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SteelCraft: An Urban Eatery Restoring Community Over a Shared Meal

SteelCraft | Ian Vergara
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Driving down Long Beach Boulevard, on the corner of Bixby Road, one cannot miss SteelCraft. The open-air style urban eatery, built entirely of repurposed shipping containers from the nearby Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, is both colorful and inviting.

“The concept started with the desire to create a gathering space here in the Bixby Knolls community, over really good food. It seems like a simple idea, but we wanted to create it in a brick and mortar, which really fit the distinct, diverse culture of our city,” shared Kim Gros, co-owner of SteelCraft and a long-time Long Beach resident.

The concept started with the desire to create a gathering space here in the Bixby Knolls community, over really good food. It seems like a simple idea, but we wanted to create it in a brick and mortar, which really fit the distinct, diverse culture of our city.

​SteelCraft has accomplished just that. When compared to the rest of the Harbor region and county, Long Beach has been labeled “highly diverse” due to its prominent black, Asian, white and Latino populations. From authentic Japanese ramen and Neapolitan-style pizza to pork belly fries and sliders, SteelCraft offers a unique blend of traditional and fusion cuisine that accurately reflects this heterogeneous community.

In addition to providing culturally inspired dishes, the eatery also caters towards its surrounding neighborhood, Bixby Knolls, which is up-and-coming from its initial slump in the 1970s and mostly populated with young families in want of a hip, communal place to gather.

“[Bixby Knolls has] been quoted as the neighborhood of Long Beach. It’s been revitalized and on the up-rise,” said Julie Schumacher, an ambassador for SteelCraft who highlighted SteelCraft’s universal food hall vibe. “Our vendors reflect the diversity of our people.”

Working with city and port officials, business developer Martin Howard, architecture companies and neighboring residents, Gros and her team developed a courtyard-like concept for the space, and in August 2016, officially began construction of SteelCraft — adding 40-ft, repurposed and sustainable metal shipping containers from the nearby ports that drive Long Beach’s economy.  

SteelCraft | Ian Vergara
SteelCraft | Ian Vergara

“Food is such a destination right now. The desire was to bring really good food here, and how we could do all that in a space that celebrates restoration and reflects us,” Gros mentioned. “SteelCraft is three things: we value community, appreciate the craft, and are about celebrating restoration and old stories — using things that are old, like shipping containers, and giving them life again.”

Following on the heels of Quartyard in San Diego, The Shops at Adams Gateway in South Los Angeles, and Downtown Container Park in Las Vegas, the 10 total containers — one for the spacious men’s and women’s bathrooms — are all modified to fit the needs of each vendor.

Visitors sit at long, communal picnic tables made from reclaimed wood, with recycled canvas tarps overhead.

“Here you have the voice of the local — someone who cares about food, presentation and design. To see it all finally come to life has been pretty exciting,” Gros said. “It takes time to create good things, and it’s important to always [do so] with excellence … because someone is watching, taking a photo, mentioning their experience; and you have to own that. Each vendor here has to create a really good product, and it speaks for the whole.”

Breaking Bread Together

Epifanio Fernandez, whose office is just down the street on Long Beach Boulevard, says he comes to SteelCraft weekly for his lunch break and has made plenty of friends over the past couple of months.

“To have [SteelCraft] here; it represents the identity of our city, with one of the largest shipping ports in the world, and it’s entirely unique. Breaking bread is sacred here — so to do it in a scene where you have so many options is awesome,” Fernandez said. “With the diversity of choices you have, you’ll never find that anywhere else with this quality. It appeals to everybody.”

With nine different vendors boasting food and dessert from around the world, there truly is something for everybody.

Pig Pen Delicacy, Mac n' Cheese Bun | Ian Vergara
Pig Pen Delicacy, Mac n' Cheese Bun | Ian Vergara

Fernandez’ favorite, “off-the-wall fantastic” meal at SteelCraft is the maple bacon jam burger from Pig Pen Delicacy, a brand new, pork-heavy restaurant (with another location at TRADE in Irvine).

Co-owner Jason Trinh says that Pig Pen is “American comfort food with an Asian twist.” The menu is fused with a staple Asian meal: slow cooked pork belly.

“In the Asian culture, braised or crispy pork belly is very popular. And it ties in with bacon, and everything pork that we serve,” Trinh said. “We try to incorporate a lot of culture in our food, taking different recipes from others and expanding it with a creative twist of our own. We look at concepts other people have, add pulled pork or bacon and try to make it as crazy as possible.”

Playing around with weird, delicious creations is Pig Pen’s specialty — hence its menu, with BBQ pulled pork nachos, pork belly fries and sliders, and the Instagram-famous fried mac-n-cheese burger.

“We’re definitely not a healthy place,” Trinh laughed.

DeSano San Gennaro Pizza | Courtesy of Desano
DeSano's San Gennaro Pizza | DeSano

Across the way, DeSano Pizza Bakery also serves up a hearty meal — with its authentic, thin-crust pizza served in six stores throughout the US, including Long Beach. The pizza is cooked for 90 seconds in a wood-fire oven installed within the container, and fresh, organic ingredients and cheeses are imported straight from Italy.

“We promote strictly Neapolitan-style pizza, following a family tradition,” said owner Scott DeSano. “It’s the expensive way to do things, but we promise the highest quality and better taste.”

For instance, DeSano’s best-selling San Gennaro specialty pizza includes freshly prepared ingredients like the San Marzano tomato sauce, sausage, peppadews, garlic, caramelized onions, scamorza, mozzarella di bufala and pecorino romano. All of the food preparation is done in-house, working with storage limits in a tight shipping container space.

Tajima Ramen, Vegan | Ian Vergara
Tajima Ramen  | Ian Vergara

Mary Moon, head manager of Tajima Ramen, says that locally sourced ingredients, flavorful broths and handmade noodles are key qualities of her store’s authentic Japanese ramen and cuisine.

“Sometimes people come [to Tajima] expecting it to be like instant ramen, but it’s not like that. We serve fat noodles, very unique toppings and are educating people on what authentic ramen is — and it takes time to make a quality meal,” shared Moon, who added that the popular vegan ramen includes spinach noodles and mixed vegetables, and is cooked in a soy-based broth that takes 22 hours to prepare.

Along with its creamy Tonkotsu broth and ramen flavorings, Tajima Ramen also serves poke bowls and tapas-style appetizers, with a highlight being the juicy, pork belly kakuni bun.

“This is the closest to authentic ramen here, and when it gets cold, that line goes right out the SteelCraft compound,” said Fernandez.

Smog City Brewing, Beer Flight | Ian Vergara
Smog City Brewing beer flight | Ian Vergara

Meals can be washed down with a beer from Smog City Brewing Company, which since 2011 has provided quality craft beer throughout the South Bay, L.A. and Orange County.

Run by husband and wife Jonathan and Laurie Porter, the Smog City taproom — first opened in Torrance — won gold at the Great American Beer Festival for its coffee porter, which put the company on the map of Southern California brews. Here in Long Beach, Smog City serves a selection of quality craft brews, from unique IPAs and amber ales to dark, barrel-aged stouts and porters, appealing to a variety of drink preferences.

“We’ve built a following for doing a broad spectrum of everything, and doing it really well,” said Ryan Evans, Smog City taproom manager. “With the influx of breweries here [in Long Beach], I think this neighborhood in particular really needed something people could walk to, grab a beer and eat at one of the many food choices they have here. It’s a space for people to really come together — food and drink helps with that.”

Evans suggested pairing the spicy sesame ramen at Tajima with Smog City’s “Sabre-Toothed Squirrel” — a hoppy, citrus-y amber ale that brings out unique flavors.

The Fresh Shave | Rachel Thurston
The Fresh Shave | Rachel Thurston

Born out of a vintage trailer in Kauai, Hawaii, The Fresh Shave serves customers fluffy, all-natural, healthy and deliciously flavored shaved ice.

“We loved the idea of another option for Hawaii’s famous shaved ice treat — healthier, cleaner, organic, fresher and tastes better,” said owner Priscilla Soule. “The Fresh Shave is a play on the freshness of our ingredients, and is centered around Hawaiian tradition and childhood itself. Education is a big part of our mission, but also enhancing and being part of a vibrant community, like SteelCraft.”

Serving local farm produce and purely organic ingredients, as well as made-from-scratch syrups, The Fresh Shave steers from the usual high fructose corn syrup and artificial coloring of other shaved ice places and focuses purely on the aloha spirit and ohana family values in its fluffy product.

Eight signature flavors on the menu are all named out of playful, iconic mustache styles like the Handle Bar (pineapple and coconut, topped with fresh pineapple and shredded coconut) and the Fu Manchu (strawberries, bananas and cream, topped with fresh strawberry puree, syrup and bananas).  

“We believe the way food is prepared is just as important as how it is grown. Our product is handcrafted with aloha from start to finish. Being conscious of our land and choosing organic supports farmers and producers who live for the same things we do — good health and sustainable habits,” said Soule.

Steelhead Coffee | Jack Rodriguez
Steelhead Coffee | Jack Rodriguez

For food-lovers with a sweet tooth, Waffle Love (which started out as a food truck, was featured in the Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race,” and now has four different locations) offers sweet and savory Belgian liege waffles for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Pop-up shop Lovesome Chocolates, which is currently only open on weekends, also sells handcrafted confections made by a certified chocolatier. Nicole Moore specializes in a European dark chocolate palette, serving up sweetness from decadent truffles to artisanal chocolate bark.

Finish up the visit with a buzz from Steelhead Coffee, the first vendor to open up its shipping container doors over at SteelCraft. With another location in neighboring California Heights, Steelhead provides customers with conversation over a fresh cup of joe — their specialty is in an original cold brew and tap-poured Kombucha — all day long.

“It’s craft coffee, not run of the mill,” said Fernandez, talking about his favorite lunch spot. “You come [to SteelCraft] on the weekends; it gets crazy packed with people … and you’re not pigeonholed to any one food, like pizza or a burger or ramen. You can then wash it down with a beer or coffee. Here, there are so many diverse choices.”

Steelhead Coffee | Ian Vergara
Steelhead Coffee | Ian Vergara

SteelCraft’s overall goal of restoration and creating a communal space over the craft of food does come with its share of challenges and lessons learned — mainly concerning storage and learning to adapt to the growing crowds.

“Operating out of a shipping container — it’s made all of us [as vendors] get really creative for more space on the inside,” said Evans.

“It’s always logistics, and the expense of getting higher quality ingredients, for everyone here,” agreed DeSano.

Quality food and drinks, a vibrant social media presence and a family-like atmosphere helps the outdoor urban eatery in Bixby Knolls to flourish. With regular events like live concerts and First Fridays, SteelCraft also attracts a distinct market including locals, families and foodies from everywhere.

“The response has been amazing,” said Schumacher. “We continue to get people thanking us for bringing this here, as a nod to Long Beach. It definitely fulfills a niche here … one of us succeeds, we all succeed, and it builds real camaraderie.”

With the elements of community, locality and sustainability, there is always a space open at SteelCraft’s table. 

SteelCraft is located at 3768 Long Beach Blvd. Long Beach, CA 90807. Parking is available adjacent to the space.

SteelCraft | Ian Vergara
SteelCraft | Ian Vergara

Top image: Ian Vergara

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