There's something about a heatwave that makes you want to drive to the end of the 710 freeway, into the bowels of the Port of Long Beach, and eat Alaskan king crab legs off a paper plate.
Once you're on Pico Avenue (no, not the Pico you're thinking of), pull into the parking lot for Berth 55 Fish Market and Seafood Deli, walk into its corrugated metal shack of a structure, order whatever fish filets, crab legs, live lobster or barely dead ceviche looks good from the cases, and sit on the bright red picnic tables outside until your number is called. (They say there is a time and a place for every beer — and I have found that waiting for my food at Berth 55, while looking out at one of the country's most important economic engines, is the perfect moment for a plastic cup of ice-cold Budweiser.)
When the paper plate of steamed and seasoned crab legs arrives, crack open each piece using nothing but your own hands and slurp out the buttery white meat, licking up the Cajun spices that coat the shell. Grilled red snapper, fried scallops and shrimp skewers also are trusted options for combo plates, and in the wintertime, there are few things more satisfying than Berth 55's sourdough bowl of clam chowder.
At Berth 55, you will most likely be the only nonlocal for miles — the only one without a family member whose livelihood depends on the Port of Long Beach, whether through jobs at shipping or trucking companies or on the sportfishing boats docked at Berth 55. You also might be the only diner who doesn't live in the gritty, working-class westside neighborhood of Long Beach, where this is one of the best restaurants.
You should thank the locals for fighting to keep Berth 55 alive — and with it the last public-use access in the entire port. Everything on this parcel — the 20-year-old fish market, the even-older sportfishing enterprises and the neighboring Queens Wharf Restaurant (which sits unused except for its bathrooms and wooden dive bar) — was slated for demolition a few years back. The Long Beach Fire Department wanted to build a boathouse for its port operations team, but the community fought the decision, arguing that this location, at the end of a long channel deep inside the port, was not ideal for quick response times. Everything has been allowed to stay for now, still on a month-to-month basis, while the Environmental Impact Report gets done.
Berth 55 is the kind of quickly disappearing place that gets little love in today's food culture. It's not where you can eat local, since the fish are not caught right offshore. It's not sushi-grade seafood, either, though it's definitely fresh and worth buying some extra swordfish or smoked salmon to take home. It's not a place that uses napkins thick enough to be helpful at all or where the tables are going to be wiped thoroughly before you sit down. It's just a no-frills lunch and dinner haven for blue-collar residents of Southern L.A. County that's within earshot of the rattling cargo trains and spitting distance of Long Beach's dense downtown. It has more personality in its pinkie toe than most new L.A. restaurants have in their entire beings. The food is only one part of what makes it essential.
Berth 55, 555 Pico Ave., Long Beach; (562) 435-8366