Long Beach Lunch: Wa Wa
Not to be confused with the East Coast convenience store chain of the same name, Long Beach's Wa Wa is a quick-n-dirty Chinese restaurant with cheap combo plates and made-to-order specialties that has dragged office zombies out of their Downtown cubicles for more than a decade.
The red-and-white tiled storefront is nestled between a ceramics studio and a postal service outlet on First Street in the Arts District, a neighborhood that was vastly different when Wa Wa opened in 2001. But in the time that it has taken for the block's empty retail spaces to fill with indie boutiques and the city to realize that the street makes a perfect venue for art and music events (see: Buskerfest 2012), the Cambodian-owned Chinese fast food joint hasn't changed much.
Realizing that the neighborhood is without a proper 7-Eleven, Wa Wa's donut display cases have also turned the restaurant into a makeshift general store. Cigarettes and candy are some of the first products you see when entering and soda and iced teas are available in cans or bottles from the sliding-door fridges. An ATM even sits in the front corner, even though the place accepts debit cards.
Sarah Bennett Spicy shrimp and vegetables--made to order!
Residents and employees nearby might come in just for their nicotine fix, but the food is still the main attraction. Every day, the family churns out a spread of 14 entree essentials which sit in a heat lamp-buffet line that makes Panda Express' options look like an In-n-Out menu. Seemingly concerned about the public perception of places that serve food that's been sitting around, the attractive and friendly son standing behind the counter always offers up information about which dish came out of the kitchen most recently.
From staples like orange chicken (made every 15 minutes) and beef and broccoli (made every half hour) to more haute dishes like spicy pineapple chicken and shrimp chop suey, Wa Wa's makes it all. Pick one item to go in your styrofoam container and it's only $4.75; two for $5.75 and three for $7.99--then let them load it up with the ultimate umami sides, fried rice and chow mein.
Though it doesn't happen very often, eating truly fresh orange chicken from a cheap Chinese place is one of the more satisfying food experiences I've had. Before the gooey sauce dries up--and the covered dark meat nuggets get gross-crispy and crackly--orange chicken is actually a chewy, savory delight. At Wa Wa's I love to roll pieces around in the puffy fried rice and enjoy a series of two-for-one bites. The rice is also good for soaking up sauces (like the oily brown one that drenches the chicken and mushroom entree) or eating with a forkful of gummy chow mein noodles.
Sarah Bennett Two item combination plate with lots o' rice and chow mein
If buying anything made en masse makes you queasy, Wa Wa also has a full menu of $6-$7 made-to-order dishes like shrimp mixed vegetable and tofu vegetable soup that take only a few minutes to prepare. One warning: asking for the food spicy just means a handful of red pepper flakes will be added.
I've heard horror stories from friends about Wa Wa giving them the runs, but its a risk most of us take when we order a mound of delicious and possibly MSG-laden food from a Chinese hole in the wall. And for the Downtown location and recession-friendly prices, Wa Wa's is a lunchtime gem.
Wa Wa, 406 E. 1st St., Long Beach, (562) 590-3485