Every once in a while, I find a restaurant in Long Beach that I love so much I’m tempted to never write about it. And I’m not talking about the secret garage tacos that lurk across central Long Beach on weekends, where the mere mention of their location would get that shit shut down in an LBPD second. I mean a place so undiscovered by Instagram foodies and the downtown set that its cute two-table patio and pretty-plated pan-Latin dishes could probably remain hidden inside its East Long Beach shopping center forever if not for a nudge that let’s people know it actually exists.
But all that wouldn’t be fair to chef Cesar Villarreal, who’s airy two-year-old restaurant Cesar’s Bistro (on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Loynes) deserves all the praise in Long Beach that his other projects have received in his native South America.
For Cesar’s Bistro, Villarreal – who was trained at the Mausi Sebess Escuela de Cocina in Buenos Aires and once owned restaurants in his native Colombia – scouted his customer base and crafted a deep, thoughtful menu of both traditional and fusion dishes from across Latin America that are introducing newbies to the connections and common flavors between the region’s various cuisines.
The result is a menu that starts in Colombia with pork-rice calentao and tomatoey hogao sauce and moves outward into Peruvian lomo saltado and Cuban sandwiches with ease.
Upping the accessibility ante for the surrounding clientele (mostly moneyed families and boat-loving retirees) is a casual 25-seat cafe, filled with bright green chairs, helpful female servers and a soundtrack of familiar high-energy Spanish music that on more than one visit has veered into Ricky Martin territory. This is all a major upgrade in setting for most of this kind of food, because in Long Beach, the only other place you’re going to find things like pork-stuffed Colombian arepas, Peruvian-style aji amarillo chicken or tostones-loaded Caribbean fried rice are at hole-in-the-wall classics like El Paisa, El Pollo Imperial and Honduras Kitchen.
With subtle touches like house-infused teas and lemonades and an addictive corn relish that dots the rim of every pristine white plate (microgreens are a common accent here too), Villarreal is clearly aiming for a different audience. His main lure so far has been the Argentine-inspired empanadas, each puffy pastry padded with either a traditional filling (ground beef) or Villarreal original (ham and pineapple and cinnamon-clove) and stamped perfectly on the seam with the words “Cesar’s Bistro.” Start your meal with at least a few for a necessary introduction, knowing that you can always take a dozen home for later.
From there, you can keep it conventional with grilled Jamaican tilapia and chimichurri-pressed chicken or dig into mash-up entries like a Waygu beef burger made with a pillowy arepa bun or, if dining before lunchtime, the hodge-podge “Monster” breakfast plate, which gives you an empanada, a pizza-style corn cake, a house chorizo sausage and more. The gooey chicken milanesa sandwich, which oozes with avocado and spicy mayo sauces, might be one of the most satisfying hot sandwiches in town. Let the good happy hour menu of beer and table wines wash down whatever is left.
It would seem weirder that Cesar’s Bistro is not already on many people’s radar if not for its immediate neighbors: the ineffable Enrique’s, the breakfast haven Local Spot, quick-service K Pasta. A lack of signage on the center’s cluttered billboard doesn’t help either. But after stumbling into the place almost accidentally last year and spending the subsequent months falling slowly and hopelessly in love with its charms, it’s no use trying to keep this Latin American hideaway to myself anymore. See you there!
Cesar’s Bistro 6240 E. Pacific Coast Highway Long Beach; (562) 494-1000; cesarsbistro.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.