Aguas Way in North Long Beach looks like a slice right out of Tijuana’s Food Garden, the too-hip open-air food court of start-up culinary concepts designed with Portland-grade aesthetics in mind. Inside this 6-month-old Virginia Village hideaway, under exposed wooden beams, a custom-built ice chest countertop displays buckets of eight daily aguas frescas, the restaurant’s main, colorful draw. Outside, distressed wooden tables, bright orange metal chairs and lots of native plants invite you to order food from the menu of updated Mexican favorites and stay a while.
But even though the place might have all the trappings of some progressive, chef-driven modern Mexican fast casual concept (clever take on Spanish slang included), Aguas Way’s goals are much less lofty. In lieu of squid ink and clam-lardo tacos or tortillas made from organic sustainably farmed Masienda, the kitchen kicks out after-school comfort food like loaded fries, quesadillas, nachos, flautas and Ensenada fish tacos along with biónicos, funnel cake and more for dessert.
Underneath its well-designed sheen, Aguas Way is a simple family-run taqueria built for the next evolution of North Long Beach, one that combines a few of abuelita’s tried-and-true recipes with the American sensibilities of her bilingual pocho children. Co-owner (and son of said abuelita) Leoh Sandoval is an architect who grew up a few blocks away from the new family business. Over the counter on a recent visit, he said that from the interior overhaul of the former carniceria (his design, brother’s contract work) to coming up with the perfect asada to top a pile of fries (his brother-in-law is the chef), Aguas Way has been a group effort.
Sandoval’s brother, wife and sister are often the ones taking your order for snacks like cheesy garlic fries, shredded chicken flautas and California quesadillas (yes, fries in a ‘dilla!), all of which come with Instagrammable swizzles of house crema and a scoop of chunky guacamole. Surprisingly, the best-seller so far isn’t even a Mexican dish, but the buffalo fries, which are weighted down with a heap of breaded chicken, spicy buffalo sauce and ranch. The chef’s also introduced a few daily specials that are more taqueria-esque, including a tangy ceviche tostada every Friday and steaming bowls of menudo on Sunday.
Sandoval’s mother is responsible for the aguas frescas, which she makes fresh every morning according to whatever the daily produce and her creativity provide. There are always three stalwarts — fresa, mango and pepino y limón — standing adjacent to the register and five more that rotate according to the season. Earlier in spring, a plátano aguas appeared—banana!. Last week, there was a green-juice-like piña and espinaca (spinach). Not since the lemonade lady at the old Friday farmers market in downtown (Wal Mart days) has one local outlet made so many distinctive, summer-perfect refreshments. And even she didn’t have a machine that popped out custom amounts of chewable ice balls or let you mix and match flavors in the same cup like Aguas Way does.
Heatwave after heatwave is expected to descend upon Long Beach this summer, and the Sandoval family is readying their new venture to become North Long Beach’s best cool-down spot. With a stylish back patio made for lazy summer days and an ever-evolving lineup of home-made aguas frescas, Aguas Way is already mostly there. Add in the latest invention, $1.25 aguas frescas popsicles — made from the previous day’s leftovers in plastic cups with Chamoy and Tajín on the bottom — and it’s easy to feel like you’re right back in Tijuana, experiencing the latest culinary concept at Food Garden.
Aguas Way, 5248 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 726-1514
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.