Category: Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra
Since tumbleweeds have started bouncing lazily across my site, I am compelled to bust out one of my sparse "kept in reserve" reviews.
Rather than the sleepy-village decor of Don Cuco, it's more like the interior of your tia's house... that is, if your tia has frilly white dresses and a house the size of a nobleman's mansión. Upon stepping inside you will spy the prominent black and white photo of a handsome woman (presumably Rosa Borquez) in a brilliant black dress, and her diminutive husband.
El Cholo has been bombasted a bit by the culinary community (the original location on Western reflects that, having descended into a battered, unimpressive rhythm), yet it's still kind of a comforting institution, with specific dishes that have cemented it as a model "Mexican restaurant." They do have tons of tequilas, but don't flaunt the party vibe... you know, the "we're only a step above suck because we make our Cuervo margaritas unnecessarily strong" vibe. All of this means that I beg you not to grind margarita salt in my eyes because I'm writing about this catering company-owned restaurant that I might go to occasionally when I'm in Pasadena.
The chips are multicolored--I'm still on the fence about whether red and green tortilla chips should deduct from street cred--but the salsa is pretty good, thin and tomato-heavy with some serrano sharpness. Do ask for fresh guacamole made at your table; it's one of the finer ones we've tasted, avocados, red onions, cilantro and lemon juice elegantly mixed by a busy woman with a smile and a mortar and pestle. Couple that with one of their massive bowls of albondigas soup and you'll have difficulty finishing the main course.
The Blue Corn Enchiladas are a staple of mine (and of Rosa, according to the menu), with a tomatillo sauce, sour cream, avocados, and black beans and rice. The tacos here are rolled-style, and the enchiladas have extra meat piled on top, as if your tia thinks you're too skinny and need to eat more, mi hijo.
The oldest enchilada served here (since 1923) is the Sonora Style, a hefty layered beast. Between plate-sized corn tortillas rests great white strata of chicken made tender in an onion and tomato broth; drippy cheese and a fried egg add a lush tang. Surrounding it is a moat of deepest red and green sauce.
At the end of it all, a small plate of tooth-shatteringly sweet dulce de leche cookies beckons.
The parking lot is long and expansive, but there's valet for some reason.
It seems obviously connected with the other locations, but keeps its own website.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra )
The main strip along Old Town Pasadena hasn't many old-style Italian joints. Mi Piace has a glassy, designy interior that isn't inspired so much as brisk and effective. However, the black-clad, willowy waitstaff is friendly and attentive, Sinatra's playing, and the menu is legit. A lounge area and bar peeks from a dark corner.
Bianca and I are waiting on a good friend, so we pile on the appetizers. The Calamari Fritti is an most excellent example of squid done well, a gentle fried crunch with tones of lime and cilantro; it's given zest and authority by the jalapeño dipping sauce.
The Patate Fritte--I know. French fries? At an Italian place? Why, Dave? Look, we're hungry and don't feel like caprese at the moment--are thin columns of spiced gold, tossed with cayenne, rosemary and oregano. The spicy ketchup and honey mustard are fun but add mostly color.
Bianca is enamored of butternut squash and all its autumnal glory, and therefore the Butternut Squash Soup suits well, thick with cream and silky with a slight vegetal sniff of disdain.
They do pastas here lightly, with a subtle yet confident hand. The Rigatoni con Salsiccia has mild but juicy crumbled Italian sausage, rapini wilted just so (spinach would assert itself too heavily here), sun-dried tomatoes and intimidating slices of garlic, every item singing clearly and defined. The white wine and pecorino cheese sauce bring them together vibrantly on the tongue.
Parking is wishful thinking along the street, but this stretch of Colorado has a number of public lots nearby.
Thanks to Marcia for letting us tag along with her.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Italian, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra )
I'm a fan of shawerma and kebab and tabouleh and hummus anyway, but the Lebanese touch brings it closer to my heart. This miniature spit-roasted empire now has nearly a double handful of locations, but the original 1984 location is in East Hollywood*.
There is no decor in the Hollywood spot, really, not unless you count violently lemon-colored walls and aluminum, and not much atmosphere except for perpetually grumbling older men and angry conversations in Armenian. The Glendale location on Colorado is the second oldest, and is set up more like a Jack in the Box than a post-war lunch counter.
What Zankou is famous for are the chicken sandwiches, wrapped in a scuffed-up pita, with a thin plaster of highly opinionated garlic sauce. Even as the foil opens up, the scent of garlic wells up. It looks very spartan--shreds of roasted dark-meat chicken, pale squares of chopped tomato, and hints of the white spackle that is the potato-based garlic sauce of which so many poets have written**.
The chicken is usually splendidly done, moist and profound, and the bits of sauce will make you check yourself with a palm over your mouth for the remainder of the day. You get a little dish of carnation-colored pickled turnips and yellow peppers, which you can safely ignore unless you want some extra crunch and spicy hiss (which I do).
The Tarna chicken is marinated chicken shawerma, which is slightly crispier around the edges but not as lush as the roasted chicken. The Sujouk [sic] is dark and rugged and rosy inside like an Armenian/Lebanese sausage can be, but unless you're a big sujouk fan it's not necessary.
The Tri-Tip Shawerma, like the chicken, is infused with its own roasty flavor, dark and juicy. Slicing up the yellow peppers with this, then filling a pita with it, is good times.
The hummus is actually quite good, finely blended with big flakes of paprika. The tahini sauce is thick, sour and a little unfriendly.
* The Sunset location is not part of the website, possibly because of the drama--legal and lethal drama--that occurred with the family. You can look it up if you like. Zankou is quite the L.A. institution.
** Not really. But it's been blogged about a lot.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Hollywood, Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra, Armenian, Lebanese )
It was voted "Best Design in a Historic Building" by the Pasadena Heritage Foundation, and while that tidbit impresses me not at all, it makes for a good opening sentence.
The café is, though, crisp and friendly: all dark wood, carefully considered lime-green-and-orange motif, and daylit openings onto grassy courtyards. We like to sit in the bar area, where the windows reveal the occasional commuter train pulling quietly into the Gold Line station.
The menu, like the La Grande Orange logo, is constrained to polite gourmet Californian. The Cajun Halibut Sandwich is a hefty grilled square of peppered fish, balanced between firmness and collapse on a big shiny sesame seed bun. It is accentuated by a drippy, tangy slaw that threatens your lap*.
The Famous Tuna Burger is thick like a turkey patty, low on presentation points but possessing a wondrous sense of umami, pan-seared to a cream-colored medium rare and cooled by avocado. It has more firmness than expected but does not lose its oceanic roots.
The Reuben is not your street vendor's Reuben. The pastrami (instead of corned beef) is moist and gentle, not too fatty, and there is a layer of the aforementioned coleslaw (instead of sauerkraut) providing crunch and drip factor**. The havarti cheese is quietly intense but sinks into the marble rye.
The fries are shoestring style, thin, crisp and seasoned addictively. I usually forget the cups of ketchup or ranch sauce nearby, and eat far too many of them.
For summery days--which in Pasadena can mean Shoe Soles Over Easy on the sidewalk--the salads are brief but refreshing. I like the Del Mar, which hides slivers of black olive and avocado in shredded iceberg and, more importantly, has gulf shrimp and real chunks of pale crab. The firm shrimp practically spits with citrus-derived tartness, while the crab is merely cool and calm and bids you forget the heat outside, man, it's a drag.
Contrary to the Google map which is full of lies today, La Grande Orange sits just north of Del Mar Blvd. There is a valet strip in front of the building on Raymond, or you can disappear into the massive train station parking lot.
* LGO has those nice-looking high-thread-count cloth napkins that abrade your lips quite thoroughly, but absorb no moisture whatsoever.
** To go all aficionado for a moment, it's a Rachel sandwich, not a Reuben.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), American, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra )
Perfectly awesome vegan
633 S. Arroyo Parkway Suite 3 (in Pasadena)
Phone: 626-578-9017 | map
So many completely marvelous eateries are tucked away in unassuming corner malls. Like this one, for instance: a calmly painted interior, glass counter, hanging lights, plastic countertops meant to suggest marble. The people here are extraordinarily friendly, constantly circling to check up on your experience.
Similarly to Green Leaves and other Thai-derived vegetarian eateries, most dishes have choices of "meats": tofu, seitan, or the soy versions of chicken, pepper steak, nuggets, fish and shrimp.
Lentil tacos! I like these, not least for the cleverness in thinking up this concept. Barely able to be folded, the tortillas and the shredded romaine attempt to support a burger-sized patty of lentils. The texture is like absurdly soft ground meat with taco seasoning. The experience is far greater than its simple presentation, especially with a bit of veganaise for fuller palate impact. A spray of cilantro and chopped tomatoes crown the affair. The tortillas seem store-bought, but that's no hardship.
The Hang Noodle is another favorite of mine, for ingredients and presentation if nothing else. Your choice of noodle (I like yellow noodles for a ramen feel; despite their appearance they are not egg noodles) is stacked high in a bowl, hiding bean sprouts and spinach underneath like a warm compress. I get soy pepper steak, less firm than seitan and a bit like Ethiopian injera bread, pale and spongelike but more enjoyable than that suggests. Roasted garlic mingles with chopped peanuts, darkened by a splash of soy sauce. The whole affair relaxes against a headboard of green leaves, and cools down oppressive summer days.
The Chicken Curry Burger is brawny soy with enough firmness to make me check the interior for actual chicken breast. Lightly yellowed by curry seasoning, it's made coy and cool with veganaise, and teeters precariously under a bun with more sesame seeds per square inch than I care to count. The french fries as classified as "Vegan Fries"--which I assume means that meat is absent from their potatoey identity and from the oil that makes them shiny gold--but they are thin and crisply dark around the tips as I like them.
The red curry is a most excellently balanced sauce, with tofu, bamboo shoots, eggplant, bell pepper and basil. The crunchy spring roll that comes with this, fried and succulent despite containing only vegetables, gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from Adam, my likeliest lunchtime companion and guinea pig.
It's a corner mall, and there's usually exactly one spot left in it, so take advantage.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Vegetarian/Vegan, Healthy/Organic, American, Thai, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra )
Whereas a Polynesian-themed restaurant like Damon's is gently tropical, calming you with breezes and weirdly golden salad dressing, Bahooka is... passionate. Bahooka is more like some PT boat captain was shipwrecked somewhere above the 10 Freeway, made friends with the ghost of a buccaneer, and has since worshipped too many idols and inhaled too much seaspray.
This is not to say that Bahooka isn't one of the most delightful remnants of tiki culture around, for it is. Peppered with a hundred fishtanks, it is a comfortable shack, an antique shop separated into galleys, brigs, and quarters. Music drifts from somewhere behind the globe lanterns and netting: Hawai'ian lullabies, poppy reggae rap, and even the occasional island version of "Wind Beneath My Wings".
This is not fine dining per se... this is Mom and Dad eating what they liked back in '68, shushing you and enjoying cocktails with various levels of flammability. This is where you take people to impress them with immense kitschery, or to get them hurts-behind-the-forehead drunk. Classics like Mai Tais are made here, and they still create gin drinks like the Singapore Sling. I'm told there's a concoction called "One Grenade with the Pin Pulled" that is probably illegal, somewhere, and a Honey Bowl (rum, apricot, Coke, and of course set on fire). One can almost hear the mocking laughter of Ulaulekeahi, God of Distillers.
The bar is both very cool and slightly disorienting, as you realize your beverage sits on an aquarium. Since your drink is also likely to be large enough for two people and set alight, this will be the least of your stories. Your dinner table is another matter, a long plank hanging from bloody great iron chains.
Shush up and go sit down; let Mommy and Daddy drink.
I'm told that one has not visited Bahooka until one has tried the ribs, and I like variety, so I get the Tahitian Style Combination (Um, they may or may not eat this in Tahiti). You get a sandwich of choice: beef, turkey, ham, pastrami, tuna, et al.
I choose the pulled pork, basically a porcine sloppy joe in a semisweet glaze, difficult to eat but given stability and sour spark by the giant pineapple ring on the bun. With this you get pork spareribs, great fatty things, not heavily done enough to lose the marbling but also lacking lip-smacking char. I've had them, so I can say I've been to Bahooka.
The french fries are pale blocks, hot enough to make you inhale but fitting well with either that ketchup you see there or the sugary barbecue sauce. For salads, your lot is iceberg... but Bahooka's house dressing is pretty neat, a mellowed-out pinkish cream that's not too many prop-plane hops away from thousand-island dressing.
When you're done your bill comes with a handful of old-school lollipops crinkling in their cellophane.
Bahooka is easy to find; go up or down Rosemead, and turn when you see the grey antiaircraft cannon baking out front in the Rosemead sun. There's a parking lot.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), American, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra, Hawaiian/Oceania )