With a prime location sandwiched between the two busiest dive bars on the western front of 4th Street’s legendary punk-rock bar crawl, you’d think someone could cook up decent enough drunk food to make 939 E. 4th St. a neighborhood institution. But no. As long as I’ve lived in Long Beach (and, therefore, been getting hammered at V Room), the sliver of a restaurant on the corner of Zona Court has been home to an endless supply of barely palatable Mexican food purveyors, memorable both for their poorly chosen names (La Palapa, my friend boozily decided one night, had “la palapa’d their flavor”) and a questionable wait staff (Habaneros’ after-hours cashier was either a woman with her newborn baby lying naked on the counter or, most nights, the woman’s wildly efficient 10-year-old son).
But about a year ago, not long after Habaneros went dark, La Frida opened its doors to save us all. No longer do we have to choose between McDonalds drive-thru and dry nibs of lacquered wood trying to pass itself off as al pastor. No longer will I drink dangerously bargain-priced high-end whiskey on an empty stomach at Stache. And I definitely won’t be getting desperate enough to drag my tipsy ass down 4th Street just so I can wait in Hole Mole’s unending line just for a few 50-cent potato tacos.
La Frida has changed this otherwise bleak late-night food ‘hood into an alcohol-soaking stretch of turf, alive with the newfound possibilities of crema-zagged carne asada fries, gooey chorizo mulitas and plancha al pastor so red and juicy you’re tempted to make out with it not eat it.
With a simple menu of tacos, burritos, tortas, flautas, mulitas, nachos and quesadillas available with asada, pastor, pollo or chorizo (y nada más), La Frida is the kind of place that manages to balance approachable gabacho grub with quality ingredients so well that even some local Latinos can be found ordering in Spanish amid the drunken white diners.
Unlike previous restaurants that have occupied this location, the cashiers and cooks at La Frida are ready for the task of serving 4th Street’s drunks (here’s where I admit I’ve never been here during the daytime) and always seem to have a healthy sense of humor about their job. They’ll even deliver your order next door to Stache, an unheard-of offer for the area.
La Frida’s universal appeal is also buried into its name. Frida Kahlo is the restaurant’s obvious namesake and her ability to draw fans from across ethnic lines makes a place called La Frida an easy lure for all. The interior is splashed with ever-changing street-art-style murals of her likeness — including one of her as a calavera (which was recently given two calavera monkeys) – and big-lettered quotes from her about life and pain and sadness, all of which she knew about far too well.
The one over the window facing Zona reads “Quise ahogar mis penas en el licor pero las condenadas aprendieron a nadar,” which is poorly translated underneath in English as “I drank because I wanted to drown my sorrows but those damned things have learned how to swim.”
I’d be lying if I said that that wall of words wasn’t a sobering read on several occasions; I’ve groggily stared into it many a night while waiting for my food since La Frida opened. But even when the alcohol wears off, at least there’s tacos and tortas and the best carne asada fries in Long Beach to soak up the sorrows instead.
La Frida Mexican Food, 939 E 4th St., Long Beach; (562) 283-9928