In a world where it can seem like restaurants need to be north of the 10 freeway to get attention, it's not surprising that Long Beach, a city only 20 miles south of Los Angeles, is often ignored by L.A.'s food lovers. But many of Long Beach's nearly 500,000 residents have roots in Latin America and Southeast Asia, making the town a microcosm of much of L.A.'s ethnic experience. And the culinary scene that this has engendered is only beginning to earn its deserved praise.
For seven days starting last Sunday, March 30, Eat LBC, the city's first-ever restaurant week, has been highlighting many excellent reasons to make the drive to Long Beach. Which makes this a great time to add our own list of favorites (some of which, of course, have been covered by our compadres at OC Weekly). Although we should point out that all this remains just a fraction of the great food in the diverse beach city once known as Iowa by the Sea.
10. LBJ's Fine Foods
Though it is one of the few true soul food restaurants in the entire city (shout out to Sal's Gumbo Shack, too!), LBJ's freeway-adjacent location at the tippy top of the town is often forgotten even by hardcore fans of the Southern style. But under the direction of chef Rita, this hole-in-the-wall (decked out like Rita's own living room, big screen TV and all) has been pumping out heaping plates of smothered chicken, fried catfish and, on the weekends, chitlins, gumbo and neck bones, for the last 22 years. More than a dozen side dishes - from macaroni and cheese to stewed collard greens - add additional Missisippi flair to any meal, and rumor has it Snoop Dogg orders a side of Rita's famous peach cobbler for the road whenever he stops by. 6617 Cherry Ave., Long Beach; (562) 422-3606.
9. Pho Hong Phat
Miles away from Orange County's Little Siagon, Pho Hong Phat holds down the pho front in Vietnamese-lacking Long Beach. A single-concept corner spot that's only open until 5 p.m., Pho Hong Phat serves pho, the whole pho and nothing but the pho. The whole experience is as quick as it is simple: Pick your size and pick your meat and within seconds, a steaming bowl arrives at the table with a softball-sized clump of noodles hiding beneath tinted broth. Fix it up with goodies from their tabletop tray of chili paste and hoisin and slurp to your heart's content. Bubbling vats of next day's broth can be seen cooking through the kitchen window as you pay; don't forget to tip your server by throwing your dollar bills in the trash can next to the register (seriously). 3243 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach; (562) 498-3754.
8. James Republic
James Republic is the latest project from chef Dean James Max, a farm-to-table obsessed chef who seeded restaurants in Ohio, Texas and Florida before converting a dingy Courtyard Mariott-attached diner into his new luxurious Long Beach home. Other restaurants in Long Beach are advocates of buying from local urban farms and crafting seasonal menus, but James Republic makes the L.A.-worthy haute cuisine of modern California coastal approachable, casual and effortlessly affordable. Executive chef Dave MacLennan's Eat LBC menu includes cauliflower soup, oxtail pasta and grilled spicy octopus with foraged lemons and local almonds. 500 E. 1st St., Long Beach; (562) 901-0235.
For years, it was easy to say that Sura was the best Korean restaurant in Long Beach because it was the only Korean restaurant in Long Beach. The owner's daughter would show up at random dive bars with a hot plate and make $1 Korean tacos for the weekend drunks, and buckets of her mother's impeccable kimchi would lure customers to come into the actual restaurant, where authentic stone pots come filled with gurgling tofu soup and sizzling bimbibap bowls. But even after Seoulmate opened on 7th Street last year with a focus on Kogi-style food truck fusion Korean food, Sura's drippingly savory bulgogi marinade and endless supply of banchan (side dishes) make the original still the best in town. 621 Atlantic Ave, Long Beach; (562) 495-7872.
6. The Attic
There's something endearing about the idea of a restaurant in a house, like mom or grandma is going to bust out of the kitchen with a heaping plate made with love. Then a place like The Attic comes along and puts tables and chairs inside an old Craftsman on a popular Belmont Heights corner and starts serving Cajun-inspired California comfort food and brings the whole restaurant-in-a-house concept out of nostalgia and into the modern age. The restaurant's Eat LBC menu highlights oyster po' boys and St. Louis-style ribs, but locals frequently spread out across the front-yard-turned-dining-patio with a big group of friends and dine on everything from macaroni and cheese sprinkled with crushed Flaming Hot Cheetos and jambalaya made with alligator andouille while sipping on The Attic's famous custom Bloody Mary's, which can be garnished with weirdness like Slim Jim-stuffed olives and sliders. 3441 E Broadway, Long Beach; (562) 433-0153.
5. El Pollo Imperial
Maybe only in Long Beach would a Peruvian restaurant take over an old KFC and turn complex South American dishes like yam-and-corn ceviche mixto into fast food you can order in Styrofoam from a drive-thru. Eat inside this North Long Beach anomaly and you get traditional table service on classy plates, along with room to spread out all the loma saltado and pollo a la brasa and complimentary chicken soup you can muster. Like Long Beach, Peru has a strong immigrant culture and its adapted cuisine of Italian, Chinese, Creole, Japanese, German and Spanish influences fits right in among the Salvadoran restaurants and fish markets of North Atlantic Ave. 5991 Atlantic Ave, Long Beach; (562) 612-3315.
4. Beachwood BBQ and Brewing
The BBQ at Beachwood might not have all the gritty goodness as Long Beach's other popular BBQ joint, Robert Earl's on Artesia Blvd., but chef Gabe Gordon's elevated take on contemporary North Carolina-style wins out because it's served alongside some of the best beers in the country. Gordon's fine dining background and molecular gastronomy obsessions make this a house that smoke built, with cold-smoked fish and chips, smoked lamb ribs and smoked accouterments such as smoked feta and smoked Serrano aioli. Imaginative appetizers include the lamb corndogs with habanero-berry "ketchup" and a poutine look-a-like made with tater tots and a cup of duck fat gravy. Grab a slab of ribs or a pulled pork sandwich and pair it with one of brewmaster Julian Shrago's expert hoppy ales. 210 E 3rd St, Long Beach; (562) 436-4020.
Long Beach is home to the largest population of Cambodians outside of that country and their colorful culture runs rampant along Anaheim St. with dozens of restaurants, dress-makers and jewelers lining the strip now known as Cambodia Town. Sophy's is one of the few Khmer restaurants that veers off the road most traveled, but its comprehensive menu of Cambodian specialties and Thai dishes (to ease in the timid) makes it an easy place to crash into whichever Southeast Asian country you're feeling like sampling the cuisine from that day. Trained palates go deep with Sophy's Khmer food, which shares both its savory meat marinades with Thai cooking and its herbal reliance with Vietnamese cuisine. A fish paste called prohok is used in many dishes (a Khmer house without it is like an Italian kitchen sans garlic), and a lemongrass-tumeric spice mixture called kreoung permeates the rest. Try the Phnom Penh noodle (a breakfast soup), beef lok lak, or any one of the coconut milk-based Khmer curries. 3240 E Pacific Coast Hwy Long Beach; (562) 506-2162.
2. Michael's Pizzeria
As the casual counterpart to the high falutin' Italian dining found at Long Beach's highly-rated Michael's on Naples, Michael's Pizzeria is still anything but basic. Sure it serves up trendy Neopolitan-style pizza like Pizzeria Ortica and Pizzeria Mozza, but Michael's makes this list both for its affordable takes on non-crusty dishes (veal and pork meatballs so tender, they fall apart when you look at them) and their nurturing attention to quality (like the burrata, mozzarella and lasagna pasta, all made in-house). The continued success of owner Michael Dene's Long Beach empire - which now includes a steakhouse for which he is raising his own Italian cattle - proves there is a growing market in this working-class city for well-sourced, skillfully-cooked food. 5616 E 2nd St., Long Beach; (562) 987-4000. 210 E 3rd St., Long Beach; (562) 491-2100.
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Before you discover Trinidadian food, it might be difficult to imagine what it's like. The island country off the coast of Venezuela is technically part of the Caribbean, but years of immigration from India, Africa, China and the Middle East have created a native food scene as diverse as its people. Though its Eat LBC menu offers choices such as jerk chicken and Creole-spiced red snapper, the dishes of stewed oxtail, goat roti and a soupy jumble of sweet vegetables called callaloo are the flag-bearing examples of Trini cuisine. Curried crab and fried shark ("Not street food, beach food," says owner Hamid Latiff) also come out of Callaloo's kitchen on Sundays, when steel drum players serenade adventurous diners over to the Atlantic ocean and right out onto the sand. 4137 E Anaheim St., Long Beach; (562) 230-7530.