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A plate of stewed oxtails with mashed potatoes and green beans.
A plate of stewed oxtails with mashed potatoes and green beans.
Wonho Frank Lee

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Inside Long Beach’s Burgeoning Southern Food Scene

Southern spots featuring Cajun, Creole, and New Orleans sno-balls have found a home across Long Beach and the greater South Bay

“I didn’t choose Long Beach,” says Boujie Crab owner Nickey McKnight, “Long Beach chose me.” Though it may sound like a Snoop Dogg lyric, the line is meant to underscore McKnight’s connection to Long Beach, the surfside city that edges Orange County. McKnight found the city so appealing, she decided to open her seafood-focused Creole restaurant here in early 2020 on South Street, part of a growing trend of Southern and soul food restaurants that are slowly reshaping not just Long Beach, but all of greater Los Angeles.

As a financial consultant looking for viable investments for her clients, McKnight had no intention of opening a restaurant. But she saw opportunity in the former pizza parlor on South Street between Atlantic and Orange, and worked double-duty to open Boujie Crab by late March 2020. Despite the looming pandemic that came crashing down that very same month, McKnight was able to transform the space into an elegant French Quarter hangout where traditional Creole favorites line the menu. Her food is largely pescatarian, with bowls filled with red potatoes, Cajun corn, and topped with a protein of choice, rotating between snow crab, shrimp, salmon, and other items. After 15 months that have entirely spanned a global health crisis, McKnight is still here, and she believes firmly that with the right formula and motivation, anyone else can make it too.

“If you have something in Long Beach, and there’s no competitiveness, it’ll do well. I’ve found that most of my Long Beach friends will drive to it if it’s within the city,” says McKnight.

Gumbo from Boujie Crab in Los Angeles, California
Boujie Crab gumbo
Courtesy of Boujie Crab

Just as Boujie Crab was establishing itself alongside other Southern-style Long Beach favorites like Soul Food Renaissance and Johnny Rebs’ True South, a new crop of similar spots began to open around the city and up into the South Bay, making the area a hotspot for soul food flavors with a modern perspective. There’s In The Kitchen, which opened in Long Beach in February, and in early May Cajun food truck Chef C’s Smhokin’ Pot transitioned to a permanent space not far away in Carson. On May 17, Sal’s Gumbo Shack announced a second location opening in Long Beach’s Bixby Knolls area, while Fluffy’s Sno-Balls has a grand opening and city-sponsored ribbon-cutting ceremony planned for June 12. Together, these spots have all the makings of a certified scene.

In The Kitchen owner Nora Tatum went from dental consulting to restaurant owner, where she prepares family recipes from her Texas roots like oxtails, smothered pork chops, candied yams, black-eyed peas, and rice. She quickly gathered a following after neighbors heard about her cooking, and put her savings and confidence into a space on Long Beach Boulevard and Ninth Street.

When Chef C’s Smhokin’ Pot owner Calvin Alexander opened his restaurant in Carson, it wasn’t to catch on to the growing scene; Carson is and has long been his home. “I grew up in the South Bay, moving here as a teen and graduating from Gardena High,” says Alexander. Still, he knows the local attention is key to staying alive. “A lot of our support comes from Gardena [after] doing the Martin Luther King Parade and Gardena Jazz Festival for years.”

Jambalaya and other Cajun delights from Chef C’s Smhokin Pot in Carson.
Chef C’s Smhokin’ Pot
Matthew Kang

New Orleans-native Keyvn Lee decided to open Fluffy’s Sno-Balls in Long Beach because his first choice further north was too pricey. Instead, the shaved ice dessert shop found a home blocks away from In The Kitchen. “Originally, I wanted to be on Venice Beach,” says Lee, “[but] I thought I could negotiate a better rate in Long Beach during [COVID-19]. I wanted something eclectic and vibrant on the boardwalk.” He’s found it, along with a scene to suit his community.

Lee moved to Southern California after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home in New Orleans. After working in food operations for multiple corporations, Lee started to think about creating generational wealth and found the idea of accepting another job unappealing. Around the same time, he began to notice that New Orleans-style sno-ball desserts were few and far between in Southern California. So Lee put his savings and food operations experience into the business and received approval from the health department on April 7.

“I’m from New Orleans, so food is very important,” says Lee. “I’m tired of going to places and it’s some watered down place that’s gimmicky. To have someone from New Orleans come in my store and have the same flavor and taste in California as New Orleans, it’s great.”

Boujie Crab’s McKnight believes that having a vision, ability, and faith is key to operating in Long Beach. She didn’t take a day off from fall 2019 until October 2020. “This is one of those businesses where you have to know your operation. I prayed that God would make my workload easier, and put the right people in my path. God said, ‘If you continue, it’s going to be great.’”

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