Beyond Coffee and Cigarettes

Photo by Anne Fishbein

In Mexican cities, every neighborhood worth its frijoles has at least one cafeteria — basically a café. A cafeteria is a multifunctional institution, open from morning until late at night, serving café con leche and espresso, baked goods and fresh juices, a few different kinds of beer, and snacks that may range from sandwiches to cocido, tacos to huaraches. A good cafeteria tends to be the hub of its neighborhood, a place to stop by for a cup of chocolate in the morning or a quick bite after school. Cafeterias are rarely destinations in themselves — you’d never make a point of visiting one across town. But a great cafeteria can seem as essential to a Mexican city as working telephones or a bus system, an expression of urban purpose described through the media of leisure time, sweet rolls and caffeine.

Hard by the cranes and dump trucks of Pasadena’s redeveloping central core, close enough to the Gold Line tracks to register every rumble and clang, the Mexican bakery Doña Rosa at first glance may seem like the furthest thing from a beloved neighborhood institution. The two-story Mission-style structure, built to blend in with the nearby neo-Spanish relics from Pasadena’s 1920s, is still too new to feel lived in — from the street, it resembles a million-dollar tract home in a gated development. The owners, from the family that runs the El Cholo restaurants, clearly have world domination in mind: The computerized ordering system, the superb menu graphics and the surfeit of professional managers point to a café practically built to be franchised. A local hangout is supposed to be the kind of place where the guys behind the counter know you by name, not by the sobriquet “Number 17 To Go.”

But at lunchtime, Doña Rosa may be the most democratic place in Pasadena, filled with Caltech students, doctors from the nearby hospital and uniformed cops, guys who roll up in BMWs and guys who roll up in primer-colored pickup trucks, taco-eating guys who look like Donald Rumsfeld and beet-and-carrot-juice-swigging guys who look like Donald Rumsfeld’s personal trainer.

Behind one counter are racks and racks of freshly baked pan dulce, the pink-frosted conchas, the gingery puercitos and the crunchy, sugar-glazed orejas that make up the morning-bread repertory of the Mexican baker. Near another is a sort of superheated turntable on which lumps of dough bubble and bake into fresh tortillas. Taquitos fry. Shrimp steam. Thick chocolate burbles happily in a heated vat. The air outside is perfumed with the smoke from grilling carne asada, which is chopped and folded into tacos, stuffed into gorditas, or layered onto huaraches with great rivulets of Mexican crema and cheese.

You will find decent tortas — baroquely garnished sandwiches of chicken, soft carnitas, or fried steak milanesa, among other things, on the bakery’s own bolillo rolls — and any number of shaped masa platforms (sopes, huaraches, gorditas) piled or stuffed with lettuce, crema and meat. The Doña Rosa burrito is a majestic creature, a stretchy tortilla stuffed with rice, black beans, avocado and an oozing, orange mass of beef fried in chorizo grease; the sort of burrito that will coat your teeth for a week and live in your insides like a frisky pet.

Doña Rosa probably feels the most like a cafeteria in the mornings, when you can sit for hours over your chocolate or cinnamon-spiced café de olla, reading the papers and contemplating the richness of the Central American–style pound cake called

quesadilla. Molletes are standard Mexican breakfast items fairly hard to find in Los Angeles, and Doña Rosa does good ones: bean-smeared bolillo rolls sprinkled with cheese and toasted until the edges blacken and crisp, then moistened with juicy tomato salsa. There are eggs scrambled with spicy chorizo, and eggs rolled into burritos, and a fresh-fruit salad ready to be dosed with chile and lime.

El Gallo Giro in Huntington Park may be a little like this, a self-contained Mexican food court combining the functions of a juice bar, a taquería, a sandwich shop and a dessert parlor under one roof; and the food is probably better, or at least more sharply flavored. Certain restaurants in East Los Angeles, like Ciro’s or the superb Tamales Lilianas, are defter with the antojitos. But Doña Rosa is a different thing, a shotgun marriage of California Fresh-Mex cooking with the chaotic vitality of the Eastside mega-taquería, and the style is fairly appealing in its own right.

Doña Rosa, 577 S. Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena, (626) 449-2999; Open daily 6 a.m.–midnight. Wine, beer and margaritas. Takeout. Lots parking. AE, MC, V. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10–$15.

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