Of all the recent restaurant openings in Long Beach, none has caused quite as many conflicting opinions as Lacquered.
On the one hand, it’s a small counter-service restaurant owned by an enthusiastic Harbor Area husband and wife team who parlayed their respective fine-dining experiences (him: The Fifth Restaurant in Toronto; her: Wolfgang Puck) first into a catering company and now into Lacquered, a dream project in Belmont Heights where the pair’s exquisitely roasted Mary’s organic whole chickens and fall-off-the-bone ribs come painted in juicy sauces on a loaded combo plate alongside labor-intensive sides made with passion and love from local farmers market produce.
As chefs, Scott McDonough and Diana Vu are thoughtful and creative, letting hints of each’s cultural upbringing dot the mashup menu. McDonough is originally from Canada, and so Lacquered serves Long Beach’s first legitimate poutine, with house-made brown gravy and fresh cheese curds. Diana Vu is a Vietnamese-American born and raised in Little Saigon; the pork ribs, spring rolls and most of her sweet and tangy sauces come straight from “Mama Vu’s” cookbook.
Several new inventions — like the “Legumes and Grains,” which adds texture and protein to a standard side of rice, and the sweet-crunchy-tangy 15-ingredient Lacquered slaw – are custom additions that show creativity culled from decades of culinary work.
The restaurant’s namesake chickens are also divine, with crackly brown skin that shines like a good lacquer. McDonough and Vu brine the California-grown birds for up to 10 hours, dry them overnight then give them a spice rubs before tossing them into the on-site rotisserie, where they are brushed with either garlic butter or barbecue sauce as they spin (the Peking-style chicken simmers in Vietnamese soy broth for its to-the-bone flavors).
And yet, as I handed my card over the counter each of the two times I ordered from Lacquered since it opened last month, I had to gawk at the price tag.
Despite generous portions and everything being made from scratch, a two-piece chicken combo meal should not cost $16.25 here. Three pieces of Mama Vu’s pork ribs – even with two heaping sides (the slaw and the legumes/grains) plus scallion bread and pickled veggies – is offensive at $22. The shop’s only handheld meal – a poutine-inspired chicken sandwich on scallion flatbread — is $16. Even the traditional poutine itself is a pricey starter at $16.
There is no liquor license and no table service. You get your own silverware. You pour your own (meh) drinks. So, why is Lacquered charging $64.99 for a whole chicken meal when you can go get a whole organic roasted chicken at the new Whole Foods 365 for $7.99? Why is Vu responding defensively to online comments about her prices by listing off the number of ingredients and touting the “#FreshlyHandcrafted,” organic and farm-to-table nature of her food when Long Beach chefs have been offering these things at more appropriate prices for years?
It’s important to ask these kinds of questions of new restaurants that are attempting to enter our city’s rapidly changing food scene, especially before we let them take advantage of Long Beach’s new culinary cache. Who is this food for? The neighborhood or the chef? Are the prices in line with other places of similar quality nearby? Has there been any effort to cut costs by, say, serving smaller portions, or reducing the number of ingredients in the 15-ingredient slaw or balancing the chef’s vision for quality against what is actually feasible given the financial constraints that all restaurant owners are under? Because even if some residents can afford to drop $40 at a register on lunch, is it worth the cost?
Compared to other new arrivals that have elevated the restaurant scene in Long Beach, it’s clear that Lacquered hasn’t considered such questions. 4th & Olive also makes their menu items through time-consuming processes and charges accordingly, but it provides alongside those prices a well-curated wine list, knowledgeable servers and a white-tablecloth, fine-dining experience. Ellie’s could easily charge twice as much for its house-made dishes (and would if it was in L.A.), but instead offers its creative pastas through an introductory $25 three-course option. Taste WBK comes out of the gourmet grocery model at neighborhood staple Olives and, though too expensive for everyday meals, provides thoughtful seasonal tapas and an intimate dining ambience that is unparalleled anywhere in town.
It’s hard to tell where Lacquered sees itself fitting into this landscape. Is the food interesting and well made? Yes. But until the prices match the concept and neighborhood, it’s best to stick to the few $3 a la carte sides, which show off McDonough and Vu’s skills with everything from garlic noodles to farmers market veggies at a fraction of the cost of their lacquered meats.
Lacquered, 3632 E. Broadway, Long Beach; (562) 881-8105
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.