Category: Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra
Three words: They Have Ting.*
Kingston Café was closed for remodeling... for three years. For a restaurant in Southern California, a "closed for remodeling" sign is too often a death knell, a saddened shake of the head until something new tries to open in its place. However, Kingston has been reopened by the same family, with new chefs, a more dignified interior, and new Caribbean-fusion finesse.
The interior is divided into small two- and three-table rooms, each with its own title (we want to reserve a party in "Ackee" one day), and a large, pumpkin-hued back room where the bar and the band is. Reggae, naturally, lopes through the speakers**... and hey! I have this Trojan Box Set compilation at home! I knew I recognized Max Romeo's "My Jamaican Collie".
The dinner dishes are marinated masterpieces. The Jerked Chicken is a deep mahogany on the outside, lying in a thick brown stew sauce; gentle prodding causes the meat to fall away from the bone like wispy garments at a burlesque performance. I ordered it spicy, which means a higher concentration of scotch bonnet peppers evilly plotting my demise, and a low, stalking mouth-burn that is distracted only by the cool mango salsa.
The quintessentially Jamaican dish that is Curried Goat has a similar presentation but is stewed with onion and thyme, made into a liquid velvet with a gentle pimento flair that zips around the sides of the mouth. Bianca made a conscious decision to interrupt her six-month period of not eating meat to have curried goat. This, like the Jerked Chicken, comes with white rice, or a solid support-cylinder of red beans and rice, and a sunny batch of carrot slices and green beans which is tastier and friendlier than "carrots and green beans" sounds like.
For lunch there's a Jerk Burger, the patty darkened and dried by the jerk seasoning. Ordering this spicy may produce coughing and possibly hiccups, cooled infinitesimally by the mango salsa. The sesame seed bun is simple, but offering a burger at all on a Jamaican menu is merely a nod to our U.S. palates. The french fries are crisply moist and lightly seasoned, and need no dipping sauce or ketchup.
Oh, do this: get a side of the Fried Plantains. They are sweeter even than Bossa Nova's, and keep their golden texture. Also try the long slices of festival, a cornmeal fritter that's as moist as buttered cornbread and sweet as innocence.
There's Rum Cake and sugared walnuts for dessert, dense and lush with the scent of cane, but we are full, so full. Seen? How I nyam so much?
They do not (yet) have Blue Mountain coffee, and that is a cause for temporary sadness... but we spoke to them and they did tell us that new dishes were forthcoming... allow me to place the lovely words "ackee and saltfish" in your mind. Yu tan deh!
The building belongs partially to a Women's Diagnostic Imaging Group, and the parking lot belongs to the Salvation Army, so of course I think this is a perfectly sensible place to have a Jamaican restaurant (I, however, think there should be Caribbean restaurants placed everywhere, so my opinion is biased). You can park in the lot for dinner as long as you inform the waiter. Kingston Café is closed Sundays and Mondays, but since live reggae plays every Saturday night, maybe that's a necessary two-day recovery ting.
* If you know us, you know our love for this grapefruit soda and the memories it brings.
** Thank you, Kingston Café, for not automatically busting out the easily-recognized-by-tourists "Jammin'" and "One Love" in resort fashion.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Jamaican, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra )
You've seen recycled eateries like this: a darkened front window, a peaked roof which probably had the words "pup" and "taco" on it a few decades ago, stained signs that look like they were beaten with a crowbar. The drive-through is more of a polite feature than a time-saver. You may as well park and walk up to the window.
What is this place? It's an unlikely but earnest vegetarian fast food joint. There are burgers; the veggie patty is very light and crumbly, and easily gets lost in the leafy shuffle between the fresh whole wheat buns. There are burritos; the Pollo Burrito is more of a "we're calling it chicken but it's actually just straight-up tofu" yellow curry ladled into a tortilla glove and held together by hope and surface tension, and not much fun. Really, Orean doesn't execute the faux-meat maneuvers as well as, say, Green Leaves, so you should search out the specialty items in the corner of the menu.
The Pastrami Dip--no, really, kind of--should probably be called the steak sandwich, being a pile of seasoned seitan (wheat gluten) chips with green pepper, pickles and onion. It's really rather good, and seitan has that near-steak texture that throws off the purity hounds.
The fries are "air fries," which means they're likely baked instead of fried, which I suppose means they might be called "French Bakes' but which would be sorely confusing. Anyway, they're fluffy and shreddy and good. You can get chili on those, and then they're cut thicker. The chilli (sic) is interesting--it's seitan with kidney and pinto beans, so it's an attempt at a "meat chili"--but I'd just as soon have a proper spicy-powdered bean chili that I can proudly have on top of things.
The best thing here is the African Tostada. Atop two crunchy yellow tortilla discs is a heap of black-eyed peas rendered to an almost refried-beans consistency, African salsa, a honey-mustardesque tahineh sauce, and chopped tomatoes. There is soy cheese but it is convincing and works here.
The beverages are also where Orean shines. How about a granola rum shake? A ginseng slush? Some iced yerba maté? For me, they have a peanut butter shake that's quite alluring, and I can up the ante by making a Chai shake into a Super Green Chai shake, which means it's a pale Irish color and resists both straw and pouring, but is tasty.
Is it healthy? Well, it's meatless, does that help? Consider the surrounding corners: a McDonald's, a Carl's Jr./Green Burrito, a KFC, and a Roscoe's Chicken 'n Waffles, so arguably it's the healthiest corner in these parts.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Vegetarian/Vegan, American, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra, African )
More Mexican in Pasa Deña
624 E. Colorado Blvd. (east of Los Robles, in Pasadena)
Phone: 626-795-5577 | map
Not to be confused with the La Fiesta Grande in South Pasadena--nor any restaurant with a screamingly pedestrian name like "La Fiesta Grande" for that matter--this one is down the street from Vroman's Bookstore. The outside is satisfyingly clay-and-stucco, the interior a comfortably Spanish bullfighting motif. The chairs are painted in cheery primary-colors-and-flowers. A bar, and another whole half of a restaurant, is tucked away in back.
The tortilla chips don't have much bubbling or salty sheen on them the way I like, but are dark and grainy and solidly proclaim their cornness. The salsa is not something I'll crave, but has a nice sting.
LFG does albondigas soup wonderfully: energy-replenishing and good, its ingredients cooked long. I love that it's low on celery content, and that the vegetables aren't so massive that they can't easily be picked up with a spoon, which is highest among my albondigas-soup-related peeves.
I always go a bit gringo when first sampling a Mexican restaurant, with the mindset that a basic hard-taco-and-something-else combo should be done well. Give me a cheesy blanket on my refried beans, some cool lettuce as a berm, and I'm happy. The crispy taco has that grainy corn shell that LFG does so well, cradling stew-soft, shredded chicken or beef. The pork tamale has good things happening with cornmeal, in harmony with the subdued pork. The guacamole is downright tasty.
They pay attention to their seafood; the Red Snapper is lightly breaded and grilled "fiesta style" in a salsa of tomato, green olives and capers that makes the snapper tangy and vibrant. The al mojo de ajo is shrimp split into halves in the shell; they take some disassembly but taste, for want of better adjectives, wild and fresh.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra )
Pay no attention to the merrily sombrero'd man behind the curtain
One West California Blvd. #211 (in Pasadena)
Phone: 626-795-9291 | map
504 W. Las Tunas Dr. (in San Gabriel)
Phone: 626-293-8995 | map
While expanding our conquests into Pasadenian* territory, I'm always pleased to find a place that tastes better than its decor suggests. Los Tacos is in the brick square at California and Fair Oaks, right smack next to Porta Via. The friendly design scheme is of a kind to make purists sneer: cleanly tropical, Mexican-ish village paintings, just enough not to scare away the sunburnt vacationers.
"The World's Greatest Tacos" is emblazoned across the menu, which is a hell of a brassy claim to make in Southern California, and which I shall not endorse because you just can't say something crazy like that and go without a raised eyebrow and skeptical sampling.
Are they the world's greatest tacos? No, of course not. The world's greatest tacos are probably being made by someone's mother in a village somewhere south of the Rio Pánuco. Are they the greatest tacos in California? No. The greatest in the 626 area code? Maybe.
But these are well-executed. The soft tortillas are non-gritty and flavorful, and the hard shells are pressed and softened, so have a little give before a satisfying crack-and-crunch. The Chile Verde Pork taco is small but has a refreshing heat. The machaca is tangy, although I prefer a little more grilling toward a juice-locked, toothsome darkness. The chicken and the chicken mole are not terribly interesting. The al pastor is probably the best item here, tapping the lips just a bit with seasoning.
However boastful the tacos are, I prefer the burritos. The bulky Al Pastor Burrito (Mojado style) is seasoned long and well until moody, its tortilla stained correctly orange. The accompaniments are simple and unadorned: the rice is fluffy and soft, and the refried beans mostly intact.
The salsas in the bin are not too angry; even the "extra hot" only prompts minor sniffing.
Los Tacos has another, perhaps original, location in San Gabriel, with more of a local feel.
* Pasadenan? Pasadenite? Forget it.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Mexican, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra )
Been a long time since I did the stroll
8447 Santa Monica Blvd. (in Hollywood)
Phone: 323-654-2287 | map
1351 3rd Street Promenade. (in Santa Monica)
Phone: 310-656-5777 | map
99 E. Colorado Blvd. (in Pasadena)
Phone: 626-405-9777 | map
This is the last place Janis Joplin had a drink, and where a chaotic Jim Morrison treated the bar like a latrine. Despite a few too many Coors lampshades and little televisions dangling from the ceiling, every inch of Barney's Hollywood location has personality, its walls and pillars battered, scraped and bandaged with photo montages and line drawings. The tables are shellacked with imagery*. An impression of life and age and cigarettes and freedom, and a particularly L.A. "this is the place" vibe, presides.
Barney's is one of the oldest L.A. restaurants still around, having opened in 1920 as a men-only establishment where one could trade in one's license plate for beer or chili, to while away the hours during the Depression. It has had its intolerant days, but has slowly grown relaxed while keeping its comfortable "beat poet and rock star roadhouse" demeanor.
The menu is a stiff, crinkly newsprint affair, and you'll need a few visits to get through it. The Southwest Spicy Black Bean Burger, with provolone on a soft powdery bun, is slightly dry but a textural powerhouse. The quesadillas have a lovely meltonomy to them without the cheese being stringy or mouth-scarring. The fries are thick, skin-on, heat-retaining planks; Cajun spice can be added, or rather caked on (Bianca, coughing: "I don't know if I should eat it or snort it").
Barney's fame also derives from its chili, a finely ground, utilitarian meat chili with a nod towards heat, perfect for crowning dogs and burgers, dipping fries into, or just eating as is. I like it even as a breakfast item, notably the vision-inducing Huevos con Chili, which features a sea of the spicy stuff on top of three eggs, surrounded by rice and beans.
The Beanery is open until two in the morning. Parking is valet. A hot muscle car--Mustang, Chevelle, etc.--seems always to be oozing sex in the front of the lot.
* inside a few square inches on my side of the table: Easy Rider, Alice Cooper, Jane Fonda's arrest photo, David Bowie, two Marilyn Monroes, Ozzy, KISS, Got BEER?, Lenny Kravitz, Blue Velvet, The Doors circa Morrison Hotel, Shaggy & Scooby, David Lee Roth, Georg and Yortuk Festrunk (look them up), and about three dozen others I missed.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Hollywood, Diner, American, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra, Santa Monica/Culver City, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs, Late Night/24 Hours )
You'll walk by a window showing busy people making sausage, pressing dough, chopping vegetables, and other kitcheny pursuits before you even walk in the door, so your appetite is already clamoring for attention. Porta Via is a local favorite, with every needful thing for a lunch, a catered party, or, if you're like we are, evenings spent watching movies on the grass in a cemetery.
The deli counter is a big L-shaped presence along two walls; the rest of the space is populated by shelves of foodstuffs and condiments for them. Wander around with eyes searching the menus until you figure out your life, then order one of their sandwiches or salads.
The house-made turkey meatball with provolone, for instance. You'll be compelled to flip it upside-down in order to eat it without imperiling your shirt, but the meatballs are toothsome and the marinara tasty. The Toscano-grilled chicken panini, with provolone, baby greens, pesto and balsamic vinaigrette, is thin (well, duh, it's a panini) but packed with intensity. The Autostrada is mortadella, prosciutto, soppresatta, coppa, provolone, and pepperoncini, all those "this is a pile of cured meat and cheese and that's all you need to know" words that make an Italian sandwich godlike.
The counter has a number of nifty pasta salads to accompany your sandwich, but being concerned with quality over quantity, they won't pile that much onto your plate.
The parking lot is large but shared by everyone in this corporate lot, including the popular Los Tacos spot next door. Across the parking lot is an expensive but brutally awesome antique shop. Go there if you like iron candle holders and torch sconces, and heavy rustic furniture.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Italian, Deli, Bakery/Patisserie, American, Coffee/Tea/Desserts, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra )