Let's face it: when it comes to food in Long Beach, the city hasn't exactly played along with the hyped-out culinary world that often entangles neighboring Orange County and Los Angeles.
Sure, there's James Republic and Michaels of Naples leading the way for local date-night dinners, but Long Beach historically (and thankfully) has left the overpriced small plates and up-and-coming young tattooed chefs to Mid-Wilshire pop ups and reservations-necessary tapas bars. I also appreciate that Long Beach has also never rested easy on its wide swath of basic American restaurants or its growing cadre of Mexican joints, both easy fall-backs in Southern California.
Instead, I spent the past year eating my way through even more of this city and, in the end, more fully realized how it has cultivated a reputation as the best bet around to find honest, working-class food from around the world.
The following are a few trustworthy Long Beach faves that can't help but live outside the typical burger-or-burrito dichotomy.
5. Beachwood BBQ and Brewing
Yes, the original Beachwood location is technically in Orange County and so maybe the food should be rated against an OC scale (Edwin did it once), but the larger two-year-old BBQ outpost has something its Seal Beach original does not–a majorly award-winning brewery. This year at the Great American Beer Festival, Beachwood swept the competition with five medals and the title of Best Mid-Sized Brewpub in the nation. And while a few of the house beers do end up on draft in Seal, infinitely more are exclusive to Long Beach, meaning you can easily pair your half slab of baby back ribs or North Carolina-style pulled chicken sandwich with fresh-hopped IPAs and coffee stouts that would make East Coast beer geeks weep. Being owned by Head Chef Gabe Gordon, a man with fine dining and molecular gastronomy backgrounds, also means the regular menu of West Coast-ified Southern favorites sometimes gets offset with special events where the kitchen churns out affordable prix fixe odes to beer, meat and all things smoked.
Beachwood BBQ and Brewing, 210 E 3rd St, Long Beach, (562) 436-4020, beachwoodbbq.com
4. Sal's Gumbo Shack
Sal might not be from New Orleans–heck, she's only been there once–but the gumbo recipe she has been perfecting over the last three decades draws a straight line from Long Beach to the Big Easy. Out of the little corner restaurant she opened along a stretch of Long Beach Blvd. near the Compton border earlier this year, Belizean-born Sal channels the spirit of the Bayou with a menu of seafood po'boys, red beans and rice and her restaurant's namesake bowlful–a filé party of shrimp, andouille sausage and crab legs bathing in a dark roux broth with rice and other animal cartilage. The freeway adjacent location makes for an easy drive to Soul Food Sundays, where Southern specialties like oxtails, turkey necks, fried turkey chops and baked turkey wings help ignite Nawlins-grade parties on the cozy side patio.
Sal's Gumbo Shack, 6148 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 422-8100.
3. Pupuseria Salvadoreña
There might be a handful of pupusa palaces in Long Beach (including the ladies at the downtown farmers market), but I somehow always find my way back to the Westside, where I drink Inca Kola and dig into the divine loroco and pork-stuffed doughy flats at Pupuseria Salvadoreña. Only food native to the tiny Central American country comes out of the kitchen of this massive strip mall unit, meaning no wet burritos or carnitas enchiladas or pansy ordenes of chips and salsa–just staples like pacaya envuelta, mojarra frita and about 15 different kinds of pupusas (would you like corn or flour masa with that?) that come with tangy curtido slaw and a traditional watery red salsa. I love how surprised the sometimes-gruff Salvadorean ladies look every few months when I return to chow down on more of my favorite pupusas and play songs on the jukebox I don't understand the words to. Gracias, señoras.
Pupuseria Salvadoreña, 1336 W. Willow St., Long Beach, (562) 426-6004.
2. Berth 55
Buried off Pico Ave. in the heart of the inner harbor, Berth 55 could easily make this list every single year. Live crabs crawl in large tanks and fresh fish fillets sit on display in the massive cold case over which you order stuff like fried scallops, grilled shrimp or fresh ceviche to eat portside off Styrofoam plates while gulls squack and wakes lap nearby. The cheap plastic cups of Bud Light attract dockworkers from all walks of life, helping the place exude a unique Long Beach character that encourages all ye who blue collar in the city to dine here. Berth 55 sits on the last public access point in the Port of Long Beach and was expected to close last year after decades in business to make room for a port security complex. But the fish market was given an indefinite reprieve while the city figures out the environmental impact of the new project, so a trip is required at least once a month to savor the flavors before they are washed out to sea.
Berth 55, 55 Pico Ave., Long Beach, (562) 435-8366
1. Callaloo Caribbean Kitchen
Who'd have ever thought that a mecca for Trinidadian food would land in a place once called Iowa By The Sea? Not Callaloo's owner Hamid Latiff who grew up in the southernmost Caribbean island and decided to follow his cousin to the LBC a few years ago. But after only a few months of being open in Long Beach, Latiff's Callaloo Caribbean Kitchen has already found an open-minded clientele that is more than willing to dig into hybridized rarities like curried goat rotis, stewed oxtail and bowls of the eponymous callaloo soup, which grinds up spinach, pumpkin, red beans and okra for a mouthful of cultural-fusion metaphors. After one meal, it's impossible to resist the unconventional flavors found in Trini food and this year I have often found myself back on East Anaheim, listening to live steel drums and floating away on a tropical cloud of habanero mango salsa.
Callaloo Caribbean Kitchen, 4137 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 230-7530.
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.