Improvising at the Lighthouse

While waiting for music to return, the legendary Lighthouse is serving its best food since its opening in the late 1940s

The Lighthouse Cafe beverage director Lee Farrel and executive chef Joshua Luce. Photo by JP Cordero

As I sat at an outdoor table at The Lighthouse, I suddenly felt old. Fifty years before, I was a high school kid who rode my bicycle to hang around in the rear parking lot and hear the music that poured out of the place. I didn’t understand much of it, but the unpredictable time changes and free improvisation were exciting and challenging.

Eventually I obtained a license that proved I was old enough to drink and a job that allowed me to afford the cover charge. I must have eaten something there at least once, but I have no memory of what it was. By all accounts the food then was just a way to occupy yourself while you held down a table and waited for the band to come on.

Fast forward to now, and the Lighthouse has pictures of musicians on the walls, but no live music. The pandemic restrictions have stripped away their unique advantage, so for the moment they need to offer an experience aimed at the mouths rather than the ears. The menu isn’t as experimental as the music they were famous for, but you can find some interesting flavor combinations on the list.

We started a meal with a pair of hits – the deviled egg toast and chorizo nachos. The former was a new experience for me, chopped deviled eggs over sourdough topped with cornichon pickles, whole grain mustard, and dill with a couple of shakes of paprika. The interplay between paprika, mustard, and dill took this beyond standard egg salad sandwich territory, and it was so good that I’d come back just to get this. Our party of four split it as a starter, but I could have easily enjoyed it as a meal.

The deviled egg toast is a hit item at The Lighthouse Cafe. Photo by Richard Foss

The chorizo nachos were a fairly standard item, but worthwhile for the execution. Chips that appeared to be house-made were topped with ranch beans, Monterey jack, good quality chorizo, and a fresh-tasting pico de gallo, with some cilantro on top and pickled jalapenos on the side. It was an appetizer-size portion rather than the plate-filing mound that you get at some places, but I’ll take higher quality and order more if they’re needed.

With our starters we ordered cocktails from a list that the professional bartender in our party found to be exceptional. There are some fine original creations here that are flavor focused, like the “cool kat” of aperol, prosecco, chartreuse, grapefruit, lemon, and orange. All three of those citruses belonged there, and while it was probably designed as a summer cooler, it still tasted good on an unseasonably chilly evening. The bar is well stocked, and they know what to do with it.

For dinner we selected a buttermilk chicken sandwich, Ora king salmon, cod fish tacos, and the prime steak. The steak was several slices of medium-rare beef rather than a whole petite filet or similar, but the meat was tender and flavorful, so no complaints. This arrived on a bed of sauce and topped with onion rings and watercress, and if I order this again, I’d get the sauce on the side.

The buttermilk chicken sandwich was a standout, with crunchy and flavorful batter and a moist interior, and the vinegar slaw with tabasco mayo completed it nicely. It’s a first-class sandwich, but it arrived with nothing but a slice of pickle on the plate, so we were glad we had ordered fries. Those were topped with a sprinkle of Old Bay seasoning and served with a malt vinegar aioli. The crinkle-cut potatoes were slightly underdone to my tastes, but I like my fries crisp.

Fish tacos are one of those items just about everyone makes, and these are very fine if you ask for a minor modification. The tortillas were griddled to the point where they blistered, and topped with raw cabbage, a slice of radish, a slice of jalapeno, and some very spicy tomatillo salsa. That sauce was applied a bit too liberally for the person who ordered it, which was unfortunate. The tempura batter on the fish was perfect, and whoever was running the fryer knows their job, so ask for that on the side and enjoy a good rendition of a classic. It will be less pretty but more practical.

The Ora King salmon at The Lighthouse Cafe. Photo by JP Cordero.

The Ora King salmon might be a better choice for those who appreciate milder,  more natural flavors, a substantial chunk of lightly seasoned fish over sauteed spinach. It was served with roasted Campari tomatoes, which are not tomatoes doused in the liqueur of the same name, but a type of tomato that is particularly sweet and fruity. It was the best-balanced meal we ordered, and an excellent choice.

We also ordered a side dish of sweet and sour broccolini with shallots and ginger, which was the only dud of the meal. The broccolini was in long spears that made it awkward to eat whole, and it would have been better to chop it a bit so you could get the vegetable with the fresh pineapple and crisped shallots. The sauce was just a bit off too, light on the vinegar tang that makes a sweet and sour sauce work. With all the other good things on this menu, I’d give it a pass.

We were pretty full after all this food, but ordered a slice of key lime pie because it’s an item I find hard to pass up. This hit the right notes, the filling tart with a hint of sweetness and served on a good graham cracker crust.

Dinner for four ran $126, food only. Not bad for a meal of this quality on Pier Plaza. The only show we had was people watching the plaza, but I hope that when musical entertainment returns, they’ll keep the high standards. This is almost undoubtedly the best food that has been served at The Lighthouse since it opened in the 1940s, and it gives those who used to hang around outside a reason to come in.

The Lighthouse is at 30 Pier Avenue in Hermosa. Open Mon. — Thurs. 4 p.m. Fri. — Sun. at noon. Closing times vary. Parking in rear. Full bar, wheelchair access good, few vegetarian items. (310) 376-9833. Thelighthousecafe.net. ER

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Written by: Richard Foss

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