Long Beach Lunch: Leo’s Mexican Grill

Leo’s Mexican Food in downtown Long Beach remains in business for only two reasons: its generous multi-day offering of $1.25 tacos and beers, and the fact that there isn’t a better Mexican restaurant within walking distance. Because while cheap tacos and cold beer are always a nice draw for the downtown set, proximity trumps it all.

Since Super Mex is all the way over on Alamitos Avenue and Frida’s is nestled even farther away among the 4th Street dives, on any given weekday, you’ll find a lunchtime line out the door at Leo’s, backed up to the sidewalk with city employees, office workers and Long Beach’s seen-and-be-scene social elite all hoping for a quick Mexican-food fix.

In fact, Leo’s is such a local institution at this point, it’s hard not to come across a familiar face at the place, and its role as an impromptu conference room for meetings and catch-ups is sometimes the only thing that takes the sting out of the uneven ground beef (once it was actual pieces of char; another time it was boiled and looked like larb) and Christmas-colored tortilla chips.
Most things on the menu are safe to eat, though, even if it’s not the most authentic meal in town. Take the aforementioned tacos, which on Tuesday and Fridays are only $1.25. They come either “Mexican Style” (in a double wrap corn tortilla with cilantro and onions), “Gringo style” (in a flour tortilla with shredded cheese) or “Hard Style” (deep fried to crispy bliss with shredded meat within). Pick your style, pick your meat (carne asada and pastor are best) and load up a plate for $5. Wash it all down with a plastic cup full of Tecate or PBR, also only $1.25; a thick chilled mug of the stuff is only $4.50.

And you wouldn’t be alone in making this your bi-weekly ritual. On Tuesday and Fridays Leo’s gets so full that the wall between the windowless back room (which turns into a thumping speakeasy discoteca some nights) gets slid open to provide extra seating for the crowds.

Weekends are the best times to go if you want to explore other parts of the menu. That’s when the salsa bar has all the good pickled things stocked up and the cooks can slow down enough to actually make a decent shrimp enchilada or chile relleno. That’s when you’ll most likely order the combination plates, fajitas, enchilada style burritos and – for the brave – mariscos like shrimp al mole de ajo and pescado a la diabla (for the really brave, there’s also a cheeseburger combo and if you get there for breakfast, a Sloppy Joe omelette).
There isn’t much else to brag about at Leo’s, and that’s okay. They know their audience isn’t looking for abuelita’s mole or $6 tacos, or even $5 beers. Their business plan is entirely based upon the fact that they’re the only place within walking distance of Pine Avenue that does counter service Mexican food and also has a beer and wine license—and sometimes, that’s all you need.

Leo’s Mexican Grill, 225 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 432-1265

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