It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these so bear with me through a brief nostalgia trip.
I spent more than two years lunching and living to write about it in the city I call home for this beautiful, infernal rag. In that time, I ate through a world’s worth of cuisines – everything from dive-bar steakhouses to hipster coffee shops to taquerias to Cambodian soup kitchens to the food at the damn airport – revisiting old favorites and discovering new haunts.
A little over a year ago, I put the column on hiatus and fled to cover food in L.A., a few miles north but worlds away. Meals in Long Beach (where I stayed living) were no longer research, merely sustenance, and big-name L.A. chefs (who don’t much matter to diners down here) began to dominate my brainspace. With that stint no longer full-time, I, like a prodigal son, have returned to once again cover my beloved Long Beach and it’s not-always-worth-the-drive-but-dammit-it’s-ours food scene.
It’s an honor to return to this trusty post with a Long Beach lunch spot that opened during my absence, one that reflects both where Long Beach is going and also where it’s been: Working Class Kitchen.
It’s true that Working Class Kitchen isn’t really catering to the city’s historic working class. The longshoremen and hotel maids and blue-collar brats who built this industrial city probably won’t be heading over to the new-school deli and whole-animal butcher shop on Coronado Street off Anaheim to buy their daily supply of Devil’s Gulch whole rabbit ($18 per pound) or Piedmontese bone-in rib eye ($28 per pound). And they certainly aren’t buying a $5 glass of cold brew on nitro instead of their affordable morning joe.
But Working Class Kitchen isn’t entirely for the upscale set, either. Where else can you eat for lunch the only Chianina burger in the country for just $8? Or order a fresh spicy pork Italian sausage sandwich like nona used to make with sautéed onions and red peppers for $9?
In L.A., many of Working Class Kitchen’s menu items – from the goat cheese and beet salad to the whole-hog pulled-pork sandwich – would cost 25 percent more and be hailed as part of the farm-to-table, nose-to-tail trend. For owner Michael Dene and chef David Coleman, though, serving food with a story isn’t part of a gimmick that will let them overcharge customers, it’s just part of the vertical integration they’ve set up for their mini restaurant empire.
Working Class Kitchen is what happens when Coleman and Dene, who run the Zagat-slaying trifecta of Michael’s on Naples, Michael’s Pizzeria and Chianina, open a commissary for their extremely farm-to-table fine-dining operations and uses it as a storefront to sell not only the same hand-pulled Italian cheeses, Farm Lot 59-grown microgreens and slow-smoked meats you’ll find at his restaurants (at a fraction of the price), but also a slew of original items like sausages (no less than five kinds), hand-made pasta and more. Like any good deli, it lets no part of the animal go to waste; also offered are tubs of rendered duck fat plus a full case stocked with any meats not sent out to its sister kitchens.
In the case of Chianina, the Italian steakhouse named after the oldest breed of cattle in the world, of which Dene owns and is raising the only herd in America, every part of a Chianina cow is extraneous except the prime cuts. So, in addition to Chianina burgers, Working Class Kitchen sells the country’s only attempts at Chianina meatballs, Chianina chili bowls, Chianina corned beef sandwiches and, occasionally, $5 bags of Chianina jerky.
An honest homage to Long Beach’s DIY roots, Working Class Kitchen also serves as a symbol of the city’s food future. No longer are we content to drive to L.A. for braggable grub and everywhere from downtown to the north side is swarming with new eateries and bars to prove it. Long Beach is changing and, so far, it’s for the better (though I’m still waiting on a legit ramen-ya and somewhere besides Los Compadres that makes tortillas). Who knows where we’ll be after two more years of lunching in this city? I can’t wait to find out.
Working Class Kitchen, 1322 Coronado Ave., Long Beach; (562) 494-0306; workingclasskitchen.com
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.