I still don’t understand how I fell into food writing. Was I the only person in Long Beach who never cooked because their apartment is so old that if you wanted a fridge, it had to go where an oven was supposed to be? Besides loving my city immensely, was I qualified at all to shift my storytelling urges from music and art to whatever I could afford to put on my plate?
For some reason (gracias a dios), former OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano emailed me during the summer of 2012 a single question: “Any interest in doing Long Beach restaurant reviews for me?”
And so, nearly every week for the past six years (minus a year-long haitus during which I defected to run the food section at the LA Weekly—RIP), I have reviewed a Long Beach restaurant; interviewed a local chef; or commented on an event, neighborhood, genre or dish—hundreds of pieces in all.
All this isn’t to humblebrag (I swear), but to instead explain why I’ve been thinking about how much has changed, not only my understanding of food (and its connection to culture, to memory and to nourishment), but also within Long Beach’s restaurant scene (which is growing at a clip, with about one new opening a week).
For the anniversary of this column, I decided to meditate more on what we already have—by going back to the first place I reviewed for Long Beach Lunch, the inimitable MVP’s Grill and Patio.
As with the city’s food scene itself, some things are different at MVP’s, but its working-class soul remains. There are now three locations of the locally famous sports-themed charbroiler, each since independently owned and with its own quirks. MVP’s earned its cred at its original location, a shack and patio built into the front yard of a Craftsman house on Fourth Street in Belmont Heights. It opened in the late ’90s and for years served a small list of girthy burgers and hot dogs cleverly named after such sports figures as George Foreman (“The Champ’s favorite”) and Pat Day (“a winner by a long shot”). The Cajun fries, heavily dusted with piquant seasonings and served in hefty portions, may be the city’s answer to Hot Cheetos (check your fingers when you’re done).
A longtime employee purchased the business and its recipes, then started expanding. The menu grew to include buttered-sourdough sandwiches (The Ditka is a turkey sammie “for Bear-ish appetites”), two-meal salads (the Oscar de la Hoya has carne asada and spicy ranch) and additional meaty burgers (a Mike Tyson comes with double patties, pastrami, jalepeños and Swiss). Then two new locations opened, first in the suburbs, then down the street from the original.
The farthest flung MVP’s is on Stearns and Bellflower, in a former Tastee Freez. It’s little more than an A-frame walk-up with some destruction-proof tables outside. But it’s the only MVP’s that makes its own tzatziki sauce, a refreshing, garlick-y condiment that should be ordered either on a gyro pita (Milt Pappas) or a chicken pita (Greg Louganis).
In 2013, MVP’s took over Porky’s BBQ on 10th and Redondo, another walk-up window with a few tables outside. But since detaching from the original owners at some point in the past few years, the quality at this location has severely declined; wait times are long, and the food sometimes comes out sloppy.
It’s best to stick with the original, which relocated in 2015 to a glossier, roomier spot down the street, replete with a private back patio, indoor seating and a door that connects the counter directly to one of the diviest dive bars in town. It’s the last MVP’s still owned by the man who invented most of the menu—a pilgrimage every local should make. (It’s also the only MVP’s where you can go to watch a sports game.)
A lot may have changed in the city’s food scene over the past six years (and a lot more may still be changing), but Long Beach is still the kind of place where a hundred chef-driven farm-to-table restaurants can open up around you, but your neighborhood charbroiler will still be one of the best meals in town.
MVP’s Grill & Patio, 2742 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 439-0809.
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.