There are many significant reasons to live in South Pasadena: It's beautiful, with wide, tree-lined streets and great views of the mountains; it's safe (the South Pasadena Review's Crime Summary is more slapstick than disturbing); the schools are outstanding; and the Thursday evening farmers market is great. But there aren't nearly as many reasons for a non-resident to visit South Pas.
There's only one bar and a handful of restaurants (some of which are actually quite good), the Rialto Theatre has been shuttered for years, and the South Pas Blockbuster Video, one of the very last of its kind, is finally dead (though the wonderful Vidéothèque remains). In fact, South Pasadena is so overshadowed by its glitzier neighbor to the north, Pasadena - home of the Rose Bowl, the Norton Simon Museum and Old Town - that plenty of Angelenos don't even know it exists.
But we would like to submit one outstanding reason to spend an afternoon or four in South Pasadena - sandwiches. In just a few square blocks are five excellent sandwich shops, each with its own spin on the classic vehicle. We crawled through them all, putting down enough meats, cheeses and breads to ruin whatever fad diet we were on that day. What follows is our South Pasadena sandwich shop guide, listed alphabetically.
Fiore Market Cafe
From the street it's not immediately clear what they make, sell or do at Fiore Market Cafe, a little annex to the Fremont Centre Theatre hidden behind its own garden. The interior seems almost beside the point, too - a single long table and a counter for ordering, a few nice olive oils, some fancy vinegars and the like. No, it's clear that the centerpiece is really the collection of tables outside, the chance to bump into your neighbors and sit and talk a while, to take in some sun - other places in town make great sandwiches but none of the other sandwich spots fosters such conviviality.
In light of all that, it might not matter if the sandwiches weren't fantastic - but they are. Fiore Market makes complex and interesting sandwiches: roast chicken with walnut pesto and burrata, short rib with Asian slaw and chipotle mayo, tempeh BLT, and an ever-changing special seasonal sandwich. Like Union Bakery, Fiore uses excellent bread made in-house; but Fiore takes it one step further, growing a significant amount of vegetables right there in the garden. Depending on the day, week, or season, you may be both eating and sitting next to some spectacularly local produce, whether it's the arugula in the roast beef sandwich or the Swiss chard in your soup. 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena; (626) 441-2280.
Mix n' Munch
It sounds like a disjointed concept at first, a shop with an oddly placed apostrophe that specializes in build-your-own bowls of cereal and grilled cheese sandwiches. Walk in off of Mission Street, South Pasadena's adorable commercial center, doesn't make things much clearer. Mix n' Munch is strangely laid out, with the register at the far end of the counter and a scattering of seats in the main dining area. If you go at an off hour, it can feel as if you're in a sort of sad Baja Fresh, with one lonely guy slurping something out of a bowl in the corner. But if you go at the right time, the slightly problematic design is canceled out by gaggles of children and parents, people laughing and having fun.
At such times (and at other times, if you can look past the odd vibe), it's impossible to not be charmed by Mix n' Munch's funny concept and strange menu. The sandwiches on that menu all start out as grilled cheeses, then are enhanced with a wide variety of ingredients, from the relatively standard, such as Caprese or BLT, to the surprising, like an unusual but delicious Chinese BBQ pork with bright pink pickled onions, the perfect amount of bite to cut through the sandwich's richness. The unexpected combinations may be the most appealing, but they all work rather well, in a buttery and fun way. And if your savory sandwich wasn't heavy enough for you, there are always grilled dessert sandwiches to top it off. 1005 Mission St., South Pasadena; (626) 441-8808.
In The 40 Year Old Virgin, Steve Carell describes, in great and excruciating detail, an entire weekend spent in the pursuit and construction of an egg salad sandwich. It may take the ladies at Munch Company nearly that long to slather your bread with mayo and throw some ingredients on top, but when you're finally presented with your sandwich, you will forget completely about that wait. They don't make sandwiches with pork belly and sriracha aioli, and there isn't a duck skin cracklin to be found, but this is about as close as you can get to sandwich perfection.
Munch Company is on the cutting edge of simplicity, a sandwich and a sandwich shop that could have been lifted straight from a 1950s suburban manual about small-town bliss, with the mayo and the needlepoint to match. Your order has just lettuce, tomato, onion, meat and spread on a simple French roll or sliced white bread, but it is an absolutely ideal balance of flavors. No one aspect is subsumed by any other; everything is in harmony. There is just the right amount of turkey, the perfect hit of mayo, a little spark of onion, the proper bready foundation. It is so much more than the sum of its parts, and isn't that why we eat sandwiches in the first place? 1028 Mission St., South Pasadena; (626) 441-1036.
Nicole's Market & Café
No part of South Pasadena could honestly be confused with France, but if you were going to try your very hardest to pretend, your best bet would be at the corner of El Centro and Meridian Avenue. On the corner is Bistro de la Gare, a standard (though no less admirable for it) French bistro owned and operated by a genuine Frenchman, and just down the block are a dozen umbrellas stretched out over a long narrow swath of tables sitting in the space between the sidewalk and the street, right in front of Nicole's Market & Café. Sure, it's a rough approximation of France, but the intent is clear.
Inside, there are some items to take home, sausages, frozen ravioli, a scattering of cookbooks, and a nice selection of cheeses in a case near the register. The sandwich menu is a sort of French-Italian hybrid, with a Croque Monsieur and a Caprese, a pâté and a prosciutto di Parma, and many of them come with Continental flourishes such as European butter or fleur-de-sel. They sit on the simple side of things, but they're straightforward and well-made, with quality ingredients and focused flavors. Each sandwich has only a few substantial toppings, but that only enhances their charm - it's nice sometimes to be able to actually taste the olive oil on your sandwich, to notice the arugula, to appreciate the rosemary in your ciabatta. 921 Meridian Ave., South Pasadena; (626) 403-5751.
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Just like South Pas itself, if you weren't looking for Union Bakery, you might never know it was there. Its exterior is just one tiny door right on busy Fair Oaks Boulevard, and the interior isn't much bigger. What it lacks in size and flash, though, it makes up for with homey charm and outstanding sandwiches.
The bread is just as great as you might hope; it's a revelation, with a crumb so pillowy soft it's almost like your sandwich is enveloped in savory Peeps. The turkey is especially good, piled high and lubricated with a healthy dose of dill-infused mayonnaise. And if you come on the right day, one of the miniature strawberry-rhubarb pies is the perfect post-sandwich treat. 1138 Fair Oaks Ave., South Pasadena; (626) 403-1850.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Ben Mesirow rarely tweets, but you can find him @SemNeb if you're into that sort of thing.