Even in Long Beach, where the best Mexican food is often found in the oddest places, from loncheras to converted houses to strip mall mercados, Rivera's on Seventh Street is still a surprise.
Plopped on the eastern end of the corridor-turned-makeshift-highway, Rivera's is one of the street's brave retail establishments, and it's easy to miss. Littered among run-down apartments, halfway homes and unmarked concrete facades, its yellow building with green awnings invite a second look from the zooming cars. But its window-starved frontage and lack of signage that explains what, exactly, Rivera's is usually means first-timers stumble in on a personal recommendation and not the merit of its location.
Once inside, though, the chaos from outside drips away as the latticework-ceiling and wood paneling welcomes diners to a series of rooms coated in homey Mexican imagery. Paintings by Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo line the walls along side maps of the patria and photos of ancient vaqueros, setting the mood for the Sonoran feast that awaits.
The menu could use a serious redesign (Word Art circa 1997, anyone?) but if you ignore the bright colors, horrific section headers ("Specials That Are Special") and festive cartoon cacti long enough to sift through the actual options, you'll discover a simple selection of Mexican favorites, all at penny-pinching prices.
Burrito nazis will delight in Rivera's baby-sized (as in, the size of an actual baby) tortilla wraps, which come loaded with rice, beans, lettuce and what must be a half-pound of meat for only $6.98. The dozen meat choices might not include the typical taqueria beauties like lengua and cabeza, but it's hard to find a better knife-and-fork burro filled with adobada, chile verde or juicy ground beef.
One cut down the middle of Rivera's burritos (make it wet for $1 more) and its ingredients spill out like a piñata, the savory mixture begging to be scooped onto some of the restaurant's freshly fried palm-sized tortilla chips and eaten along with the smokey house salsa.
Since there aren't any official lunch specials, non-burrito fans will likely find themselves ordering one of the many under-$10 combination plates, which come sizzling with bubbly cheese and include an array of upright tortilla strips stuck into a scoop of guac, as if the whole meal were in motion.
Where bigger sit-down Mexican restaurants might charge upwards of $14 (we're looking at you, El Torito) for some tacos, enchiladas and a side of rice and beans on a plate too hot to touch, Rivera's combos include taquitos, flautas and chile rellenos at a fraction of the cost.
Family owned for more than 25 years (presumably not by the other Long Beach Riveras, though Jenni's "La Gran Señora" did come on while I was there last time), Rivera's restaurant has fought against its crappy location to become a homey neighborhood institution where those in the know go to get their fix of traditional Mexican almuerzo.
Rivera's, 2901 E. 7th St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8489