Made from Scratch
STEELCRAFT Long Beach: Where Food Trucks Meet Train Cars
If you’re a lover of craft brewing in SoCal, you understand the symbiosis that exists between craft breweries and food trucks. Whenever I host my Las Vegas friends, I almost always forget that I have to clarify that we’re going to a “production brewery,” which means it will not include food—inside the brewery, that is. But as most natives know, as long as you’re not in Riverside or San Bernardino Counties, a weekend experience at a production brewery in San Diego, Orange or Los Angeles County will usually include a food truck.
These are not the food trucks of our parents’ generation—the “roach coach” that preyed upon hungry workers with subpar grub during the weekday noon break. These are rolling restaurants that offer ostentatious, often gastro-quality foods for hungry craft beer people. Lobster rolls? Corn dogs made from gigantic smoked bratwurst? A menu with bacon in every recipe, from peanut butter sandwiches to desserts? A grilled cheese sandwich with the grilled cheese encasing the grilled cheese sandwich itself? Every variation of barbecue, artisanal pizza, Kobe-beef burgers, wood-fired pizza, sushi and pierogi? These main dishes, along with an incomprehensible volume of truffle oil-covered fries and Sriracha-drenched tater tots are the staples of SoCal food trucks. In SoCal, there’s even a cheese shop—appropriately called Vagabond Cheese—that offers tastings and high-level cheese offerings in their rolling store.
But while the upside is better food on wheels, finding your favorite food truck can be a bit of a chore sometimes. SoCal has an answer for that too: redesigned industrial “food malls” like The Packing House in old town Anaheim, Grand Central Market in Downtown L.A. (historic district), and Liberty Station in San Diego. Housed in behemoth permanent structures, these are wildly popular epicenters of bakeries, beer, cheese mongers, organic produce markets and often quality “fast gourmet” gastro-style food. The choices are overwhelming, the destinations are in or around major urban centers and the parking can be horrifying. But the spirit of small business in these mini-malls of food has caught on. Long lines abound because people flock to quality. Or maybe they just flock to what everyone else sees on his or her Instagram feed.
But a concept like Anaheim’s Packing House must take a long time to plan. After its initial opening, I wondered if it was going to make it because of the large number of empty vendor spaces. Enter SteelCraft, a concept that merges the brewery/gastro symbiosis into a slightly smaller, neighborhood-sized, environmentally conscious package: used cargo shipping containers. Yes, the kind you see stacked up in the Port of Los Angeles. It turns out these units are only slightly larger than a food truck, and a few of them arranged in a square provides an ideal SoCal outdoor setting for good beer and food.
SteelCraft sits between the Cal Heights and Bixby Knolls neighborhoods in Long Beach, just a couple miles east of the river and a few miles from the overly-busy and ever-popular Shoreline Drive. SteelCraft has a small parking lot which fills easily in the evenings, so at that time, you’re better off parking in the neighborhoods surrounding the units (just pay attention to the posted parking restrictions) and after 5 p.m. the parking in the business complex across the street opens up as well (again, look for the signs).
The atmosphere inside of SteelCraft is reminiscent of a German beer hall: seat yourself at long tables, and share a table with some new friends. There is also “bar” seating along the outer perimeter of the two inside eating areas. Additional tables can be found adjacent to Bixby Road. The indoor-outdoor atmosphere would provide little protection from rain if we ever had it in SoCal, and it does get a bit chilly in the evenings despite the attempt to fix that problem with large hanging space heaters.
As for the food and beer, here are your choices: pizza from Desano Pizza, burgers (including a burger with fried mac’n’cheese as buns) brought to you by Pig Pen Delicacy, ramen from Tajima Ramen and tasting-room style Smog City Brewing for a full lineup of their taps. For dessert, there is Waffle Love, Lovesome Chocolates and The Fresh Shave, a shaved ice stand. The food offerings are what you’d expect from high-quality rolling trucks: good food presented humbly, a-la-carte, in minimalist-style (get your own condiments, forks and napkins at the condiment stands). When our family visits, everyone orders from a different “restaurant” and receives a pager so we can stake out a place to sit while we wait for the food to be prepared. Is the food mind-blowing? No, it’s not, and if that’s why you came to SteelCraft, you might be disappointed. What you’re getting at SteelCraft is the California experience: above average food, excellent craft beer from a fantastic SoCal craft brewery, independent ownership and a great social setting that is away from the bustle of the downtown and tourist centers. It is the elation of “aha, we found a good place!” experience that drives much of the word-of-mouth beer and food scene in SoCal.
Is SteelCraft a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist? I don’t think so. Grand Central Market-style places are wonderful, but they’re a destination and require planning to visit (unless you live close to them). It’s nice to see a concept like this, sized-down in a non-downtown area. Also consider the fact that poor fast food options in or around SoCal neighborhoods are definitely a problem. A place like SteelCraft offers other options—even healthy ones if you’re eating ramen or looking for vegan ramen. I really like that it is in a neighborhood (or between a neighborhood and a small business building area), that the businesses in SteelCraft are small and independent and that it seems to leave a small footprint (although it’d be interesting to hear what surrounding homeowners think about parking issues). Like most good—food—fast joints, you’re going to see an $8-12 price tag on entree items (and no, that doesn’t include fries), but when you see where the extra cash is going—to local labor and local products—it feels even better to spend some time there. The good news: more SteelCraft concepts are being planned.