The annual Mexican-themed drinking holiday may have come and gone this year, but Cinco de Mayo is still alive and well in Long Beach–on Pacific Ave. and Fourth St., that is. That's where the Cinco de Mayo Mexican restaurant lives, smushed between the now-boutique Dolly Varden Hotel and the donut-shop Colonial Bakery along the Blue Line's downtown loop.
Let's be clear: despite its extensive menu of traditional and unconventional dishes, Cinco de Mayo does not even pretend to offer the best Mexican food in the city and its mariscos, burritos and combination plates are basic at best. But what this cash-only spot provides is more than just sustenance. With a wall-of-sound jukebox, flat screen TVs blaring the latest Univision newscast and a lineup of bottled Mexican beers, Cinco is a neighborhood staple for anyone living or working south of Anaheim St. between Alamitos Ave. and the river.
A basket of warm oily chips and not-so-restaurant salsa (medium spice, taqueria consistency) greets every table, as does one of several welcoming female servers whose familiarity with the menu and ingredients pegs her as part of the owner's extended family. A recent trip found our waitress quick to defend the recent price increases (less than a dollar on most items) and she seemed pleased that the restaurant has, over the years, been phasing out its middling Salvadorean and American food in favor of more time-honored Mexican and Spanish-tinged dishes.
The expanded mariscos menu, for example, includes caldos, mojarra frita, shrimp diablo and a two-person feast called "mariscada," which for $29 piles a seafood stew of octopus, imitation crab and shrimp on a bed of potatoes, bell peppers and onions. Pulpo and shrimp cocktails are dropped in bowls–not chalices–where slices of chewy octopus and miniature skinned shrimp float among onions, cucumbers and avocados in a cold tomato broth.
On the inland-food front, Cinco de Mayo excels in the simple stuff. Tortas, burritos, quesadillas, tostadas and nachos are all fair game, though many could argue that at $2 each, their tacos (meat and cilantro on a store-bought corn tortilla) are slightly overpriced. Combination dishes allow for mixing and matching with the kitchen's hard tacos, chile rellenos, tamales and enchiladas, pairing whatever you order with a side of dry orange Spanish rice and luxuriantly lard-infused refried beans.
So as to not feel like I've wandered into the same combination-plate hell found at chain Mexi joints, I always opt to pair my rice and beans with Cinco's mole enchiladas. Black as mole negro with a complex flavor of sweet chiles and chocolate, the platillo comes drenched in as much melted cheese as mole sauce, allowing a second helping of chips dipped in all the goopy stuff as soon as the main course is done.
Brave souls may splurge for specialties like chile verde, beef guisada or lengua española, but those aren't the kind of complexities that keep people coming back to the downtown Long Beach staple. When all you seek is a simple burrito, a bottle of Negro Modelo and your latest celebrity news en Español, a quick walk to Cinco de Mayo is all that's necessary to celebrate the Battle of Puebla every day.
Cindo de Mayo, 351 Pacific Ave., Long Beach, (562) 432-1604