Have you been to Long Beach's so-called Retro Row, a strip of Fourth Street between Junipero and Cherry avenues? It's home to vintage-clothing shops, a handful of hip restaurants and the Art Theatre, which is currently playing Richard Linklater's art-house favorite Boyhood. If you happen to drive through this portion of town, it will be as though the black-and-white movie you're watching suddenly switches to Technicolor. Retro Row's buildings are splashed with bright paints and clashing hues usually reserved for Oz. It reminds me of the mid-'90s in Miami's South Beach when the LGBT community moved in and slowly pushed a downtrodden neighborhood toward the cusp of gentrification and skyrocketing property values. But on a recent weekend, I went to Retro Row to eat at the Social List, its newest eatery. I didn't see as many fashionable people as I did flies—lots of flies.
Believe me, I'd rather not talk about these insects. I'd much rather tell you about the vaguely European menu that siblings Luis Navarro Jr. and Erica Norton, who also own Lola's across the street, are serving in this charming slip of a restaurant that has communist propaganda posters all over the walls (Get it? “Social List”?). But on that hot, humid day, about half a dozen uninvited pests dotted the room, flying orbits around our heads and our food like annoying, black-winged sputniks. At the far end of the restaurant, I saw a father waving his arms in such increasingly desperate attempts to shoo them away that he eventually made a joke out of it, first Vogueing, then doing the robot to the delight of his wife and kids. The flies were distracting enough to cause two crisply dressed Asian women to temporarily stop texting and actually talk to each other, probably about the flies.
The bugs weren't the Social List's fault. So for the rest of afternoon, we made the best of it. The food is really good, especially the patatas bravas, the classic Spanish fried-potato appetizer this restaurant serves as though a meal. It's easily the Social List's best item, with the deep-fried cubes slightly crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside. We quickly finished the whole bowl, drizzled with zigzag stripes of garlic aioli and a spicy sauce I suspect started with Sriracha. It was partly to deny the flies, but also because it's the kind of dish we couldn't stop eating.
There were other Spanish touches, including two-bite footballs called croquetas de jamon, deep-fried dumplings with a soft, pasty filling of chicken meat and ham. One of the more substantial share plates was a bowl of green-lip mussels in a white-wine cream sauce and sliced banana peppers that's so chowder-like it's really not that easy to share. But we did anyway, licking the sauce from our fingers and wishing there were more of the toasted bread to dunk into the bowl.
The Social List's dish of tortitas de garbanzo y camaron is one I've never had before. In what resembles a latke, shrimp and scallions are suspended in a batter made of garbanzo-bean flour, then shaped into fritters the size of silver-dollar pancakes. The menu suggested squeezing a lemon over them, but the puddle of Sriracha the kitchen smeared on the plate was even better.
What ultimately set the Social List apart were its toasts. They are larger, more substantial versions of Basque pinxtos, in which any number of things is set atop toasted bread. The best might just be the one with chicken liver pâté, tangier and more delectable than anything having to do with chicken liver has any business being. Then there's the green-peas-and-mint toast that left my breath fresher than it was before I ate it. The “Better Than your Mama's Meatballs” was the most substantial on the list; the meatballs were served in a separate cast-iron pan and far outlasted the toasts they came with. The weakest toast was the one with mushrooms, which at one point made me ask my date, “Did we just pay $7 for bread with sautéed mushrooms on it?”
The next week, I went back, sat down and immediately scanned the room for flies as though I were a shell-shocked Londoner on the lookout for German warplanes. There weren't any. The doors were shut, and the air conditioner was on full blast. Perfect. I can finally try those sausage sandwiches I didn't have room for last week. Then a customer who decided the weather was too nice propped the door wide open . . . and the flies returned. May I suggest a Venus flytrap?
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.