Cutting through cactus at La Concha from this week’s District:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
They’re perhaps the rarest moments in Long Beach planning, improbable instants when all of Anaheim Street moves along in time, traffic signals completely synchronized into a gateway of green lights stretching straight through to the LA River. Drift too eagerly through the free-flowing traffic though, and you’ll speed right past La Concha, an awkward corner place wedged against some misshapen shops at the intersection of Molino Avenue. Drawing your eye instead might be the promise of peanuts at Joe Jost’s or the freshly finished mural that signals the start of Cambodia Town. But one day, you’ll catch La Concha’s own signage, a modest and easily missable marquee that will pull you inside the place at least once.
There’s a lot with which to occupy yourself when you finally land in La Concha. The restaurant can drain even the most astute attentions—there’s a flat-screen intermittently tuned to MTV, an aquarium inhabited by quick tropical fish and an Internet jukebox for moments of Deep Purple desire. The rest of the space is framed by Mexican landscapes, some of which go so thick on the paint they could pass for topographical maps.
La Concha’s extensive menu can make it even tougher to focus on the food. The restaurant is a self-described seafood spot, and there are a number of solid options from the ocean. But La Concha offers far more than these, going so far as to serve burgers, too. And it’s in between such polar culinary ends that La Concha makes its mark, as its best meals come from all across the Mexican spectrum.
The easiest way to hone in on those top dishes is to take the menu’s advice and follow the strategically placed photos to an order of one of the restaurant’s premier plates. What should garner the most glances is the torta ahogada, a famously drowned Guadalajaran sandwich. Here, the ahogada arrives packed with pork and suitably drenched in chile de árbol sauce, with such a pool left on the plate that you’re liable to splash a few drops right onto the table. The torta understandably succumbs to some sogginess, but its spice (optionally prepared extra hot for those with steel stomachs) makes the ahogada one of the strongest introductions to La Concha.
Those seeking a squarer meal should order nopales con carne, cooked shreds of prickly pear cactus tossed together with cubes of pork and plated up with the usual rice, beans and tortillas. Cultivated from many areas of Mexico, nopales are a standard of the country’s cuisine, but also an ingredient not often found on California menus. There’s no reason to fear the cactus, though—nopales eat with an innocuously subtle sweetness. And the slivered succulent is plenty good at La Concha, cooked with the pork in a thin chile sauce not far off from that of the ahogada.
From the sea, there are the obligatory shrimp cocktails (as well as oyster and abalone versions), but pass these cups up for the pescado entero, your choice of perch or tilapia fried whole for the picking. Or there’s the quesadilla del camarón y pulpo, a huge half-moon of a quesadilla sealed shut with shrimp and octopus.
You can even safely order enchiladas at La Concha. At lesser restaurants, enchiladas often eat like an afterthought, little more than a pair of old tortillas filled with some sort of textureless mash. But La Concha’s chicken enchiladas are fresh—the chicken itself is turned tender with a quick shredding, and the verde sauce only serves to complement, not overpower.
That kind of precision is exactly La Concha’s strong suit—you can order most anything off its exhaustive menu and still have a good meal. And with all your attention diverted elsewhere, the restaurant can still seem fresh four or so visits in, buried beneath enough layers to bring you back to eat through that entire Mexican spectrum.
LA CONCHA 2612 E ANAHEIM ST | LONG BEACH 90804 | 562.438.9499 | OPEN SEVEN DAYS A WEEK | CALL FOR HOURS | FOOD FOR TWO $15-25 | BEER ONLY