill-cream cheese, capers and lemon oil) on an appetizer-sized portion of warm, thin, crispy crust.
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As for the bigger entrees, the chicken katsu bowl and naked fish and chips (grilled mahi mahi with tartar sauce) are safe bets, but I keep coming back to the yellow chicken curry--a two-bowl serving of soupy '70s-yellow curry and white rice. Spoon the curry's thick cuts of vegetables and meat over the jasmine rice and enjoy an interpretive taste of Thailand with a side of American cold brew.
Though deeply rooted in the coffeeshop tradition (they now serve pour-over and other fancy brew methods), Berlin is a new concept restaurant for Long Beach's East Village. As a bridge between the laid-back local coffeeshop, where purchase of a $2 drink can net you two hours of free-for-all hangout time, and the more traditional upscale eatery, this bistro has trained everyone from casual vinyl-perusers to even computer-glued workhorses like me to come for the coffee and stay for a good meal. Berlin Bistro, 420 E. 4th St., Long Beach, (562) 435-0600, berlincoffeehouse.com