Long Beach Lunch: The Bonanza Restaurant

In the wild wild West that is Long Beach’s Bonanza Restaurant, anything goes. You can eat a syrupy pancake combo and a shrimp ceviche tostada in the same meal. You can lick the Tajín-lined rim of your slushy-sweet mangonada then take a full bite of greasy bacon under the watchful glare of taxidermied deer. Or you can wash down your chile relleno combo plate with a ceramic cup of diner coffee (or, hell, a chocolate ice cream shake), then put your favorite mariachi song on the jukebox. (If you wait around until dinnertime, the jukebox won’t be necessary because the lights will dim and a weathered old Mexican cowboy will sing it for you during a nightly event the locals call “caballero karaoke.”)

Bonanza is the only place in the city where the quintessential mariscos-slanging Mexican restaurant clashes head-on with the good old fashioned kitschy American coffee shop, proving that ranch life is pretty similar on both sides of the border.

Decades ago, when some brilliant soul decided to first open a diner themed after the most popular Western TV show in history, it was dropped deep in Long Beach’s residential Westside, in the final blocks before Willow Street drifts into the industrial wasteland of the port. With stuffed game tacked to one wall and wagon-wheel lighting fixtures hanging over dark wooded booths, it served as a nostalgic breakfast and lunch spot, first for locals, and then – as the port grew in size and significance, bringing with it an influx of immigrants from Asia, Latin-America and beyond – for truck drivers, warehouse workers and longshoreman.
These days, a man named “El Jefe de Santa Clara” is in charge. You’ll know this because photos of El Jefe wearing a cowboy hat and awkwardly grinning (in the way tough guys do) is plastered all over the menu imploring you to “vengan a provar nuestros desayunos y mariscos.” His face is also emblazoned on a banner affixed to the side of the building, underneath the vintage neon horseshoe-logo sign that remains from Bonanza’s early days.

El Jefe didn’t create the Mexican food menu at Bonanza, but he definitely expanded and improved it. Since at least the ’90s, specials like menudo and chilaquiles have been served alongside prototypical typical American diner fare, from steak and eggs to tuna sandwiches. At some point, one of Bonanza’s many owners began offering seafood cocktails, but they never bothered to use fresh fish.

That’s where El Jefe comes in. He’s only owned the Westside institution since late last year, but he also runs another mariscos restaurant, Brite Spot in San Pedro, where non-sketchy seafood is the norm. This means you can now order the tostadas de ceviche, campechana, pulpo, jaiva or pescado without fear. Specialties like shrimp a la diabla, bass al mojo de ajo and aguachiles are also fair game.
If you feel like spending $20 on a lunch that will last you through the next day, there are massive molcajetes, overflowing with melted cheese, chile toreado, nopal and all the major meat food groups: beef, chicken, pork and shrimp.

Inside, not much has changed over the years besides the menu. Walls remain filled with old machine workers union patches, dusty ’50s advertisements from oil companies and tin signs bearing defunct coffee brands. The countertop where generations of port workers clocked hours reading the paper and drinking coffee is still serviced by an attentive, friendly all-female staff, who nowadays are just as likely to bring you a hearty longshoremen special (12 pieces of bacon and four eggs plus orange juice) as they are a massive mojarra frita.

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