For those who fear the incoming gentrification, of Long Beach losing its working-class roots, or of locally owned small businesses being pushed out in favor of chefs and restaurant chains from elsewhere, might I suggest rekindling your faith with a cheap lunch at Playas Ceviche & Tortas.
The family-run counter-service spot is the latest in a string of new suburban Mexican concepts that were launched — as we’ve previously described — with abuelita heart and pocho soul.
Pocho Grill in Bixby Knolls was the first to embrace the title wholeheartedly, using it to describe its quick-service model and inoffensive basics like tacos, flautas, quesadillas and more (sadly, it abruptly closed in September). Aguas Way in Virginia Village is still going strong, though, with a modern interior design and no less than eight colorful aguas fresca each day, beverages that complement a menu of flautas, carne asada fries and other after-school comfort foods.
And as of late August, there is now Playas Ceviche & Tortas. As its name implies, this airy storefront on the corner of Carson and Norse Way, just a block from Long Beach City College, serves up generous helpings of both mariscos and meat, not only in ceviche and tortas, but also in cocteles, salads and tacos. With a simple poké-shop setup and affordable prices ($1.25 tacos!), it has attracted broke college students and stressed-out suburban moms.
But more than just somewhere to nab cheap sustenance between classes, Playas has also become a destination for its citrusy house coctel juice (sin Clamato, güey!), crunchy-yet-spongy bolillo rolls and a $5 shrimp aguachile that rivals those served at some of my favorite mariscos trucks in Tijuana. A simple dish of raw butterflied shrimp marinated in serrano lime juice and tossed with hunks of cucumber and onions, it’s by far the best version of its spicy ceviche cousin for the price I’ve had within city limits.
Further proof that Playas takes its mariscos game seriously is its extensive hot sauce selection. The father and sons who own and run the place anchored the colorful lineup of bottles with standards such as Yucateca, Guacamaya and Valentina, but flushed it out with rarities from their own personal collection, which seems to grow every time a family member returns from Mexico. As you scan the dozens of sauces, one of the sons will inevitably ask if you want to try any of them, helping you to whittle down the daunting selection of salsas so you can find something to take back to the table. (I never end up with less than three, one of which I’ve never heard of before.) If you tell him you’re interested in the Worchestershire sauce-like wonders of tangier sauces, he’ll offer up a special-label Salsa Sinaloa. Mention you like habanero, and the dad will appear, pulling out a squeeze bottle of his own habanero blend, which packs a bright sweetness that can only come from freshly puréed peppers.
It’s this kind of owner presence and fast-casual concept that makes the no-frills Mexican food at Playas not always exciting, but so deeply needed and necessary for Long Beach right now. If local families continue to turn the recipes they make at home into businesses that feed their neighbors, gentrification doesn’t stand a chance.
Playas Ceviche & Tortas, 4501 E. Carson St., Ste. 113, Long Beach, (562) 377-3645.
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.