Happy Elephant was Long Beach’s only sushi restaurant that didn’t bother stocking any fish. It was also the only vegan place around that served a full menu of reimagined and deconstructed Vietnamese and Thai dishes, a la Au Lac. The restaurant’s location next to Spicy Sugar in the middle of the Thai Town Gayborhood only made its animal-free concept all the more exciting.
But Happy Elephant was a bit before its time (and the kitchen a little too slow), closing just short of the vegan onslaught that descended upon Long Beach last year, when Grain Cafe, Seabirds, Under the Sun and more brought plant-based cuisine to our meat-loving city.
Blue Bird Café, which opened in the same 20-seat Broadway storefront in November, does more than just pick up where Happy Elephant left off. Yes, there is a vegan sushi menu with seven fish-free rolls that use vegetables and marinated tofu in place of spicy tuna, salmon and crab. There is even a wider vegan menu with appetizers, salads and two kinds of ramen (a third, tonkatsu, is not vegan).
Yet the main draw at Blue Bird (for those who partake) should be anything made with seafood, because Alamitos Beach finally has a cozy, quality neighborhood sushi joint to call its own.
By this, I mean that the rolls are creative, the prices are fair and the quality is more like what you’d find in the suburbs, not at the imitation-crab overload of Maru Maki down the street. Rolls filled with baby lobster (Pride Roll, Hey Baby), baked scallops (Tuna Surprise) and spicy tuna (Animal Roll) are among the best mid-priced sushi anywhere in Long Beach. It also helps that the rice is perfectly textured, sticky and tossed in vinegar, sugar and mirin — just like in Jiro’s dreams.
To truly experience Blue Bird’s heavenly rice alongside a sampling of the chef’s deft touch for fresh fish, step away from the rolls and try any of the sushi bowls, which use a mound of the sushi-meshi as a pillow for everything from poke-style tuna to chirashi (assorted sashimi).
The best bowl is the simplest: a pure original called Magic Tuna on Rice, which tops the sublime sushi rice with slices of barely seared tuna coated in a spicy Cajun seasoning. With just a few seconds on the grill, the garlic, paprika and cayenne from the seasoning come alive, burning your lips just long enough before the raw tuna portion comes in to cool them.
No matter what you get, ask for a side of the “chef’s special dressing,” another Blue Bird anomaly, which like so much else on the menu, is spicy thanks to a house-made fluorescent chili oil. And if you still need more reasons to stop by, the buy-one-get-one-half-off special that launched during its soft opening late last year remains a standing weekday offer. Every meal starts with a complimentary bowl of miso soup. Oh yeah, you can bring your own beer too. Happy Elephant, who?
Blue Bird Cafe, 1532 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 676-4155.
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.