Just a few short months ago, Lona's City Limits Cantina was called Lona's Wardlow Station and it was a Long Beach dive bar of epic proportions. Warm beer was served in large, frozen glasses, karaoke songs were belted out with blue-collar bravado and a claw game in the corner (called "Lobster Zone") was filled with live lobsters, which often kept animal-rights protestors outside for days at a time.
But that's the way locals liked it and owner Lona Lee--an old-but-tough broad with decades of experience helping Long Beach get drunk--never seemed bothered by the things that kept all but her trusty regulars at bay. Then, the TV show Bar Rescue came in, fired her entire staff and proclaimed her Wardlow Station to be a "bottom of the barrel" joint.
A fresh coat of paint and one destroyed lobster machine later, Lona's (pronounced like "Lana") is a re-branded version of itself, still full of charm, but with significant upgrades that now only add to its mass appeal.
Though not a true cantina in the Mexican (or Star Wars) sense of the word, Lona's City Limits Cantina was given a vaguely Latino concept by the Bar Rescue team. The new name hypes both the fact that the building sits halfway in Long Beach and halfway in Signal Hill and also its new all-day "border-themed" specialties like albondigas soup, chile verde and fajitas.
Since the place opens at 6 in the morn, lunch can happen whenever you start drinking. I love heading over on the weekend when pounding a few schooners of PBR is an all-but-required way to start your day in Long Beach. By the time you order the third, food becomes necessary, and it doesn't matter much that there is nary a Mexican in sight--albondigas and enchiladas sound good.
With a chicken broth base and heaps of carrots, potatoes and celery, the supposedly Latino-style meatball soup is anything but abuelita's version. But the wonky-looking albondigas--hand-formed with white rice inside--bring a savory touch that saves the soup from being a matzo ball rip-off and makes up for the lack of spice often found in homemade versions of the dish.
The enchilada combo plate (a hearty meal strangely labeled a dinner) comes heaped on new stoneware with rice containing surprisingly warranted mini-potato chunks and refried beans desperate for some salt and pork fat. The red sauce is the only thing at the new Lona's with even a hint of Mexican heat and I secretly wished it had been drizzled over the whole shebang instead of just the two tortillas stuffed with well-seasoned shredded beef.
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If the thought of eating Gabacho-Mex makes you cringe, don't worry. Easily avoid Spike TV's makeover by ordering a ballpark-stand burger, a Reuben sandwich or a tuna melt--all of which remain on the menu in homage to the working-class clientele that continue to support Lona in all her bar's incarnations.
Lona's City Limits Cantina, 1174 East Wardlow Rd., Long Beach, (562) 427-4630.