Inching toward modernity [restaurant review]
In 1967 the song “Hang On Sloopy” was three years old, no longer high in the charts but a staple with bar bands across America. The earworm groove and sunny, optimistic lyrics suited South Bay surf culture well, despite the fact that the tune was written by a teenager in Dayton, Ohio about a local jazz singer named Dorothy Sloop. The lyrics were vague enough that nobody cared what they meant, and it sounded great blasting from an AM radio.
So great, in fact, that a North Manhattan Beach restaurant was named Sloopy’s in honor of the song. The interior reflected the hippie era, a space full of plants, tables cut from tree trunks, more plants, a big open fireplace, and plants, plants, plants, including a tree that grew through a hole in the roof. The café had a relatively simple menu of sandwiches, burgers, salads, and not much else, and in that famous summer of love it became a hangout for young locals.
Sloopy’s has changed remarkably little since then, though the famous tree was removed a decade ago thanks to worries falling branches. The interior now boasts a jungle of more than a hundred plants amid weathered wood walls and art in a variety of media. If you’re looking for a place with genuine character, look no further. The menu has changed some — there are coffee drinks we had never heard of in ’67, and those burgers are now available with toppings like kimchi, guacamole, and harissa aioli. Besides the sandwiches you can get fish and chips, a ribeye steak, and a few pastas and other items. In several visits, most dishes were conventional but satisfying, but there were a few standouts.
We tried starters of crisped brussels sprouts and their “famous” zucchini sticks, the latter partly because I find it hard to turn down fried zucchini and partly to see if it justified the hyperbole. It came to the table looking a bit burnt, but looks were deceiving — the batter and breading were dark but crisp and tasty. I don’t know if it qualifies as famous, but it’s a good start to a meal. So were the brussels sprouts, which had been tossed with a mild sweet chili glaze before being dusted with Parmesan. The sprouts were in large chunks and not as crispy as those preparations where it’s sliced extremely thin and fried, but if you like more varied textures and a moist interior you might favor this version.
Among the entrees we’ve tried was the kimchi burger, Montonara chicken pasta, seared salmon, ribeye steak, and an item they call a “spicy tuna sushi burrito” that was highly recommended by our server. While she enthused about that item at length, it was the least successful thing we had here. Creating an overgrown tempura shrimp, cucumber, carrot, and spicy tuna sushi roll and adding guacamole isn’t a bad idea, but the balance was off. The tuna wasn’t very spicy even to the person at our table with the wimpiest pepper tolerance, and there was more rice than anything else, so it was very filling without being very flavorful.
The other things we tried were all at least decent and some very good. The kimchi burger was made with a moderate version of spicy nappa cabbage so that it enhanced but didn’t dominate, and the dash of sesame oil vinaigrette added a hint of toasty nuttiness to the mix. The Montonara pasta wasn’t like any other recipe by that name, since this “mountaineer’s” pasta usually includes kale and salt pork in a tomato sauce rather than chicken and mushrooms in a pesto cream sauce, but by whatever name it was a good meal.
The steak and salmon would have been hard to imagine on Sloopy’s menu in the early years, but both were unexpectedly well presented and executed. They didn’t try to do anything fancy with either one, unless you count the truffle-smoked onion strings that adorned the steak, but that’s just fine. The lemon caper sauce was sparingly applied and suited the fish without overwhelming it, the potato and carrot mash and the brussels sprouts on the side were a good choice of accompaniments, and the portion was big enough for a hearty appetite. For just over 20 bucks for the fish and just under 30 for the steak, it was a deal.
The place where Sloopy’s shows surprising creativity is on their breakfast menu, which has standards like a breakfast burrito and pancakes, but also a variety of benedicts, a panko-crusted fried egg over quinoa, and duck confit hash. On the morning that we showed up they also offered a lobster benedict with sautéed asparagus and spinach, and we found that and the confit irresistible.
That benedict was remarkable when it arrived, the lobster tail removed from its shell and cooked, then put back on the tail to be topped with asparagus, poached eggs, fresh lemon zest hollandaise, and a dusting of paprika. The plate was finished with crisp breakfast potatoes and was so beautiful that we had to ask our server if she ever serves this to anyone without them pulling out their camera to get a shot. She said no, and we believe her because I would have gotten one even if I didn’t need it to illustrate this article.
The duck confit “hash” was tasty, but not a hash by any normal description. There were duck and potatoes in the bowl that arrived, but also spinach, tomatoes, and enough gravy that it was much more like a stew. Considered as a duck stew topped with poached eggs it was just fine, but I was looking forward to a hash with crisp potatoes and duck, and that’s not what arrived. Let hash be hash and stew be stew, and never the twain shall meet.
Sloopy’s has a small wine list and a better beer selection, both sufficient to complement meals but not particularly exciting. They also have desserts, but the portion sizes were large enough that we skipped that on all three visits.
Sloopy’s opened in a time of cultural shift and has thrived when almost all others have disappeared — you might even say they have hung on. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?) They are likely to keep hanging on because they offer good food in a characterful and attractive environment, at a price that is modest enough for everyday dining near the beach.
Sloopy’s is at 3416 Highland Avenue in Manhattan Beach. Open 8 a.m. — 9 p.m. Oct-Feb., 7 a.m – 9:30 p.m. Mar-Sep. Street parking, beer and wine served, wheelchair access okay to front tables. (310) 545-1373. Sloopysbeachcafe.com. ER
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