Ración is a secret-handshake kind of restaurant. You'll find it by ducking through an unobtrusive doorway (a small sign, maybe a chalkboard sandwich board) on quiet, tree-lined, one-way Green Street, just south of Colorado Boulevard and a block from Pasadena's main shopping thoroughfare. It's a place you'd be lucky to come across by accident, an unlikely oasis. It's also one of Southern California's surprisingly few high-end Spanish restaurants, where for the last two years two women have been creating some of the best food in Los Angeles.
How co-owners Teresa Montaño and Loretta Peng — Ración's executive chef and general manager, respectively — came to open a Basque restaurant in Old Town Pasadena is just as unlikely a story as the fact of the restaurant itself.
Montaño, a 32-year-old Albuquerque native, originally came to L.A. to play soccer for Pepperdine. Peng, now 34, grew up in nearby San Marino and graduated from UCLA before heading to NYU to get her Ph.D. in American literature.
Yet a decade or so after Montaño was blocking shots on goal in Malibu and Peng was writing about Marxist interpretations of slave narratives in Greenwich Village, they're serving plates of perfectly charred octopus and ethereal salt-cod fritters in a 55-seat restaurant, which feels a whole lot more like it belongs in San Sebastián than in the home of the Rose Parade.
Before the story, the restaurant itself — because it's best to see the place and order the food before marching into anybody's professional kitchen.
Walk through the doors and you'll find a small dining room that runs lengthwise and a six-seat zinc bar, also lengthwise, just beyond the front entrance. Small wooden tables. A long banquette. Bottles of Spanish wine are racked near the bar, which houses a well-used espresso machine. A few black-and-white photos by a local artist hang on the pale gray walls. If daytime, light filters down from a skylight. If night, candles throw shadows like backdrop scenery.
Even when the place is crowded, there's a kind of serenity to the room that comes from excellent design and lack of clutter. (Ana Henton designed the space, previously home to the Michelin-starred Tre Venezie, which served very good, albeit old-fashioned, Italian cuisine in a setting oddly reminiscent of a bed-and-breakfast. Lots of clutter.) That kind of precision is evident on each of the small and not-so-small plates that inspired the restaurant's name.
In Spain, "raciones" are the larger portions on a menu, rather than the smaller snacks of tapas and pintxos. "We chose the name because we didn't want to be labeled a tapas restaurant," Peng says, not without irony — the menu has many smaller plates, maybe because people really do enjoy sharing Montaño's dishes of earthy braised beef tongue, the platters of house-cured lamb loin and duck pâté spread over a torn slice of Peng's fantastic country white bread (Peng is also the pastry chef). Or maybe because there's something about a smaller canvas that lends itself to the kind of exactitude with which Montaño cooks.
Whatever the recent trend toward Spanish cooking, in L.A. there are very few Spanish restaurants, and maybe only three ambitious ones: this small room in Pasadena, Joe Miller's Bar Pintxo and José Andrés' funhouse of a restaurant, the Bazaar. But Racion's Spanish bloodlines are less about paella ("No paella," both women say firmly when asked) or even the personal background of its chefs (neither Montaño nor Peng has spent more than a few weeks in Basque country) than their ambitions.
Chefs in Spain are "turning fine dining on its head, and laughing at its process," Peng says one afternoon as she pulls an espresso from behind the bar, "which might be the answer for L.A. as well." She and Montaño think a lot about possible answers and the questions that more often precede them — what they're doing and why, in a tiny restaurant under the looming San Gabriels, in a town that has a somewhat passive-aggressive relationship to fine dining.
As is fitting for a contemporary Los Angeles culinary story, Montaño and Peng met at a food truck.
While still at Pepperdine, Montaño had started working at Vital Zuman Ranch, an organic farm on Pacific Coast Highway, where she "harvested figs and ate cherry tomatoes all day on a bluff in Malibu." After attending culinary school and working for Tender Greens, where she helped open its first restaurant, in Culver City, she went to work for Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, the Border Grill chefs whose influential career in L.A. has spanned decades. Montaño had cooked at both Ciudad and the Santa Monica Border Grill when Milliken and Feniger asked her to help them launch the first Border Grill truck.
Peng, meanwhile, had started working in restaurants in New York, ultimately dropping out of her Ph.D. program to work at Bouley, David Bouley's French restaurant in Tribeca. She didn't even own a set of chef's knives, instead wrapping her sister's serrated steak knives in a kitchen towel for her first day. After about a year, working up from garde manger to fish cook, Peng came back to her native L.A. to get into restaurant management, opening new locations for Le Pain Quotidien, then also working at Border Grill briefly before returning to New York to get a business degree from Columbia. She graduated in 2009, "the worst time ever to graduate from business school."
Then back to L.A. and back to Border Grill, where Peng and Montaño found themselves working for Milliken and Feniger, launching the first Border Grill truck.
"The first day we worked together, I tried to get her fired," Montaño says, although neither will say exactly why.
So began a partnership both personal and professional, one that led the couple back and forth across the country a few more times: After working on the truck project, they went back to New York to work with Colors, a worker-owned restaurant in New York City run by nonprofit organization ROC. In 2011, they returned to Los Angeles with the dream of opening their own place.
There are myriad ways to go about opening a restaurant, most of them wrong, considering how many restaurants never open, much less survive their first six months.
Back in L.A. with her Columbia MBA, "I was unemployed for a year," Peng says. "So I just scoured LoopNet," looking for real estate listings. As they searched for locations, Peng and Montaño started a blog, Lolo and Tere, to document the process (fun with CRA loans, R&D in Spain). "When I found out that Jonathan Gold was reading it, I stopped. We thought it was just our moms."
Ración has been open for almost exactly two years now, and one of the many ironies of the restaurant is how utterly far away it is from the ephemeral clatter of food trucks. There is a discipline and an understatement to both design and food that's highly sophisticated. It's fine dining, but without the self-importance that often comes with it. A quiet server. A perfect napkin.
And Montaño's cooking has evolved along with the pair's San Sebastián dreams. Her food is neither strictly Spanish nor Californian but somewhere in between, shot through with French technique and memories of those figs pulled from a tree overlooking the Pacific.
There are chicken croquetas on an undoubtedly small plate and ribbons of silky jamón ibérico and wedges of salty Idiazabal, all nods to the Spanish tradition. But then there's a stunning plate of perfectly cooked squashes, a jigsaw puzzle built from a farmer's garden fitted together over sauces (chanterelles, pepitas) made and painted like nothing you'd see in any normal tapas joint. And a wedge of John Dory, also perfectly cooked, alongside smoked wild mushrooms and figs, the smooth sauce of sunchokes a subtly worked juxtaposition.
These are the dishes that work like passwords, that make you pause over the bare wood table, the pale walls seeming to glow, the street outside quiet, and wonder how you got here. Pause long enough, and either Montaño or Peng probably will walk out from their small kitchen to hand you another dish, your entrance into their restaurant's beautiful secret-handshake society.