May 20, 2022

These 5 places serve the best cocktails in Long Beach

View Original Notice ? These 5 places serve the best cocktails in Long Beach

Like so many of us, I suffer from a terminal case of FOMO — Fear of Missing Out. As a result, when I take a break during the day, it’s to flip on one of the news channels to find out what crises afflicted our long-suffering world while I was away coming up with some fresh metaphors and similes about sushi and hamburgers.

I am rarely disappointed; there’s always a crisis du jour. Which will then occupy much of the rest of my day, as I check with increasing obsessiveness on the latest developments. It’s not for nothing that CNN seemingly begins every hour with the words “Breaking News”! Like one of Pavlov’s Dogs, I salivate at the thought that “something happened.”

Like many of us, after too much “Breaking News,” the ancient words — or are they are prayer? — rise in my consciousness: “I need a drink!”

I don’t really need a drink, I rarely do. But still, it seems like a rational response to a day of growing headline misery, and gloom and doom everywhere I look. And, after the annus horribilis of 2020 — what fun! — that segued into 2021 and now 2022, it’s possible this annum will beat both of them. It’s an election year, after all. So, a drink really will be called for.

I’m a simple man, with simple tastes. As a rule, that drink of choice will be a beer, which is really all I want or need. If wine is being served, a glass will do. But if I’m in a situation where a mixed drink is called for, I do have my druthers when it comes to cocktails — I like clean and simple. For me, a classic gin martini, with a couple of olives, is drink enough, the very essence of perfection.

But then, I’m also obsessed with the writings of P.G. Wodehouse and, consequently, with the drinking habits of upper-class British twits from a century ago. Back then, the idle rich seemed to spend all their time instructing their version of Jeeves to make a cocktail for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Also, all the hours in between and after.

Had Alcoholics Anonymous existed back then, it would have done land office business among the fox hunting, golfing and private clubbing crowd.

As a food and (occasionally) drink writer, I’m also fascinated with the cocktails that have come and gone, from one decade to another. I remember well the fishpond-sized drinks at Trader Vic’s, served for two or four, with long straws so you didn’t fall in and drown. I remember a joint over on Fairfax called Lola’s, with a bar in the front and another in the back, that made more than 100 margaritas — most of which were silly drinks, flavored like something you’d find at Baskin-Robbins.

These days, it’s with more than a bit of fascination that I study the cocktail lists at our trendier destinations, where the mixed drinks are made with ingredients so obscure that, without a good Google connection, I’d have no idea what I was drinking. Even the beer lists have gone wackadoodle.

So, where do I enjoy bending an elbow hereabouts? The options are many, but these are some of my favorites … and the most cheerfully obscure:

The Bungalow Kitchen

2nd & PCH Center, 6400 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach; 562-719-9400, www.michaelmina.net/restaurants

Michael Mina is a legend in the restaurant business, who has opened (and closed) more eateries than can reasonably be listed, the latest of which is this upscale trendy on the second floor of the 2nd & PCH Center, where the cocktails are as bespoke as the dishes on the menu.

Dishes like his  crispy, chargrilled chicken with roasted eggplant, and sautéed Swiss chard; and his wild king salmon with crispy potatoes. Dishes like the avocado toast made with the fabled avos from the Brokaw Ranch, said to be the best in America, sprinkled with “everything spice,” and topped with shaved radish and a poached egg. The scones are cheddar and bacon. The sweet potato pancakes come topped with king salmon smoked in-house, crème fraîche and apple butter.

I like the king crab and endive Caesar. And I love the many uniquely exotic cocktails — such as the Gin House Blues, made with Hendrick’s Gin, cucumber and grapefruit, lemon and tarragon, and Fever Tree Mediterranean Tonic. Or perhaps the Ru-Pineapple, concocted of vodka, caramelized pineapple, lemon basil, and agave.

Gin & Juice is coconut-infused gin, blood orange and pomegranate, passion fruit, and peach. The Lou Dog is Ketel One, grapefruit, rose, grapefruit aperol, prosecco and soda. The Bixby Mule is Buffalo Trace bourbon, elderflower, strawberry, lime and house spicy ginger beer.

There’s a quartet of margaritas, including the Crown Jewels Margarita, made with Tanteo Chipotle tequila; and the Spruce Juice Margarita, with Código Reposado tequila. And how about the Spill the Tea Margarita, with Bulleit Rye, Campari and Tamarind Chai-Infused Italian Sweet Vermouth.

In between imbibing, you can stop by the billiards table in one of the several clubby rooms. This isn’t so much a “bungalow” as it is a men’s club out of Wodehouse. With lots of cocktails. But far better food.


Saint & Second

4828 E. 2nd St., Long Beach (Belmont Shore); 562-433-4828, www.saintandsecond.com

Saint & Second is a great destination for grownups, thirsty for exotic cocktails, small-batch wines and artisan beers — and the foods that go with them.

This is a proper destination, with a bar staff that knows their single malts from their oddball blends. There are so many bottles behind the bar, there’s a ladder that moves back and forth, allowing the mixologists to ascend to the heights to grab a spirit of choice.

This is also a restaurant where the house cocktails will leave you searching your smartphone, trying to figure out the meaning of Koval Spelt, Clove Smoke, Dolin Blanc and Velvet Falernum; spiritual esoterica is a big thing at modern bars.

Since I’m a simpleton who likes his pilsner and his lager, often with a squeeze of lemon or lime for the goodness it brings, I’m happy to leave drinking as a branch of Trivial Pursuit to others. Just make sure mine is nice and cold.

Thus, the Belmont Shore Iced Tea is made with Copper & Kings Immature Brandy, and Giffard Orange Curacao. The Saint Rita Margarita is concocted of Herradura Silver Tequila, and Legendario Domingo Mezcal. And the Saint Tiki of Bushmills Black Bush Irish whiskey, Benedictine liqueur, Giffard banana liqueur, Giffard Triple Sec and Bogart’s Bitters. (Someone has a far more discerning palate than I do!)

There’s also a kitchen open to view, and an upstairs, with a bar all its own — and a balcony that looks out over the hub and bub of 2nd Street. This is a restaurant filled with life, a place you want to go back to with friends who are both good eaters, and admirable drinkers. On a street of many bars and restaurants, it stands tall. And if you head for that second floor balcony, you can sit high as well.

It’s a bit hard to cubbyhole the food here, for it stands somewhere between gastropub and New American, between eclectic and eccentric. It’s a menu that should make a proper West Coast foodie feel right at home.

The menu is divided into Smalls, Bigs, Burgers, Flat Breads, Soups & Salads and Sides — with a box for oysters. And though the Bigs are tempting, there are so many Smalls that cry out for a taste, you may never get to the 22-ounce rib chop for two (with roasted root veggies and shiitake butter), or the roasted organic chicken with cauliflower puree (with broccolini and fennel).

Instead, if you’re a committed grazer (and aren’t we all?), this is the land of familiar dishes, made with unfamiliar twists — a very creative menu. Consider the hummus, for instance. It’s made with fava beans, rather than garbanzos, flavored with smoked paprika and caperberries. It’s both hummus, and not hummus at the same time. It’s hummus on steroids.

Or how about the grilled prawns, served salted, with the heads still on, with a spicy green chimichurri sauce and a sort of creamed guacamole. It’s a very messy dish; be sure to ask for extra napkins. Ditto the hickory smoked lamb ribs with fried basil, which is so messy to eat, I finished it with a trip to the men’s room to wash my hands; no way that ancho chili glaze was coming off with a napkin.

Saint & Second is filled with dishes and tastes and swigs not found every day. Or any day, for that matter — except here.


Portuguese Bend Distillery

300 The Promenade N., Long Beach; 562-435-4411, www.portuguesebenddistilling.com

They do not serve Portuguese food at Portuguese Bend. This distillery and restaurant is named for an area of untouched land, heavy with vegetation and webbed with hiking trails, on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. It’s a pretty name — though somewhat distant from the Long Beach Promenade. But then, much here is not as you might expect.

Bucking the ubiquitous trend toward brewpubs as a beverage default setting, this is a distillery, producing (so far) an assortment of gins and vodkas. This is a fine place in which to bend an elbow. And indeed, to while away an afternoon or an evening. Or both.

The menu of house cocktails, made with the house spirits, is considerable — exotic drinks with outré names like Yass Please, Nut ‘n Vodka and Satan’s Whiskers. The list of ingredients that follows each is exhausting to read through, and properly obscure. Hellfire Bitter? Orange cream citrate? Seaweed salt? Darned if I know. And really, does it matter?

Notably, the cocktails are all more reasonably priced than we’re used to; considerably lower than the usual price for exotic drinks — and thank you for that. Indeed, the food prices are below what we’ve come to expect as well.

How about pan-grilled salmon served with roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes? Short rib pot roast, with the same spuds and veggies? The food is good — if not exactly cutting edge. (I guess the edginess is reserved for the cocktails!) Which is not to say there aren’t moments of culinary fun and games. I mean, how else to describe the pastrami-chili cheese fries, in which the fries are smothered in…well, it’s pretty obvious.

The pastrami and chili are both made in-house, and they’re joined by a lot of chopped onions and plenty of melted cheddar cheese. I’m not sure you really need any food after a dish like that; it’s sort of a modernist version of the Canadian slob fry dish poutine. Though poutine works well in the frigid north, Long Beach is a tad beachy for so richly glopped a rendition of fries. But what do I know?

The name “Nashville” appears here and there on the menu, in the case of the Nashville Hot Chicken Sandy with a warning that it’s “Spicy! Not for the faint of heart.” There are Nashville shrimp & grits too. And the wings come with a “Nashville pot still hot sauce.”

There are “creamy grits” on the menu as well, giving the distillery a somewhat retro edge. And though it’s a small thing, the “seasonal roasted vegetables” (carrots and string beans) sure didn’t seem very roasted. Lightly sautéed maybe. But if they had been roasted, it was just for an instant. A small detail. But then, as they say, God is in the details. And so, for that matter, is food. And the cocktails. Bless ’em…


Berlin Bistro

420 E. 4th St., Long Beach; 562-435-0600, www.berlinbistro.com

So, here we are in the East Village Arts District of Long Beach, staring with wonder and admiration at Fingerprints, the used record store that sits next door to Berlin and, in fact, seems to wrap itself around Berlin, filling the air with vintage Beatles and Dylan and Bowie — the music that changed our world long before so many of the diners at Berlin were born.

A wonderful cross-section of the Arts District they are too, sitting at the outdoor tables with their dogs at their feet, many (if not most) sporting an eclectic and colorful assortment of tattoos and piercings. (Unmodified as I am, I’m glad they let me in.)

Good music, a colorful crowd and very good food to boot — what more can you ask for? Add on a somewhat wacky selection of drinks, such as the Red Eye (coffee and espresso) and the Lavender Palmer (an Arnold with lavender syrup). There are cocktails made with soju. Icelandic white ale. A bunch of oddball wines. Fun stuff!

This is a fine place to go for breakfast, lunch and an early dinner (they close at 8 p.m.), and brunch on weekends. There’s a fair amount of overlap between the dishes served for breakfast, and those on the brunch menu, though brunch does get a bit more exotic in its options. (Though considering that both menus feature quinoa cakes and a multi-part platter called Urban Cowboy, “exotic” is a relative term.)

Like the cocktail list, the menu at Berlin is an omnivore’s delight, with dishes that stretch from vegan to vegetarian to beef and bison burgers, a fried chicken Katsu Bowl, and a “Meyer” steak (“raised humanely, antibiotics- and hormone-free, 100 percent vegetarian fed diet…”).

Feeling properly righteous one Sunday morning, and in need of a bit of a diet, I had the Rustic Bowl, a wonderful dish, consisting of a pair of properly poached eggs on a bed of braised kale and spinach, charred heirloom tomatoes, prosciutto and quinoa, with grilled rustic bread so good, I tossed aside the low-carb part of my diet. Life is short, don’t you know?

And once again, it’s so good to walk through the record shop, and actually hold albums, feel them, smell them. Berlin is filled with memories, both new and old, both old and new.


Panxa Cocina

3937 E. Broadway, Long Beach; 562-433-7999, www.panxacocina.com

The “chick-a-rones” at Panxa Cocina are described on the menu as “crispy chicken skin, chile piquin salsa.” Which I assumed was either an understatement or an overstatement — it couldn’t be quite real.

I grew up eating crispy chicken skin in The Bronx — it’s an Eastern European dish called gribenes, that’s made by putting chicken skin, with large pale yellow slabs of chicken fat, in a heavy, cast-iron pot, and literally rending the fat out of the skin. You wind up with an inch or so of liquid chicken fat (schmaltz), which would be poured off into a jar to use for cooking. Left in the pot were crispy slices of chicken skin, and maybe some burnt onions, if my mother felt up to the task.

It was the sort of dish you might expect to come across in Romania. In Long Beach, it was a multi-leveled surprise, even a shock. And yet, there it was, half a dozen golden hunks of skin, so crisp you could hear them crunch, before you even bit in.

They come with a snappy chile sauce, not mild at all, that makes for a fine condiment. It’s also largely unnecessary, for the chicken skins themselves have enough flavor to go around. If fat is the transport mechanism for flavor, then this is an exercise in flavor at its most extreme.

I finished about half the order, and took the rest home — and found they were as crispy the next day as they had been in the restaurant. Probably, they would still be crisp a week later, if they had stuck around that long. But they didn’t. Who knew I would find a taste of The Bronx on Broadway?

Panxa Cucina sits in the space that, for many years, was home to Christy’s on Broadway. I think the configuration is pretty much the same, with a couple of dining rooms in the storefronts on the left, and a lively bar in the corner space on the right. The bar gets a big crowd, possibly more of a crowd than the restaurant.

There’s an encyclopedic tequila selection here, displayed on the backbar, and lots of mezcals as well. You want a tequila flight, they got a couple here — one built around house favorites, the other based on celebrity tequilas of choice (DeLeon for P. Diddy, Casamigos for George Clooney and Asombroso for George Lopez). If it means something to you, to drink what Diddy or Clooney or Lopez drink, well, there you are.

Me, well I do like the cocktails here. Check out the Casa-Politan, which involves vodka flavored in-house with intense hatch chiles, then mixed with Grand Marnier, hibiscus and lime juice. Or the Marga-Tini, in which Olmeca Reposado tequila is flavored with cucumber and jalapeño, then mixed with fresh lime and agave. And, of course, there’s a long time favorite — the house Michelada, made with their own Bloody Mary mix, with lime and Cabotella Mexican ale. It’s most refreshing on a hot day, and also on a not so hot day.

To go with the drinks, there’s a modest-sized menu — big enough to keep you coming back, but not so large the kitchen loses control and, like, burns the chicken skins. The menu is divided into Platos Chiquitos (small plates), Platos para la Mesa (plates for the table), New Mexico Favorites, and just for the heck of it, Sides.

It’s a menu of dishes that are both expected, and unexpected. Certainly the chicken skin is a surprise — is there another restaurant in town that offers crunchy chicken skin? But then, there are also the potato and cheddar pancakes, made with a chutney fashioned from apples and more of those hatch chiles.

The pan-seared scallops come with a spaetzle made of blue corn. And there’s burrata mozzarella with the pork adovada with black beans. If you’re keeping track, this is Latino cooking with an Indian side, a German starch, and an Italian cheese.

The most notable tradition here is non-traditionalism. There are big-screen TVs over the bottles of tequila in the bar. And one of Long Beach’s liveliest crowds. They may not be sure how to pronounce the name, or what it means. But that doesn’t matter when the food is good, reasonably priced, and there are lots of good drinks to while away the evening with. Plus, outdoor tables for those who want to watch Broadway go by.

Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email [email protected]

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