There’s an episode of Parts Unknown in which the late Anthony Bourdain explores a pre-Harvey Houston through the lens of its growing diversity. To view it as a landing point for newcomers from around the world, Bourdain insisted that the episode not include any white Texans; instead, he stops at a packed Indian grocery store, eats dinner with West African refugees who run an urban farm, hangs with rapper Slim Thug at an East Texas barbecue joint, and drives to the Gulf to eat at a convenience store that serves Vietnamese and Mexican food with equal amounts of authenticity and pride.
“Immigrants, refugees and non-white Americans have been transforming the city and culture of Houston for years,” Bourdain’s iconic voice explains. “Welcome to America, people.”
It seemed only appropriate that this episode was playing on the flat-screen TV as I walked into Wok N Roll on PCH for a New Orleans chicken lunch combo.
If the chef/author/traveler/underdog-appreciator ever came to Long Beach—a city that’s been dense, diverse and majority minority since at least 1990—Bourdain might have landed at Wok N Roll, a takeout institution founded 30 years ago by Taiwanese immigrants that’s among the oldest operating Chinese restaurants in the city. Smushed in a college-adjacent strip mall along with Cyclo Noodles, Charo Chicken and Valentino’s Pizza, Wok N Roll has morphed to accommodate both new neighbors and changing palates. “You can have food on the street or food from a French chef—he knew it was all the same,” said the owner’s son, Kent Kuo, while discussing Bourdain’s legacy.
Kuo is a vegan who has been working in the family business for two decades, watching it move further from the fast-food clichés of Americanized Chinese dishes in dozens of steam trays. These days, Wok N Roll’s healthier approach means a nearly empty pre-batch section, longer wait times for fresh meals and slightly higher prices (though lunch combos remain less than $10), but it also attracts a diverse clientele that uses the black-and-white-tiled dining room as a lunchtime meeting spot, a gathering place to watch local sports games and a home away from home, where everyone gets treated like family.
I knew Wok N Roll was special when I first moved to town because it was always the preferred cheap Chinese spot of Long Beach lifers from all backgrounds. Some knew about it because their parents took them there as kids. Others were lucky enough as adults to discover its MSG-free kitchen, its made-to-order plates and soups, and its expansive vegetarian menu, which launched 15 years ago.
According to Kuo, his dad started accommodating his customers’ specialty diets and picky eaters because other places would not; he purchased soy-based products to swap out for meat and switched around recipes so that all the chow mein and fried rice options are vegan. In an interview with the Press-Telegram in 2007, Kuo’s father, Max (who says his wife calls him a “cookaholic”), explained that having a menu with low fat and low salt was easy because it’s more like the cuisine in northern China, where the family is originally from.
Everyone I know seems to have a standing order at Wok N Roll, though the 50-plus dishes on the vegan menu now draw in the majority of new clientele. (The kitchen also recently switched over to offer only all-white-meat chicken!) If Kent isn’t behind the counter to greet you when you arrive, he’s in the back preparing an order. He’ll start on yours as soon as the server up front barks it into a microphone; when you hear the distinctive “ting” of a service bell from somewhere behind the dry storage, you’ll know it’s done, ready to be scooped out of a warm metal bowl and into a styrofoam container so that it resembles the classic Chinese takeout of the past.
“Right now, we all need to get along with each other,” Kent said as another episode of Parts Unknown began playing in the background. “It’s like what Anthony Bourdain said: No matter how poor or rich you are, everyone can come together around good food.”
Wok N Roll, 4756 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 597-8783; woknrolllongbeach.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.