The mile-long stretch of Artesia Boulevard in North Long Beach isn’t exactly known as a dining destination, but all that might be changing. Once a faceless chunk of four-lane asphalt lined with Mexican appliance stores, strip-mall churches and hair salons, its first notable restaurant resident was Robert Earl’s BBQ, which moved from a smoker at the farmer’s market into a to-go counter storefront just east of Atlantic Avenue in 2013.
On the success of their Texas-tinged takes on brisket, ribs and pulled pork (still some of the best in the region!), Robert Earl’s has expanded threefold in the years since, pushing into the unit next door and, as of earlier this month, onto the sidewalk, where the street’s first dining patio sits enclosed in bright red fencing. The shiny new patio, along with the rest of Artesia Boulevard’s newly installed assets (separated bike lanes!), got a coming-out party of sorts at Activate Uptown and Village Fest on Oct. 1, when the entire drag was closed to cars and rappers like Murs and Talib Kweli performed for free.
It was at this event, while wandering a few blocks east of Robert Earl’s with a rumbling stomach, that I finally had the chance to appreciate another one of Uptown's restaurants, one that is already a neighborhood institution for its own take on an entirely different kind of barbecue. KBQ is North Long Beach’s only Korean restaurant and it’s made a name for itself by selling fast-food-style rice bowls and tacos topped with grilled-to-order bulgogi, galbi and spicy pork. The building itself is hard to miss – a bright yellow A-frame with red-painted concrete out front. It was until a few years ago home to a Mexican restaurant that sat empty most of the time.
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The smell of grilling Korean meats is also hard to miss. The family that owns KBQ is its only staff and while the mom rings you up at the counter in front, the patriarch spends his days flipping flaps of meat over fire in the back room, letting the sweet smoke waft out of a window that faces the parking lot. Run to this window immediately after you pay the lady because as soon as you order one of their $5 mini-bowls, $7 regular-sized bowls or $8-$12 plates (a few extra dollars will get you a combination plate with two kinds of meat), Pops starts grilling. You can watch as he turns each piece of dripping marinated meat into your meal, just like you’d watch your noodles get pulled at Chinese restaurants like China Tasty. The finished product—the galbi short ribs are divine—comes places atop rice with a side salad and a macaroni salad a la L&L Hawaiian Barbecue (getting the meat inside three tacos with a side of fries is only $6). Bowls are Flame Broiler style, if the chain actually prepared your protein fresh.
It might not be the all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue joint Long Beach so desperately needs, but KBQ excels in better-than-average fast-casual Korean meat favorites on a side of town severely lacking in Asian food options. Not only is it brightening up Artesia with its Wienerschnitzel-esque digs, it’s giving people yet another reason to cruise the boulevard in search of their next meal.
KBQ, 1009 E. Artesia Blvd., Long Beach; (562) 256-1337; eatkbq.com