Courtesy Aquarium of the PacificCalling any food-relatedevent the Taste of Long Beach—even of downtown Long Beach—is a dangerous proposition, considering this is the fifth-largest city in the state, home to immigrants from practically everywhere, with the largest Cambodian population outside Phnom Penh. That would be a lot of eatin' for one evening. And you wouldn't attract guys who look like Duran Duran's entourage.
Which is maybe why this year's Taste was wrapped into something called Sea Fare—a first-ever event added to the fundraiser roster for the Aquarium of the Pacific's conservation and education programs, goosed with a free bar, silent auctions and fishing for prizes (though no dunking for sharks) for guys in pink suit jackets. The Taste should have been a chance for downtown restaurants to shine—a night not to be missed, especially since the Pike at Rainbow Harbor opened and virtually doubled the number of downtown Long Beach restaurants. Instead, Aquarium visitors were treated to what amounted to a really, really nice buffet line.
A hundred-dollar ticket got you into the aquarium, where you bellied up to tables staffed by some of the Pike's newest eateries. The real news, though, was the $250 ducat, which got patrons bussed off-site to the Pine Avenue restaurant row 'round the corner—where you'd find such top-drawer joints as L'Opera(101 Pine Ave., 562-491-0066), the Madison (102 Pine Ave., 562-628-8866) and King's Fish House (100 W. Broadway Ave., 562-432-7463). This was part of the problem: Who doesn't want to eat at L'Opera? I do—but us lower-incomers got exiled to the fishes.
The aquarium maroon wasn't entirely a bad thing, though. The folks at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.(87 Aquarium Way, 562-437-2434), across the street from the aquarium, did themselves proud, with more shrimp than anyone but a sea lion could eat. The film spin-off also fried up some hush puppies made with corn and mahi mahi—always a crowd pleaser, except they were a bit soggy. No problems: just meant more room for the pungent shrimp.
Parker's Lighthouse in Shoreline Village (435 Shoreline Village Dr., 562-432-6500), however, didn't miss a note, with sushi platters that didn't consist of dried-up California rolls—V20 (81 Aquarium Way, 866-402-5828) and Wasabi (200 Pine Ave., 562-901-0300), I'm looking at you. The Parker's people took a more expansive view of sushi, serving cut rolls that blended avocado, spicy tuna and salmon slices topped with roe. It was California enough to please Long Beach's yuppiest, yet complex enough for those of us with adult palates.
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The rest of the best included the San Pedro-based Buono's Authentic Pizzeria (250 W. Ocean Blvd., 562-432-2211; 401 W. Willow St., 562-595-6138), serving a nicely cheesed eggplant parmigiana and an Alfredo pasta that, for once, wasn't drowned in its own sauce. The parmigiana featured at least three cheeses—among them, Gorgonzola, mozzarella and . . . well, you see, there was also a complimentary bar at the Taste. Shots of Gold Label Bushmills. Gimlets. And so forth.
And that was pretty much it. No, it wasn't—but virtually everyone else except Taco Beach (211 Pine Ave., 562-983-1337) and its appetizing carne-asada tacos wound up being hamstrung by the layout. It really doesn't make sense when you think about it: If we can put a man on the moon, why do these Taste events inevitably wind up with a few people slaving over Sterno units? Sterno kills, as the bums who used to drink the stuff found out.
If you use it to heat food, particularly things as complicated as Extreme Pizza's (21 The Paseo, 562-901-9700) pizza wedges—crowded with cheese, mushrooms, spinach, artichoke hearts and somewhere a pepperoni—it's remorseless, making nouvelle cuisine look like something the sheriff's department dug out of the Arizona desert. No one wants that.
And while we're wishing, there's 358 days until the next Taste. Howzabout expanding beyond downtown and opening the door to exciting new cuisines—I say new because they will be new to the women in ponchos and guys with flat-ironed hair who go to these Long Beach benefits. Some of the best eating in the region is in non-downtown Long Beach: the aromatic pho boiled by Pho 79 (881 E. Anaheim St., 562-599-5305); the Mexican-style Cornish hens of Sarita's Market & Produce (2401 E. Anaheim St., 562-439-0160); the buttery, spicy frog legs at Cambodian palace Hak Heang (2041 E. Anaheim St., 562-434-0296)—all within 15 minutes of downtown, door-to-door. I'd definitely eat all that. And I might even spring for a ticket upgrade—if it came with an armored guard, of course.