If your Oaxacan abuelita was a strict vegan with a macrobiotic lilt, she might have opened The Grain Cafe, a quirky restaurant and bakery off Crenshaw Boulevard in L.A.’s Mid City that opened a second location last month in Long Beach. Rumor has it that owner Myra Garcia, who opened the first The Grain Cafe in 2013, once worked at Golden Mean Natural Foods in Santa Monica, which may explain the presence of Daiya cheese quesadillas and spelt-flour carrot cakes. Otherwise, The Grain Cafe is an entirely distinct concept, one with Mexican breakfasts and savory crepes and calming Spanish-tiled indoor waterfalls that has none of the pretentiousness of a Westside address.
This charm continues at the new Long Beach Grain Cafe, which is about half the size of the Pico Boulevard original. It fills a much needed gap on the corner of 4th Street and Ximeno Avenue, where eating vegan means ordering a salad from Belmont Burgers and the best nearby food options (from Egg Heaven to Starling Diner) are closed by 3 p.m. Now, in The Grain Cafe, the neighborhood has both its first vegan spot and one of the only eateries worthy of a proper sit-down meal. Outside of the Heights, it’s also giving Long Beach its first taste of things like homemade tempeh, fake cheese pizzas and (hard-to-find, even in L.A.) authentic Mexican food intentionally designed to be animal free.
Sometimes, with all the vibes of a casual corner eatery, it’s easy to forget that The Grain Cafe is a vegan restaurant at all. In its few short weeks in existence, it’s already become the kind of local place where you can roll in early for a breakfast of organic coffee, fresh squeezed juice, gluten-free waffles and “huevos” rancheros (which is really just a spiced-and-dyed tofu scramble). You can also come by later for a lunch of texturally accurate “tuna” melts or veggie-loaded wraps. Or, save it all for dinner and go big with protein-heavy pastas, build-your-own macrobiotic bowls or a range of “South of the Border” dishes, including fajitas, enchiladas, chile rellenos and tacos, all of which attempt to pay homage to the simple food practices in the owner’s native Oaxaca, where sustenance has for centuries been created from the bounty of the land by tight-knit communities of farmers.
For a full display of this bounty, bring a friend and splurge on the Fiesta Plate, a $22 combo meal built for two to share that gives you a nice sample of what Garcia’s talking about when she says the Grain Cafe is a place where she can share her family traditions. It comes with two enchiladas — one with a spicy salsa roja, the other with “chicken” and a rich, sweet dark mole sauce — one chile relleno (stuffed with a cream-less rajas-like filling of onions and peppers and veggies) and a pile of nachos with guacamole and nut-based “sour cream” surrounded by a pile of Spanish rice and black beans.
The plate may very well be the next beacon of light on Long Beach’s road out of the vegan food abyss, a journey the city began to take last month with The Wild Chive’s next-level vegan brunch pop-up at Portfolio Coffeehouse. The imminent openings of Under the Sun, Seabirds and Plant Junkie in downtown are sure to further cement Long Beach’s dominance as a vegan destination, but Grain Cafe will remain East Long Beach’s only contribution to this trend. If only every neighborhood could be so lucky to have a Oaxacan abuelita who makes her own tempeh Reuben sandwiches with the same love as her rellenos and jugo verde….
The Grain Cafe, 4403 E. 4th St., Long Beach; (562) 386-2922; graincafeonline.com