On the top of a hill in the middle of a modest Belmont Heights neighborhood is a wormhole to another universe. There, on the corner of Colorado and Roycroft, sits Ma n' Pa Grocery, a decades-old country store that makes its own beef jerky and serves up home-style burgers and sandwiches with customer service unseen since the Eisenhower era.
Ma n' Pa looks both out of place and yet comfortably embedded in its suburban community with a dark wooden facade, outdoor picnic tables, a book-lending library and even a lawn windmill that on a recent day was spinning furiously from a brisk breeze from the shore.
Entering through the screened wooden saloon doors, I was met with a miniature grocery store out of a Ma 'n' Pa Kettle. A fresh fruit and vegetable section fills one side of the homey interior; rotating pie cases loaded with ready-to-eat sandwiches and dinners stick out toward the other. There is not a brand name item in sight at Ma 'n' Pa's--and it is so fucking refreshing.
I ordered a $5 hamburger and some fries off the small wall menu of items they will make for you to eat there, and the too-nice teenage boy working at the time suggested I get the burger with bacon and avocado. It's not listed on the menu, but apparently the house style. I meandered through the tiny aisles while he weighed out one-third of a pound of ground chuck from the deli case, grabbed a head of lettuce from the produce section and turned it into my lunch.
Despite the outdoor chill factor, I took my All-American meal (burger, fries and a Coke) and sat in the back garden, a quiet green space stocked with vintage patio furniture that looks more like a Gypsy Den invention than the eating area for a convenience store. Unwrapping the monster burger, I noticed that the buns were the same soft sesame-seed kaiser rolls for sale inside and it was then I realized the truly homemade nature of this burger--I could have purchased all of the ingredients inside and, theoretically, gone home to make the exact same thing.
But it takes some experience to make a homemade burger that deserves its own luxe lonchera enterprisem and the Ma 'n' Pa staff have perfected the art. The hand-formed patty was moist, but not obnoxiously dripping with juices. The cheese melted over the crispier edges of meat, but not enough to leave any In-N-Out-like cheese paper. And the thick belts of sweet bacon added yet another layer of flavor to make each bite an unexpected adventure.
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Ma 'n' Pa's food is almost as much a nostalgia trip as the store's interior. It's how I remember old amusement park food being in the 1980s before most burger ingredients came shipped in bulk from overseas and meat patties were sold as frozen brown bricks. The fries are shoestring and lightly salted, like from the snack shack at a local baseball field (do they even do that anymore?).
After inhaling the burger, I went back inside to get some "locally world famous" beef jerky (made on-site!) to take home and made a mental note to watch the timing of my next visit (where I will annihilate some sandwiches), lest I again catch all of the Rogers Middle School kids as they get their after-school soda and hang out on the outside tables with nary a cigarette.
Ma n' Pa Grocery, 346 Roycroft, Long Beach, (562) 438-4084.