The makings of Long Beach’s own Mayan Riviera for the District:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
Fuego looks out onto the Long Beach of everyone’s oceanfront dream, a seaside theater where pelicans dive with hungry, graceful precision and pleasure-seekers boat by on the last winds of summer. It’s a scene so idyllic it’s nearly unbelievable, almost as if it were constructed and choreographed by a television crew trying again to approximate Miami. For Fuego, the newest tenant of the equally new Hotel Maya, it’s fitting, a perfect backdrop for the restaurant’s high-end exploration of coastal Mexican cooking.
But that sublime setting doesn’t diminish the difficulties of upscaling a cuisine so common in Southern California that even less-than-serious eaters possess a passable understanding of its regional distinctions. As a result, successful Mexican fine dining must undeniably out-cook our taquería favorites and also compete directly with modern masters like La Casita Mexicana in Bell and Moles La Tia in East LA. Chef Jesse Perez is, by and large, up to the task.
Part of the Joie de Vivre brand of boutique hotels, the Hotel Maya is the rehabilitated and redesigned result of what used to be the Coast Long Beach. Inspired in part by the luxury that lines the Mayan Riviera, the Maya’s modern style is on bold display at its great glass entrance, which looks like Mondrian gone magenta. Fuego shares similar rustic-contemporary touches, but its floor-to-ceiling sliding doors are the centerpiece. When they’re open, the restaurant is a seamless indoor-outdoor space, one continuous esplanade overlooking Long Beach.
Appetizers start tart with a pair of ceviches, martini glasses of citric shrimp or lobster to be scooped up with either plantain or yucca chips, respectively. Better, though, are the agave-cured salmon totopos. Fuego’s triangular totopos (baked bits of masa from Oaxaca) are, to the nacho-trained eye, virtually identical to tortilla chips. But smeared with a dollop of cilantro-serrano cream and topped with that slick, cured salmon, cucumber, tomato and microgreens, the totopos are excellent mouthfuls.
There are heartier starters, too. Try the trio of duck “al pastor” tacos, a play on the traditional pastor preparation of shawarma-style pork. Chef Perez instead loads his tender handmade tortillas with cubes of duck, roasted pineapple and a salsa of California chilies. He also wisely provides orange wedges for extra acidity. Although both the pineapple and duck are diced so small they tend to tumble out of the tortillas, these tacos are strong contenders for Long Beach’s top tier.
Fuego’s entrees extrapolate nicely on the restaurant’s coastal theme, but most could use a price cut—a number of the main plates approach the $30 plateau. Still, the Yucatán-style pork two ways—presented as both an achiote-glazed filet and a pibil-stuffed tamal—is a wholly successful dish. The filet maintains every ounce of moisture, and the tamal is terrific, an envelope of soft, steamed masa resting on a banana leaf.
The pepita-crusted wild salmon and plantain-crusted catch of the day are perhaps too similar in preparation, but the huge steaks of fish will satisfy time and again. The kitchen also offers a vegetarian overture with its white corn sopes. At half the price of some comparable meat-based plates, the sopes are a steal, crisp cups of masa capped with black beans, roasted summer squash, guacamole, queso fresco and a salad brightened by lime vinaigrette.
Fuego also stocks the city’s most comprehensive selection of tequila and the most imaginative cocktails. Although some creations are overwrought—a splash of Chambord is added to the El Diablo only, it seems, to color the drink a pale purple—Fuego’s best drinks are truly peerless. Pablo’s margarita, for example, couldn’t be more potent and pleasing, a faultless glass of nothing but reposado tequila, organic agave nectar and fresh lime juice.
The ever-fleeting concept of authenticity will of course come into question at a restaurant like Fuego, and admittedly some details are blurred here. The chicken in mole Poblano, for example, is erroneously described as being of Oaxacan origin. But mistakes like that are simply forgivable distractions.
Even if dinner here is out of your regular budgetary reach, there’s a menu for every meal of the day, most of which feature more affordable options. The restaurant will, one way or another, bring you back, as Fuego is much more than just a room with a view.
FUEGO AT THE HOTEL MAYA • 700 QUEENSWAY DR, LONG BEACH 90802 • 562.481.3910 • BREAKFAST MON-SAT, LUNCH MON-SAT, BRUNCH SUN AND DINNER DAILY • DINNER FOR TWO $50-100 • FULL BAR