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Taco Date Night: Long Beach’s ‘El Barrio Cantina’ Is the Spot for Flinstones-esque Costilla Asada and Coconut Negronis

2:51 PM PST on December 3, 2021

    There is a taco for every occasion in life, and while many swear that tacos taste better standing up. Some, like El Barrio Cantina’s “Carne Asada Beef Rib” taco, taste better sitting down while gazing into your table mate’s eyes and sipping on a coconut-washed tequila negroni. 

    If this sounds like a good time to you, then you might want to book a reservation there and take in the rest that Long Beach’s latest and greatest Mexican dining concept has to offer.

    No other restaurant in L.A. County’s last standing public beach quite captures the current excitement around its food and drink scene like El Barrio Cantina.  If you’re driving or biking by, the off-center ultra-bright neon signage outside donning the powerful word “BARRIO” captures your attention immediately. The establishment is straight-up a dream come true for chef Ulises Pineda-Alfaro and his partners. They purchased the building and transformed it into a mariscos paradise located approximately a mile away from the Bluff. 

    Scallop aguachile, ceviche marinero de camarón, and tacos de papa. Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. TACO.
    Scallop aguachile, ceviche marinero de camarón, and tacos de papa. Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. TACO.
    Scallop aguachile, ceviche marinero de camarón, and tacos de papa. Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. TACO.
    The chicharrón at El Barrio Cantina is freshly fried and sticky-crispy. Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. TACO.
    The chicharrón at El Barrio Cantina is freshly fried and sticky-crispy. Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. TACO.

    “It was a dream to one day own a bar, and Long Beach made that happen,” Pineda-Alfaro tells L.A. TACO. The ambitious concept is spacious as hell at 3,000 square feet and can accommodate over 100 people searching for their latest agave and tortilla thrill.  

    This is Alfaro-Pineda’s second concept. And dare I say, L.A.’s first non-cheesy version of a true Mexican cantina (and not just a caricature version of one where people get drunk off cheap tequila and greasy nachos). The menu is small and fish-forward, with things like ultra-fresh scallop aguachile served on the half-shell and super juicy grilled yellowtail collars served with a red Mexi-kosho and tortillas. “I would have loved to do the cantina menu traditional Mexican-style, where the food starts to magically show up the more you drink, but our local food and drinks laws don’t allow that.” Also, their well mezcal is Ilegal. 

    Grilled yellowtail with Mexikosho and pile of flour tortillas. Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. TACO.
    Grilled yellowtail with Mexikosho and pile of flour tortillas. Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. TACO.
    Mexican hot chicken on cornbread at El Barrio Cantina. Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. TACO.
    Mexican hot chicken on cornbread at El Barrio Cantina. Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. TACO.

    But the star of the menu and the taco worth driving for to try at least once is Alfaro-Pineda’s genius interpretation of a taco de asada. It is a beef short rib that is braised until it is fall-apart tender and then finished on a mesquite grill, served with an addictive salsa macha-meets-X-O-sauce hybrid that is good enough to eat by the tortilla-full, an excellent taquería guacamole, and a pile of Sonoran-style flour tortillas. If you’re into orange wine and hops, there is a refreshing cocktail to pair with this taco made with both of these ingredients. 

    The rest of the menu reflects his influences growing up as a Mexican American—his mother is from San Luis Potosi and his father from Guerrero—in L.A.’s westside barrios of Westchester and Inglewood. For his chicharrón botana, he removes the pig skin’s meat by hand and puffs it in bubbling oil himself, making for that kind of sticky-crispy texture that you can’t stop eating. 

    El Barrio Cantina's buns on their 'Poppy Chulo' sandwich are made at Gusto Bread down the street. Photo via El Bario Cantina.
    El Barrio Cantina's buns on their 'Poppy Chulo' sandwich are made at Gusto Bread down the street. Photo via El Bario Cantina.

    He aims to slowly introduce more Huastecan flavors of his mother’s region as the restaurant finds its flow with loyal Long Beachians. Down the line, he hopes to build a speakeasy-style intimate tasting room in the back named “Ashley’s Room” as an ode to the divey Cal-Mex restaurant that operated in the building for 80 years before he took it over. But for now, Alfaro-Pineda is happy to roll out his weekend brunch service offering $25 bottles of prosecco and a sandwich featuring that same short rib asada, but on a special “Poppy Chulo” brioche poppyseed bun that Gusto Bread is making just for El Barrio Cantina.  

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