Located about 11 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena has a reputation in California for cultural elegance and culinary conservatism. Travelers come for the upscale boutiques in compact, metro-accessible Old Pasadena; the city’s oak-lined boulevards and Arts and Crafts-period bungalows; and institutions such as the Norton Simon Museum, the Gamble House, and the Huntington Library in neighboring San Marino. They don’t usually factor Pasadena’s food into their plans, which is a shame, because the second-oldest city in L.A. County has more to offer than historic hauteur. Consider the following: a famed diner, a spot for Indonesian small plates and noodle soup, and a quintessentially Californian restaurant featuring seasonal produce and pasta.
In addition to its more manicured attractions, Pasadena boasts a lot of good ol’ Americana. Pull off what was historic Route 66 to visit
Lucky Boy (www.luckyboyburgers.com, 626-793-0120, 640 S. Arroyo Pkwy.), a simple roadside diner that dishes out chili cheese fries, burgers and sandwiches. But any time between the restaurant’s hours (6 a.m. to 2 a.m.), you’ll find a scrum of the hung over and the hungry, sometimes both simultaneously, vying for the same thing — the legendary breakfast burrito ($7.30). It’s a mighty zeppelin of char and chew, full of home fries, breakfast meat (crispy fried bacon is particularly good, or chorizo, if it hasn’t run out), shredded cheddar and sheets of scrambled egg, all swaddled in a tortilla. (It’s possible to customize it — hold the meat, for example, or add avocado.) The thing feels like it weighs a few pounds and it retains heat for about an hour, if you can wait to eat it. Slather on the rust-red salsa for a little acid-and-chile buzz and tuck in, but don’t eat the whole thing or you’ll wind up back in bed, rolled up in the sheets — yourself a sleepy burrito.
Bone Kettle (bonekettle.com, 626-795-5702, 67 N. Raymond Ave) is a recent, welcome addition to Old Pasadena. Indonesian American chef Erwin Tjahyadi combines Southeast Asian influences with fine-dining chops from attending Pasadena’s Le Cordon Bleu and working at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. The menu offers something for everyone — zesty appetizers to share; complete “rice plate” lunches; and noodle soups built around the restaurant’s bone broths, simmered for 36 hours and poured while steaming hot over springy ramen noodles. The striking mural by L.A. artist Cleon Peterson — which depicts small-headed, big-bodied figures locked in primordial struggle — seems an appropriate complement to the silken, richly animal soup. Broths ($13 and up) are crowned with your pick of protein right in the bowl, save for the braised oxtails ($22), which are beautifully browned and served on the side, ideal for gnawing. Rice plates ($13 to $15) cover the range of salty, sweet, bitter, spicy and sour with your choice of meats or tempeh, poached egg, sweet chile-roasted corn, cucumber tomato salad, mushrooms and a delicious tangle of greens, all served around white rice. If you have room for dessert, order the dayglow trio of crème brûlée ($11), with custards inflected with sweet pandan leaf, durian and ube (purple yam).
Just around the corner from Bone Kettle, Union (unionpasadena.com, 626-795-5841, 37 E. Union St.) is a Cal-Italian temple to Alice Waters, goddess of the farm-to-table movement. Many small plates showcase top-notch ingredients in artfully “simple” preparations — a beautiful little melon salad ($17), or good butter, better bread and the best: a jar of giardiniera pickles ($11), spiced up with a touch of serrano chiles. The wild mushrooms ($22) are a must-order — the fungi sing with woodsy richness atop polenta ground at local mill Grist & Toll. Pastas are uniformly fine — toothy dumpling of gnocchetti sardi warmed with saffron ($26), or plump pouches of agnolotti ($26) folded over whipped burrata and served with the sweetest late-summer tomatoes imaginable. Reservations are a must, and do your best to book early to avoid the inevitable crowds and noise — and to give yourself a fighting chance at nabbing an order of porchetta ($38). The round of loin wrapped in pork belly and bronzed crackling is as fabulous as it is limited in quantity every night. Finish off your meal with the lush olive oil cake, or the budino with pleasing little pops of cacao nibs (each $10).
Thrupkaew is a writer based in Los Angeles.
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