The 10 Best Restaurants in Pasadena

Squid ink garganelli at Union
Squid ink garganelli at Union
Anne Fishbein

Pasadena is a unique combination of old-money and blue-collar sensibilities, full of tasteful institutions and down-home charm, with a whiff of stuffiness and a seedy side, too. It is a city in which debutantes are introduced at the Valley Hunt Club and grizzled regulars know to park behind the Colorado Bar so the cops don’t see them leave; where little blonde women clutch their pearls as they nibble on zucchini bread at Green Street and construction workers shout across the room as they crush pastrami sandwiches and chili cheese fries at the Hat.

The contrast can at times be startling, and there are restaurants that swing too far in either direction, but there is much to enjoy in Pasadena from both ends of the spectrum. The following 10 restaurants will keep you in your happy zone, whichever way your tastes run.

Plates and aguas frescas at El Metate
Plates and aguas frescas at El Metate
Ben Mesirow

El Metate

Somewhere inside every real Angeleno (and most fake Angelenos, too) is an innate affection for big-plate Mexican-American food. El Metate doesn’t exactly fit the archetype, but it follows similar lines. It is the kind of place where giant scoops of rice and refried beans form a goopy brown and yellow yin-yang that takes up half of your colossal plate, with a little dusting of cheese over the beans and a casual gesture at a salad stacked into one corner. The entrees at El Metate are hearty and often covered in sauce, whether it’s a burrito or tampiqueña or a heaping helping of carne asada and chorizo cooked together in their salsa molcajete. The menu is gigantic, offering mariscos and burritos and just about everything else, but your best bets are the daily specials, a rotating selection of dishes that come with one of their excellent aguas frescas. The chairs aren’t particularly comfortable, sometimes the TV is too loud and the lighting isn’t ideal, but that only adds to the charm – it feels a little like you’re eating in your grandmother’s living room, if your grandmother was Latina and made outstanding peanut salsa. 12 N. Mentor Ave.; (626) 229-0706, elmetate-cafe.com.

The Sandwich on the Grass
The Sandwich on the Grass
Ben Mesirow

Roma Market

At the northern end of Pasadena, right where Lake Street starts to ramp up its ascent into the San Gabriel Mountains, Roma Market crouches in an unassuming strip mall, unchanged for years save one recent tweak: Its sign has been rewritten to feature its now-famous creation, The Sandwich. Yes, that’s supposed to be both singular and definitive — there is only one sandwich. You walk into the little market, passing by produce and fresh pasta, aged vinegars and Italian sodas, and approach the deli counter. There, in his customary seat, is Rosario, venerable patriarch of the market, assembling a series of immaculate sandwiches. They are incredibly simple and damn near perfect, a purist’s dream of fine Italian cold cuts, cheese and a splash of good olive oil on a fresh roll. There is a magic to them, the final, unassailable proof that quality ingredients need neither overwrought themes nor heavy-handed aioli. 918 N. Lake Ave.; (626) 797-7748, romamarkets.com.

Pot pie and breakfast salad at Lincoln
Pot pie and breakfast salad at Lincoln
Ben Mesirow

Lincoln

Lincoln opened in northwest Pasadena in November 2014, but it already feels as if it's been there forever. That is in large part because it is just about the best possible version of a certain kind of Pasadena restaurant, the type of place that will draw trendy 20-somethings away from Silver Lake when just picturing the line at Sqirl is exhausting, where you can sit outside with your dog and a salad while the person next to you munches on sea-salt caramels and a pretzel dog. The restaurant is big and airy inside, decorated simply but tastefully. The menu is long and appealing, stretching from fun and thoughtful breakfast items to well-composed salads and sandwiches for lunch. There are several excellent versions of “things in a bowl,” and the candies and baked goods — owner Christine Moore also runs Little Flower Candy Co. — are beyond belief. 1992 Lincoln Ave.; (626) 765 -6746, lincolnpasadena.com.

Breakfast burrito with avocado
Breakfast burrito with avocado
Ben Mesirow

Lucky Boy

Breakfast burritos at Lucky Boy possess a legendary status among people who grew up in Pasadena and the vicinity — a 1:30 a.m. breakfast burrito is a foundational meal for Pasadena youths, their introduction to the pleasures of an after-hours gut bomb. The burrito is titanic, an industrial-sized shaft of eggs and bacon and potatoes and cheese and, if you ask for it, avocado (you should add avocado). It weighs as much as a newborn and commands as much attention. The ratios are miraculous, cheese coating the eggs and potatoes, big pockets of crunchy bacon and just the right smush of avocado. Dress it with their strangely brilliant muddy-brown salsa and dive in headfirst, damn the consequences. And if you come back on a weekend morning, you can watch Pasadena youths getting another formative introduction: hangovers, and how to cure them. 640 S. Arroyo Parkway; (626) 793-0120, luckyboyburgers.com.

The burger at Pie 'n Burger
The burger at Pie 'n Burger
Elina Shatkin

Pie 'n Burger

Walking into Pie 'n Burger feels a little like walking into a time machine. Everything from the signage to the long, low counter to the grill cook flipping burgers to the waitress in her white smock and little hat is on a Leave It to Beaver tip; the whole place feels like it should be in black-and-white. The food is old-school, too. There are the classically simple burgers, juicy and satisfying, smeared with Thousand Island and served on a thin, buttery bun. Breakfasts are great and greasy as well, such as the omelet with little cubes of ham and squares of American cheese cooked perfectly and accompanied by house-made salsa. And, lest you forget, there is always pie. 913 E. California Blvd.; (626) 795-1123, pienburger.com.

Shawarma and beef wraps at Mediterranean Cafe
Shawarma and beef wraps at Mediterranean Cafe
Ben Mesirow

Mediterranean Café

Lunchtime prospects along busy Lake Street, one of Pasadena’s main thoroughfares, can be a little bleak — strings of chain restaurants abutted by giant parking lots dominate the landscape, and places with a bit more character have found the neighborhood challenging. But not Mediterranean Café, the long-running shawarma spot at the southwestern edge of the vast parking-lot sea. It does a killer lunchtime business, cranking out excellent wraps and plates. The chicken shawarma is punchy and generously seasoned. It is perfect accompanied by garlic sauce and vegetables in a wrap, but good enough to work just as well on its own. The beef kebab is great, too: Tender and meaty chunks of beef and onions are snagged right off the grill. If you plan to speak to anyone important after your meal, you may want to go easy on that garlic sauce. 273 Shoppers Lane; (626) 793-8844, kokosmediterraneancafe.com.


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