Some readers still don't seem to get that while Long Beach isn't in Orange County, we still cover it. We just do.
But boy, am I lucky for it, because the city of Queen Mary and Snoop Dogg has many wonderful restaurants in an area that spans 50 square miles–an area that includes Cambodia Town, Second Street, Naples, and Downtown. And let's not forget the breakfast joints! My god! The breakfast joints!
Herewith are this food critic's essential Long Beach restaurants. 10 of them, which doesn't even scratch the surface.
Agree? Disagree? See something missing? Let me know. Put it in the comments. As always, the list is alphabetical.
At Last Café's first-time customers turn into instant devotees. Every one of the or so seats is filled nightly. Those who didn't think to snag a reservation either wait it out on the street or order to-go. Either way, budget about 30 minutes to find parking, which is frustratingly scarce and the inevitable topic of conversation for the first few minutes of your meal. The rest of the time, you'll talk about the food, about how chef John McLaughlin manages to charge a fraction of what other establishments of this caliber would. For example, his Brick Chicken: a deboned half-bird cooked flat under the weight of a brick, its crispy, mahogany skin reminiscent of the best Armenian rotisserie hen and meat so juicy it bursts. The cost for this now famous poultry plate is a mere $10.50.
James Republic has such lovable quirks. For example: using jars for just about every appetizer and dessert. To back up claims that it’s “sustainable,” James Republic recycles its old menus to use as doilies. And because of this ethos—–one that no new restaurant these days goes without—–the menu changes daily. Named after chef Dean James Max—–the empire-building, James Beard-nominated chef responsible for other high-achieving restaurants—–the place counts the time since it opened, with its days printed atop the menus and scrawled on a chalkboard near the kitchen. How a dish reads one day will be different than the days before or after. Get the potato puree, which will be served in a jar you wished you had longer fingers to squeegee, and then finish with the warm, sticky toffee bread pudding, which is actually served on a plate.
Jongewaard's pies and all-American dishes are classics, winning over the loyalists like trophies. In their Norman-Rockwell-meets-Martha-Stewart-Living lunch counter, there are stories of some folks eating three meals a day here. You can just imagine Long Beach's version of Jerry, George and Elaine convening nightly in one of their booths, sipping coffee out of thick mugs, talking about nothing. Jongewaard's demands repeat visits, and nurtures regulars.
Pier 76 Fish Grill is built into the ground floor of the historic Cooper Arms building. It’s a pay-at-the-counter, quick-service, moderately -priced seafood restaurant modeled in the same spirit as California Fish Grill. The dining room is barely a room at all, with butcher-block tables and a cramped space no bigger than most Subways. On sunny afternoons, most of its customers choose to sit outside in the gorgeous patio surrounded by a garden and the soaring apartment building. But as evidenced by the excellent mussels he steams and the live lobsters he grills with roasted garlic butter, owner Chris Krajacic is aiming higher than the fast-casual his restaurant appears to be—. Much higher. He joins Slapfish'’s Andrew Gruel’ and Roe Restaurant'’s Arthur Gonzalez in that seafood-restaurant sweet spot between the California Fish Grills of the world and the Scott’s Seafoods.
Seoulmate is nothing but a walk-up window under a pink A-frame roof, and it doesn’t have parking. There’s a 30-minute loading zone, but that’'s it. In a post-Kogi world, it serves bulgogi burritos, but when you eat it, you’'re not thinking about how there’'s kimchi instead of pico de gallo, sesame-oil-scented bulgogi instead of carne asada. Instead, you’'re thinking about how good a burrito it is, one that has somehow managed to transcend its fusion-y novelty. Seoulmate’'s signature dish is pure Korean mom food. It’'s a recipe that owner Jason Kang got from his mother; something he simply calls “Mom’'s kimchi pork stew.” You hunch over it as you eat, your face warmed by its vapors, your soul invigorated by its garlicky smells. In this lava-red broth floats cubes of tofu, strips of pork belly and seemingly never-ending layers of kimchi. You moisten a mound of rice with it, the whole thing emitting curls of steam that shroud your entire head.
There are no walls at Simmzy’'s. No really, there aren’'t any outside walls. Every seat along the border of this street-corner bar-cum-restaurant is essentially on the sidewalk. There used to be two presumably non-load-bearing facades enclosing the space that was once the Shore House Cafe, but that might as well be a million years ago. This, you think to yourself, is what all present and future of pubs should look like, where there are no visible boundaries between your well-drunk glass of ale and the street. Because of it, the place seems to have a magnetic pull. Whether you’'re driving by or walking by, you see that everyone’'s here, curvy vessels of beer in hand, pizza pies between them—–so why aren’'t you?
As Cambodia borders Thailand, the cuisines naturally share commonalities, which is why Sophy's uses Thai in its name. But make no mistake: Its roots are Khmer. Sophy's is arguably more faithful to its food culture than other Cambodia Town restaurants, which mostly mix in Chinese dishes for the purposes of hosting wedding banquets. So don't be surprised when, before you know it, you're tearing the Cambodian beef jerky into ragged strips and chomping down on the sadao, a plant that looks as demure as baby's breath but packs a knee-buckling quinine astringency.
The wait can be long if you come after a certain hour on Sundays. Everyone who arrives seems to have awakened after having dreamt of Starling Diner’'s French toast. Seriously, you should see this thing. Our humble rag anointed it the Best French Toast a few years ago, but it was a category we created specifically for it—–there were no other French toast candidates considered. To see it for the first time will permanently alter your definition of French toast. First, it’'s broiled, not fried. And it starts not from a square loaf of bread, but rather, a length of baguette, which they soak whole in a bonafide crème anglaise. Then its topside is slit open to receive an injection of mascarpone. That finishing touch technically distances the dish from breakfast and nudges it ever closer to dessert; but who’'s complaining? Two toasts come to an order, one buttery log leaning on the other as they dribble squiggles of sauce and a smattering of fresh berries, caramelized apples, or cherries cooked in its own reduction.
The Attic is the kind of back-to-basics eatery that any American is hard-wired to love. The fare is Southern with dashes of Cajun and Creole, but it doesn'’t take more than the mere mention of the ribs, the meatloaf and the fried chicken with gravy to make a place that already looks grandma'’s house even more endearing.
The building you're in is the historic Breakers Hotel, built in 1926 when the Long Beach waterfront was practically steps from Ocean Boulevard–not a mile away, as it is today. Elizabeth Taylor and her first husband, Nicky Hilton, spent their honeymoon at the penthouse suite. Their love nest was converted into the Sky Room restaurant when his father, Conrad Hilton, bought the structure and turned it to the eighth hotel in his chain in 1938. In its heyday, the restaurant hosted Clark Gable and John Wayne as customers. Today, the building houses retirees, but the Sky Room is still in operation. If the Art Deco scheme has gone a little stale, you excuse it because of the view of Long Beach Harbor, the old-school dishes such as the Salad de Maman tossed table-side and the massive osso bucco.