That's right, I voluntarily left the location where the fragrant embraces of Koreatown, Boyle Heights, Glendale, and Northeast L.A. converge. I gave up the ability to indulge in blue corn quesadillas on my way back from a jaunt to the Vietnamese market to pick up my weekly durian sticky rice. To take the bus to the caviar specialty store and stop for searingly hot crispy pork skins on the way home. To skirt downtown and drown happily in bowlfuls of Sichuan fish and intestine stew.
But Long Beach has its own secrets; while slow to show themselves, they are here.
For one thing, there is the farmers market.
Despite the fact that it's literally on my block, it is well-hidden: aurally by skate-park shouts, and visually by a big ugly building whose purpose I have not yet discovered. You round a corner and there it is. You pick your way through mazes of beckoning shouts: wheatgrass! Natural dog cookies! Rustic soap! House-perfuming crystalline stones! These are the siren songs you must successfully resist to be allowed into the prepared food area.
At most farmers markets, this section is sparse. Much of it is usually dedicated to packaged pre-made food, not meals you might be able to eat on-site. At other markets, I've been sent home with stacked containers of green, red, black, and brown mole. I've staggered to my car with enough hummus to feed myself, exclusively on hummus, for 2 months. In Echo Park in particular, there was even organic banchan, which I only side-eyed after seeing the prices. But in terms of having dinner, I had only been to markets where you still have to go home and prepare it.
The Bixby Park Farmers Market, in comparison, is like a food truck festival without the hipness. Pupusa and tamale tents crowd each other and tout their competing horchatas, while, somehow, an Indian buffet manages to conform to the demands of the outdoors. A Korean sandwich tent sends smells out to mingle with the fish taco place across the way, while a wrap joint borrows from its surroundings by offering a chicken tikka masala wrap in the same breath as a salmon 'n' spinach rice plate. A bare-boned chicken wing tent elbows its pizza-selling neighbor's wood-burning oven, and a lobster roll stand attempts to roll over the smoky aroma with the inviting smell of melted butter.
I have eaten at many, but not all, of these tents. The "problem" (read: not a problem) is, the tamale and pupusa tents reign so far supreme that I have trouble venturing anywhere else.
That pupusa tent, a cell of Wilmington's Restaurante Estela, always has a group of salivating market-goers crowded around it, because the couple who run it take forever to make the pupusas (forever in market-time: at least 10 minutes). It isn't consistent, as sometimes the cheese is sour or the bottoms are burnt, but when the pupusas are good, they're as good as hot, melty, bubbling masa filled with savory meats, cheeses, and veggies are going to get. Their slaw topping is pink, vinegary, and begging for the bright red hot sauce that comes with it. My favorite is the revuelta, a gooey mess of pork, beans and cheese.
Sometimes, I'm not in the mood for pupusas, but I'll still stop by to grab a mystery-fruit-filled 'tropical punch' - a passion-fruit heavy drink full of chopped fruit - or a Salvadorian horchata, which tastes like a cross between raw almond milk and the smell of brazil nuts. I'm there so often that the proprietor knows me by a name which he thinks is mine, but is not.
The tamale tent, perhaps too simply (but accurately) named 'Me Gusta' (and headquartered in Pacoima), has the airiest, moistest masa I've ever tasted in my life, and the masa is flavored differently depending on its fillings. I know this sounds like a 'duh' statement, but to infuse the whole tamale, masa and all, with the flavor of the filling is quite unusual. Usually masa tastes like masa, and that's that, but here, you know whether you're biting into the rich, mole-like beef with red sauce or the seed-peppered kick of pork with green sauce before you even get to the meat. I should also mention that they tout their lardless preparation. When I first heard this, I scoffed, because everyone knows lard is what makes tamales tasty. I guess they've found another way, and I don't expect them to let this secret out anytime soon.
If you can pull yourself away from these two tents (I can't), there's San Pedro's fish tacos (straightforward execution, generous with the toppings, could stand to cook their fish less), pizza sticks (I am unqualified to comment due to my anti-pizza orientation) hot pineapple wings (tender, but marred by the use of canned pineapple), a vegan Mexican place (lost me as soon as they sold me a vegan cacao drink for $5 that tasted like watered down Snack Pack chocolate pudding), a creperie (does a pretty solid pine nut pesto spinach crepe), and a falafel stand (falafel so dry it that it instantly sucks all the moisture out of your mouth and throat).
Stands pop up and disappear weekly, but the two standouts are solid and dependable. Find them by the bandstand - as soon as the music is too loud to hear yourself think, you are in the right place.