Let’s face it, foodies: Eating at Whole Foods is a crapshoot. Sure, potential gems lurk beneath those sneeze-guarded buffet islands and behind deli glass cases, but choose wrong, and you might end up paying a whole lot of money for a whole lot of meh. Olives Gourmet Grocer on Long Beach’s Second Street is the anti-Whole Foods: smaller, more focused on producing quality than quantity. And the odds that it pays out more delicious dividends on any given day are as good as when you get an ace and a queen on a hand of blackjack.
Sweet melted pork fat from lardons coats the roasted brussel sprouts. Sliced as thick as a Roget’s volume, the meatloaf comes studded with carrots and onions, and it’s more meat than breadcrumb filler. Mashed potatoes taste as they should—you know, the product of actual potatoes. Green beans still snap with the freshness of spring, purposely undercooked because Olives knows you’re going to reheat them at home. And when I pointed to a medium-sized tub for my takeout order, the counterman nodded but told me he’d use a more spacious cardboard box so the spears didn’t get bent out of shape.
Later, as I headed out the door, the cashier leaped out of his station and gave a whole-hearted wave and a full-throated “See you next time!” If I didn’t already know I was in Long Beach, I’d have said this was Mayberry.
A bigger, more grocery-centric Olives exists up the road on Broadway, which I’m sure employs just as friendly a staff, but the Second Street store has something the original doesn’t: a pizza oven and a dining area with chairs and tables from which you can enjoy the hot slices straight from their heat-warped aluminum pans. A warning: Pepperoni doesn’t exist as a topping here, but you won’t miss it. Fennel-flecked salami is the closest you’ll get; slices the width of coasters float atop a sea of mozzarella, fontina and ricotta along with sautéed spinach, marinara and herbs. About the only thing predictable on the nine pies are the consistent hand-patted flatness, crisp crust and price. The pizza margherita (misspelled as “margharita”) eats like the classic you love. The Scandinavian contains potatoes and caramelized onions; the Greek Style pizza has feta and olives, of course. Whole pizzas tick at $9; half-pizzas retail for $5. Whole Paycheck: eat your heart out.
People tend to love the pizza, but a small cult already exists around the sandwiches. On breads sourced from La Brea Bakery, Olives’ sandwich assemblers stack Niman Ranch’s applewood smoked bacon for the regular BLTs, adding avocado spread, New Mexico green chiles and chipotle aioli for the “Hot BLTs.” The same spice-laden mélange lays between a special turkey-breast panini of the day dubbed “Yuma.” I overheard pedestrians who walked past the whiteboard sidewalk sign announcing the sandwich saying to one another, “That sounds good!” It was—and cheap, to boot, since these daily deals include a side of penne salad for a regular sandwich’s price. A tablemate proclaimed Olives’ Cubano panini easily trumps the one at Felix Continental Cafe in Orange, noting how the just-tart pickles merged with the almost-too-generous layers of roast pork and ham better than pickles go with anything. Never mind that the ciabattina, a craggle-crusted torpedo roll with bubbled voids, isn’t the traditional vessel for it; a cubiche from Calle Ocho would still approve of it in a heartbeat.
Those who come to Olives expecting an actual grocery store might be disappointed; the selection of fresh produce takes up a space no larger than a bookshelf. The point here is to eat in or take out from the aforementioned deli, the salad bar island or the modestly stocked hot-foods bar. On the day I visited, it featured roasted chicken, warm mashed potatoes, gravy and a vegetable side dish. Olives offers a different dish every weeknight for those who’d rather not bother dirtying their own china and silverware. But eclectic products exist within these navigable aisles. More than a dozen different olive oils from points European and beyond occupy a shelf in dark skinny bottles. Lemonades and teas you’ve never heard of chill in an amply stocked bottled-drinks section. Look in the small ice-cream freezer and you find Dr. Bob’s, a producer from Pomona criminally underrepresented everywhere but Pomona.
But it’s the small display case of cakes and pastries that will beckon as you try to leave. Olives currently stocks individually wrapped pumpkin cheesecakes cuffed by a sheet of plastic film to retain their shapes. A flourless chocolate cake looks more like a muffin and melts in the mouth as if it were fudge. And cookies! So many cookies! Some are crusted over with sugar as if from those Danish tins, but all of them are locally made.
More than Whole Foods, I liken the Olives on Second Street to the dozens of gourmet grocers and delis found up the main road in Napa Valley, those that look like gas-station convenience stores at first glance, but turn out to be one-stop shops of ready-made tapenades and Boar’s Head products. Olives is like that, but it’s here in Mayberry—I mean, Long Beach.
Olives Gourmet Grocer, 5000 E. Second St., Long Beach, CA 90803, (562) 343-5580; www.olivesgourmetgrocer.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.- 9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sandwiches, $4.49-$7.69; deli-counter items priced by the pound.
This review appeared in print as “The Anti-Whole Foods: Olives Gourmet Grocer offers specialty products and delicious hot food without demanding your paycheck—imagine that!”
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.