You have to be pretty imaginative to turn 140 square feet of prime Retro Row real estate into one of Long Beach’s best new restaurants of this year. With that kind of limited space, adding a refrigerator, a cash register or even a few countertop deep fryers will eat up much-needed inches for prep, cooking and service. And forget about having any customers sitting inside – including a counter and a health department-required sink means there’s barely even room for two employees to turn around.
But Christian Trochez and his Israeli wife, Vered Azari, weren’t daunted by their bite-sized retail location, which is built into one side of the Art Theatre. Instead they kept the concept efficient and simple – falafel, hummus and fries — and opened The HipPea there in May.
Following the wisdom of places like In-N-Out (do one thing and do it right), HipPea stakes its reputation on its falafel, a crispy-crunchy gluten-free mass of chickpea fritter that once bitten into, reveals a soft green, parsley-and-herb-mashed interior. For falafel fanatics, it’s a hearty take on the Middle East snack that’s edenic, especially when served inside a deep pita pocket or in boxes of various sizes with a salad and a side of garlic-free hummus.
The recipe, Trochez will tell you as he hands you a sample (which he will inevitably do if you stare at the minimal menu with any confusion), is made the way Azari’s grandmother used to cook it, based on an Egyptian flavor profile but served Israeli style.
Now, calling a falafel Israeli can get you some mean looks from Arabs who hold the fried balls as one of their most sacred culinary creations. And while it’s true that the falafel is not a pure Israeli invention, the country is full of enough immigrants from the countries that did invent it (Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt) that its current title as Israel’s national dish seems as much an homage to the country’s diversity as it is to Israelis' love of the food itself.
Like the taco did in America, so too did the falafel take on a new life in Israel, differentiating itself not in preparation but in presentation. Consider HipPea’s falafel pita pocket: a two-handed sandwich made with an ethereal puff of steamed Israeli-style pita bread crammed with not only a handful of the fried chickpea balls, but also a shabbat’s dinner worth of novel additions, like German-style cabbage, pickled radishes, pickled cucumbers, onions, French fries and more.
A spread of green tahini sauce lines the inside of the bread and on the counter are three more sauces beckoning to be used. One is a regular tahini sauce, made from toasted sesame seeds. The second is a smooth goldenrod liquid called amba, a curry-mango explosion of spicy turmeric and sweet fermented fruit. The third is a spicy chunky red sauce called shatta, Egypt’s answer to salsa roja. All three are worth the wait for your falafel alone and all three are made to be combined at various weights according to preference, resulting in a tangy-tart-sweet-sour-savory-spicy-cooling-herbaceous experience in each bite that sets Israeli falafel apart from all others.
It may be small, but with The HipPea, Trochez and Azari have made turned family recipes into Long Beach’s first Israeli falafel stand, where the locals now come to feed cravings for all-things chickpea (including vegan chickpea cookies!) and the only complaints to be logged are long lines at peak times and limited seating on the sidewalk outside (to be fair, if one person is standing behind someone while they’re ordering, the line is out the door). Not bad for 140 square feet!
2023 E. 4th St., Long Beach; (562) 343-7722; thehippea.net
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.