When I have not been eating for work in the last few months, or making sorrel and knobby fingerling potatoes into healthful soups that my 11-year-old refuses to eat, I have been spending a lot of time at Tonny’s, a small Mexican café in a stretch of north Pasadena dominated by auto-parts stores and outlets of every fast-food chain on earth. This part of Pasadena has never been short of Mexican restaurants, especially if your definition of Mexican restaurant is broad enough to include joints that just happen to serve pupusas and stuffed pacaya blossoms alongside their enchilada plates and No. 2 dinners. But Tonny’s, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, has almost everything you could wish for in a neighborhood Mexican restaurant — except for beer. A frosty Bohemia would be nice.
The tortillas are thick and handmade, with that tiny, bagel-esque bit of surface leatheriness and dense corn flavor that make you wonder why you ever bother with the packaged stuff. The bright-orange Mexican rice is full of brothy flavor, and the slurrylike refried beans have a pleasingly stiff consistency, especially when the weekend-morning cook is behind the stove. The drink menu, although alcohol-free, includes frosty licuados, fruit shakes made with melon, strawberries or mangoes, as well as huge, foaming glasses of fresh carrot-beet juice and the mixed-fruit tonics sometimes known as bionicos, which are as useful as hangover soothersas they are as desserts. (Tonny’s menudo, which distinctly belongs to the strong, barnyard school of menudo, is probably a decent hangover tonic too, but I couldn’t manage to eat enough of it to be sure, even after dosingit with oregano, lime and coruscating spoonfuls of smoky red salsa.)
At breakfast, there are lines out the door for the huevos rancheros, the fried plantains with beans and Mexican crema, and for the chilaquiles, lightly fried tortillas sautéed with onions and the restaurant’s green or red salsa.
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Tonny’s serves what may be my favorite chile verde in town at the moment, a vastplate of fried pork simmered in a powerfully tart green puree; a decent plate of chile colorado; a respectable version of the goat-meat stew birria; and a formidable, peppery fried-catfish plate. The pork ribs, costillas, sautéed in that same green sauce may be even better — slightly fatty, slightly rubbery but extremely tasty, like little hand grenades of pure pig flavor.
Still, Tonny’s is more of a loncheria, a lunch-counter-slash-café, than it is a formal restaurant or a taqueria. Tacos are generously filled with meat, fried fish or shrimp but tend to lack the toasty, irresistible immediacy of the best taco-truck creations. The carne asada is passably homestyle, the pork al pastor, probably too homemade-tasting for its own good. The ceviches of shrimp and octopus are serviceable.
But there are lots of places to get tacos. Nature has rarely created anything so poetic as a good California carnitas plate, that superheated oval of sautéed pork, a liquid gauze of cheese melting into the refried beans, the starchiness of the rice set to conquer the slightly crisped richness of the meat, a small, saladlike garnish — diced tomatoes, onions, fresh hot chiles — sufficient to flavor the whole. Tonny’s carnitas may not be the best I have ever tasted (that would be at Carnitas Uruapan near the racetrack in Tijuana), or even tasted in Pasadena (a meat market just a few blocks away used to serve a profoundly funky version before it was swept away for a mailing center). If I am pushed, I will admit a slight preference for the carnitas tacos at Denise’s Antojitos in East Los Angeles. But the carnitas plate at Tonny’s is an integrated, beautiful, intensely porky thing, served with those hot, freshly made corn tortillas, seasoned judiciously with salt and lime juice, sluiced, if you like it that way, with Tonny’s intense, brick-red salsa and sprinkled with chopped hot chiles, a composition that some would call genius. I prefer to call it lunch.
843 E. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 797-0866. Open 24 hours daily. MC, V. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12-$20. Recommended dishes: licuados, chilaquiles, costillas en salsa verde, carnitas.