Roots Gourmet for the Home Team
Roots Gourmet is hard to pigeonhole. Is it a coffee joint or a sandwich shop? Is it a Latin restaurant that serves vegan food or a dessert place that does juice? To describe it as all of the above is the same as not describing it at all. The 4-month-old eatery takes residence at a corner spot in a breezy commercial center where Trader Joe's does brisk business and boats dock at a marina less than a block away. With little more than a cash register, a few cookie jars and a mess of chalkboards flanked by a rut of kitchen equipment, the store has no real seats inside save for a few stools. There are round, metal tables on the sidewalk outside, some shaded by umbrellas. Most diners choose to bask under the open sky and the sun.
On some mornings, a line of caffeine addicts snakes out the door, each waiting for a barista to pour his or her chosen drug. Cups aren't complete until leafy patterns are drawn into the milky froth. The milk is your choice: cow, soy, almond or coconut? At lunch, sandwiches fly from the kitchen, each plate garnished with a colorful, if just a functionally decorative, side salad. Roots Gourmet, by the way, also offers a menu for dogs—and then there's the list of Latin specialties that includes thick-crusted homemade empanadas with a thimble of green tomatillo salsa on the side. Owner Dalet Hamby credits her mom for the latter and stresses that everything she cooks is made from scratch. This, if anything, is just an extension of her family's kitchen. But if her mother, the rarely seen Norma Chavez, is the soul of Roots Gourmet, it's Hamby who is its face, voice and spirit.
You'll know when you meet her. And when you do, you will think that Hamby, with her high cheekbones and striking features, could easily be a model. Later, you find out she is a model, not because she tells you so, but because her glamour shots are what come up first when you Google her name. After a stint as a competitive figure skater on the East Coast, she returned to open this restaurant. But her family has been in the business for decades: It owns and operates the legendary Egg Heaven, one of the many egg-centric breakfast dives that dot Long Beach. This new place, though, seems like a labor of love, a personal and proud declaration of the owners' Mexican and Latin American roots.
Roots Gourmet, www.rootsgourmet.com. Open daily, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Sandwiches, $7-$9; specials $3-$12; coffee, $1.80-$4.35.
You can sense the pride in Hamby herself, a natural-born people person and a doting hostess. When she saw I still had some hominy left in my bowl of pozole, she offered to box it up. "I'll pour in some more broth for you," she said. "You can have it for breakfast tomorrow!" On another visit, I heard her take a phone call from a customer who asked whether the restaurant was vegan. No, she clarified, some dishes are vegan, but they're not a strictly vegan place. She stayed on the line and suggested other eateries in the area she thought the caller would like. Later, to a customer who just walked in, she offered a sampling of turkey albóndigas.
Only the callous wouldn't order a bowl after that. But even without the free sample, it's worth ordering, sight unseen. In the soup, hand-formed turkey meatballs as forgiving as a soaked matzo float in a yellow broth that sings you a lullaby and tells you everything will be all right. A fruity tomato bisque that was on special one night couldn't quite meet the high bar the albóndigas sets, but a homemade clam chowder came close. The thick milky brew—full of roughly cut potato and pieces of crisp, rendered bacon—slowly formed a thin film as it cooled.
The rest of the menu is rounded out by sandwiches and more Latin American dishes. Dense, husk-covered homemade tamales seem to always be in limited supply and use vegetable oil in lieu of lard for the masa; the crimson-colored grease that leeches out from the filling of spicy pork, carrots and olives makes up for any richness lost. The chicken tamale eats as wholesome as the albóndigas slurps, and the green-chile-and-cheese tamale is vegetarian. The Cuban sandwich is a straightforward, albeit great, stack of ham, cheese, pickle, pork and mustard pressed down between halves of a French roll. A plate of vaca frita, a close cousin to the classic Cuban ropa vieja, can make those expensive braised short ribs served elsewhere cower in shame. After cooking, the hunks of skirt steak turn to a softness somewhere short of blubber, tender fibers tearing away in strips, moistened by their own gravy, and eaten along with forkfuls of black beans and fried plantains. Take this one over the half-rotisserie chicken, another special whose skin could've used a little more color and crispness.
By the time you try the breakfast offerings, you should know enough of Hamby's family history to understand why the menu includes huevos rancheros. Instead of orange juice, it seems appropriate to ask for coconut water to wash down your eggs, sipped directly from its volleyball-sized shell as if you were somewhere tropical and warm—and the fact you can proves how Roots Gourmet defies any attempt at classification.
This review ran in print as "Roots for the Home Team: Coffee, sandwiches, empanadas and more make this delicious Long Beach eatery hard to classify."
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