New Yorkers are mad at Californians again — this time for threatening to make the city’s beloved bodegas obsolete.
A few weeks ago, a couple of Silicon Valley blowhards thought it would be a great idea to rebrand the standard vending machine as a box-sized version of the Latin-tinged East Coast neighborhood institutions, places where you can grab booze for the day, ingredients for dinner or a sandwich for the walk home.
Though the new machines are offensively lacking in actual bodega hallmarks — such as obscure snacks from the owner’s home country, surly hard-working lifers behind the counter and perpetually purring house cats with a penchant for napping among chip bags — the app company still calls itself “Bodega.”
In Long Beach, however, the spirit of letting a liquor store/grocery/deli serve as a community’s lifeblood is not under threat, but expanding (no app required).
Wine Mess Liquors, in the heart of the Broadway Gayborhood, first opened in 1939 and over the decades has morphed into whatever a real California version of a bodega might be. Decidedly more than a vending machine, this corner liquor store has always had a campy pirate theme (a man nicknamed Captain Ron used to own it), a great selection of craft beer and shooters, a wide assortment of Mexican snacks and pantry goods, plus common grocery perishables for when you need some Oscar Meyer turkey for your sandwiches or a dozen eggs for the fridge.
There are no domesticated animals skulking about (damn you, Health Department!), but a member of the Cambodian owner’s family is always behind the counter with a smile, and the chance of wiping a thick layer of dust off a can of cat food to see which flavor it is or finding a bottle of 7-Up from last Christmas in a back-room fridge only adds to the charm.
Earlier this year, the owner’s son doubled down on the Wine Mess’ bodega-like amenities by opening his own project within the store: a full California-style deli.
Built into the back room that once housed shelves of dry foods and chilled sodas, The Mess Deli is now where the one-man show can finally experiment with cold cut trios, Cuban sandwiches and beyond.
“I’m like the kid hiding under the stairs, just trying new things, making what I like and having fun with it,” he said on my first visit as he hurriedly prepared a triple-pork bánh mì with an extra helping of all the good pickled things.
Subsequent trips (there have been many) have yielded gooey Philly cheese steaks, your-way tuna sandwiches and French rolls loaded with nearly bulgogi barbecue beef, pickled papaya and carrots, jalapeños, cilantro and Sriracha (the meat is also available in tacos, natch).
Order Ming’s handmade egg rolls and he’ll call over his mom — “ming” means “auntie” in Khmer — to freshly prepare some of her deep-fried specialties, each one stuffed with chicken, cabbage, taro and sprouts. Wrap one in the accompanying lettuce leaves before dipping them in the sweet and sour sauce on the side and you’ll be transported a few blocks away to Cambodia Town.
The neighborhood never knew how much it needed something as bodega-like as this, and the deli sometimes seems unprepared to handle the amount of business it often gets. Just have patience if there are more than a few people in line and be thankful that Wine Mess is still a neighborhood institution that no app could ever replace.
1770 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 436-8901; themessdeli.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.