The Edge talks with Long Beach’s guide to the best eats in town.
By BRANDEN RAULSTON
FEB. 15, 2017
There is a certain situation so embarrassing that no equal exists in the known universe. Its indication of utter laziness and helpless failure is of the most extreme. But everyone has been there at least once.
It is, of course, when one is sitting in a booth at Chili’s.
Whether it is in a new town with unfamiliar dining or even at home, one should never lean upon the crutch of consistently ordinary food and a memorized menu. There is just no excuse for dining at a chain restaurant.
In Long Beach one can turn to Beach City Food Tours, the city’s only walking food tour.
I recently joined founder and owner Layla Ali-Ahmad on one of her delicious tours in downtown. We stopped at some Long Beach staples such as George’s Greek Cafe and Pier 76 Fish Grill for a few of the best dishes. Quick stops for art and architecture were sprinkled among the other four tastings.
As a six-year resident, I enjoyed re-exploring downtown with a professional food lover. After I gobbled up my pie shots at The Pie Bar, Layla and I sat down for a quick Q&A about her new venture.
Edge: How did you end up in Long Beach?
Layla: I actually grew up in Orange County. I’m first-generation American. I come from a Lebanese family. I grew up in Irvine, I moved to Newport coast, and then I went to college at Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo. I got the chance to study for four months in Paris. When I moved back down to Southern California, I had just met my fiance, now husband. We moved to Long Beach and have been here six years.
What inspired you to start a food tour?
Layla: I’m super obsessed with food. I’m always the person in my group picking the restaurant or finding new places to go. I love to try new places. I’m not really a creature of habit. If I’m in the mood for something particular, I find the best place and try it out. I’m known to drive over an hour just to get some good food.
I had been on some food tours in other cities like New Orleans, L.A., and Seattle, but the one I took in Edinborough was probably the catalyst for starting my own food tour. We were on our honeymoon in Europe and we had a day-and-a-half in Edinborough and nothing to do. We decided to try out a food tour.
It was the perfect activity for us because we got to see the city in one day, try six restaurants, and learn all about the history of the city. That night I decided I wanted to start one in Long Beach. I felt it was a really underrated food scene. I was looking for a way to get into the food industry because it’s my passion. I had been in engineering but was looking to get out and wanted to be local.
Edge: Why did you pick Long Beach specifically?
Layla: Mainly because it was local, but I just love this city and the people living here. There are tons of awesome and unique neighborhoods each worthy of being explored individually. I decided to start in downtown because of all the attractions and the walkability. There was enough restaurants to create a good progression of tastings at restaurants I knew locals frequented.
Edge: Describe the transition from engineering to food tourism.
Layla: To me, running Beach City Food Tours doesn’t really feel like a job to me. It is more of a project, but waking up for my engineering job definitely felt like work. I commuted to downtown L.A. from Long Beach and spent two hours commuting every day.
I started Beach City Food Tours on the side and continued working as an engineer. I would do tours Friday through Sunday with the hope of expanding. But business has picked up so much that yesterday was my last day at the engineering job. Now I’m going to work for Rose Park Roasters as a wholesale administrator to further get into the food scene.
I also didn’t like that with civil engineering you always felt like a really small part in a bigger picture. Working with these restaurants and food establishments there is a sense of family, and you really feel like you are contributing. So there is that sense of satisfaction. I also get to be around my passions of food, people, and travel. This blends all of them.
Edge: What is planned for the future of Beach City Food Tours?
Layla: I would love to expand our routes. At the moment we only have the downtown tour. I would eventually like to do a happy hour tour in downtown, a tour in Belmont Heights and Belmont Shore. Those might all eventually be linked with a biking tour. A passion project even further down the line would be to take people in a van or shuttle to small, ethnic eateries in Long Beach, places a tourist would never have access to or know about.
Edge: How did you pick the places we went today? (Michael’s Pizzeria, Rainbow Juices, The Pie Bar, Pier 76, Recreational Coffee, George’s Greek)
Layla: I chose mainly based on the fact that I like them and know locals like them as well. I think life’s too short for tourist traps and I don’t like to pay for food that I don’t like. I also wanted to support local businesses that I thought were doing good for our community.
Edge: How would you describe Long Beach’s food scene?
Layla: It’s changing. I think a lot of it is moving towards hyper-local food. I’m seeing a lot less chain restaurants pop up and more independently owned places in downtown. I’m hoping it continues to move in that direction. Those are the places I like to visit. I sort of have a “no-chain rule” that I live by. I feel like the food tends to be mediocre and the same price. I would rather support something local.
I like how diverse the food scene is down here. If I want Cambodian I can go get it. If I want Thai food then I can get it. If I want really good Lebanese food then I can go and get it. I think it is something that is unique to California in general and the metropolitan cities. In Long Beach it also tends to be more affordable.