Located on a Belmont Heights sidewalk and smack in the middle of a residential street next to apartments and houses, PRIME is little more than a curbside walk-up window. It has a small seating area shaded by umbrellas in a patio no larger than a two-car driveway. According to the Long Beach Press-Telegram, this shack by the road has been home to eateries in one form or another since the 1950s. Back when it first opened, it was called Whistle Stop, which doled out burgers for 11 cents and became something of a local landmark.
In the late '90s, another burger joint, MVP, took over the spot. And last summer, when MVP moved to bigger digs on Retro Row, a new set of owners restored the shack and the Whistle Stop name. Fueled by nostalgia, the new owners not only revived the signature hand-smashed burgers the first Whistle Stop served, but also the blinking-arrow sign original to the property. Unfortunately, this second incarnation of Whistle Stop didn't last long. It changed ownership earlier this year and closed permanently shortly thereafter. But the upgrades made to the shack remained.
When the family that owns Shenandoah at the Arbor came in and opened the spot as PRIME about a month ago, they inherited the blinking-arrow sign as well as the red-white-and-blue fence that walled off the patio from the residential property behind the structure. PRIME still offers burgers on its menu—dripping, greasy ones made from Piedmontese beef smashed to twice the thickness of an In-N-Out patty—but they're now $11, not 11 cents. Still, since it's covered by slow-melting smoked gouda, cradled by leafy lettuce, and snug inside a shiny onion bun, the burger feels as if it's worth exactly that much. Most important of all: The meat is griddle-seared just until the middle reaches a rosy shade of pink. When you eat it, the beef doesn't crumble in the mouth—it melts as though it's steak tartare.
Though PRIME sells some garden-variety shoestring fries separately for $4, the burger doesn't actually need them. It already comes with a refreshing house-made pickle that offsets the grease as though it were designed to do just that. Customers order the fries anyway, often ignoring the excellent potato salad that has bits of Benton's bacon and diced red onions. With big chunks of skin-on boiled potatoes coarsely tossed in just the right amount of dressing and sold for the exact same price as the fries, it's one of the better potato salads outside a Korean barbecue.
The restaurant bills itself as a Southern eatery, but apart from the prodigious use of the Benton's bacon, it doesn't seem committed or tied to the label. The slow-roasted boar it served with grits one week has since been diverted into the “boaritas” tacos, its version of carnitas. In fact, if you judge PRIME by most of the menu items, it's less Southern and more south of the border. It's constantly running out of the elote (one of its most popular side dishes), and when you order the mac and cheese, you get a substantial plate of white-Cheddar-slicked orecchiette pasta with some fried potatoes and a big mound of crumbled green chorizo on the side. It's one of PRIME's best and most filling meals. Skip the unmemorable fish tacos, though; they're kind of dry. Opt instead for the wonderful smoked-brisket tamales zigzagged with tangy barbecue mole sauce that might warrant a redefinition of the term “Tex-Mex.”
Then there are dishes so good that you don't care where they came from. If it weren't served on a paper plate, the pork and apples—two slender pieces of pork pan-fried as though chicken, covered in a bacon-flecked gravy, and served with a cup of cognac-spiked applesauce—could pass as a Top Chef-level dish. And so would the salmon bruschetta, since it's essentially a perfectly seared salmon steak crowned with peaches, paired with sautéed spinach, and drizzled with a complementary cream sauce. Halfway through, you forget there's a piece of griddle-toasted bread at the bottom.
Despite these gourmet dishes, eating at PRIME still feels akin to being invited to a neighbor's backyard barbecue. The tables are covered in butcher paper; the napkins are tied in twine. And when you want a refill of the fruit-infused waters, you get up to pour it yourself from sweaty jugs into red Solo cups.
A trio of terrific pudding-based desserts, ranging from strawberry shortcake and banana pudding to s'mores, comes in disposable plastic cups and tastes as if somebody's mom made it for a picnic. It's the kind of thing that a person might get nostalgic about 60 years from now—and perhaps be wistful for the time when burgers cost only $11.
PRIME by Shenandoah, 3701 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 439-0605; primebyshenandoah.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Dinner for two, $25-$50, food only. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.