In a world of Russian cyber attacks, normalized Cuban relations and cries of “Bernie would’ve won,” the Social List’s punny name holds more meaning now than ever. So it feels only appropriate that after three years of being open, the corner cafe owned by Luis Navarro Jr. of Lola’s Mexican Cuisine, is finally rising up to find its voice.
The Social List was always built as a European tavern, a casual place meant for, well, socializing, inspired by the food and drink that Navarro and his sister missed from their travels around the world. Early on, this meant Belgian-style beer and tapas-style small plates, from chicken liver pate on toast to a lineup of house-made sausages, all items that Retro Row’s dining scene had never offered before.
On multiple visits during its opening year, though, both the menu and service underwhelmed. Despite an open, communal dining room with full sightlines of Fourth Street and an intimate beer and wine bar tucked into one corner, the food hadn’t yet discovered how to balance vision with neighborhood need (there was also a nasty fly problem that needed addressing).
Maybe it was Long Beach, still in the tweens of its recent culinary awakening, that didn’t know how to appreciate the Spanish breakfast toasts, spicy lamb sausages and thick takes on Basque pinxtos. Or, maybe it was that depending on which of those items you ordered, you could get a clever idea with poor execution, or a dish that tasted good but was nothing as described (and often not worth the price).
Either way, the locally adored Navarro has fixed all this by changing the vision several times over. In his words, he “started having fun.” For Navarro, this means going back to his core principles of sourcing local and keeping things fresh, which are already well expressed at the two Lola’s locations, both of which hinge on his mother’s Mexican food recipes. He’s switched the menu around several times in the last few years, experimenting with melty mozzarella flatbreads (served on California-shaped cutting boards!) and adding a host of new dishes that are substantial enough to be meals in themselves.
Worthy remnants from the past still linger: the dill-topped patatas bravas, made for forking through with friends; the juicy bratwurst, served on a bun with onions and pickled vegetables; the Catalan tomato toast, a simple pile of tomato, manchego cheese and olive oil.
But it’s Navarro’s new experiments — from a fall-apart braised short rib, which finds itself on a Philly cheesesteak-like melt (and also surrounded by steamed kale as a meal-sized entree), to house-cut pappardelle pasta tossed with whatever Farm Lot 59 vegetables are lying around the kitchen — that are the most fun right now.
More recently, The Social List launched a not-quite-European brunch service (think: French toast waffles, crab cake benedict, chilaquiles). And in January, it also added a full liquor license, which moves The Social List out of competition with the two wine bars within a block of it and into another realm. Cocktails available since the bar program’s January launch are all over the place — in a good way. With something for everybody, it’s one of the few drinks menus around that features both a Moscow mule on tap and several craft libations centered around Nicaragua’s silky smooth Flor de Caña rum, the only ostensible connection between the two being the restaurant’s tongue-in-cheek political name. VIP bottle lockers are also in the works, as is another parklet patio (like the one Lola’s and Number Nine have), this time taking over a bulb-out on the corner instead of a few parallel parking space.
Like a socialist country itself, The Social List was filled with grand idealism that needed some time to work out the kinks of implementation. With Navarro at the helm, there’s no doubt that this little European tapas tavern is slowly becoming the reliable neighborhood hangout Retro Row never knew it needed.
2105 E. 4th St., Long Beach; (562) 433-5478; thesociallistlb.com