Somehow, the developers of Pasadena‘s new Paseo Colorado have persuaded quite a few respectable restaurateurs to open new restaurants in this vast, confusingly laid-out, multitiered mall. Haven’t those restaurateurs heard how hard Pasadena is on restaurants, especially good restaurants? (Mediocre restaurants have always had a much better time of it there.)
Among those persuaded were Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, the Too Hot Tamales of radio and television fame. They have graced the City of Roses with a Border Grill of its own — a Border Grill with a good view of the San Gabriel Mountains, two patios and an exuberantly designed dining room. So far, the Tamales‘ gamble has beaten the Pasadena odds: This Border Grill is already the busiest yet, its diners outnumbering those in both the Santa Monica and Las Vegas branches.
Milliken’s husband and in-house designer and architect, Josh Schweitzer is responsible for the L-shaped eating hall, with its dark golds and terra-cotta tones, boxy brown tables and chairs, and fanciful box-shaped hanging lights. (Those tables, with knee-knocking skirts and easily chipped paint, are being reworked.) The murals, by a pair of London artists, depict bullfighters in a playful, loose style vaguely reminiscent of Picasso at his most antic.
The menu is so appealing, one is tempted to go overboard ordering — but let me make it easier for you. The appetizers and smaller dishes (bocaditos, or little bites, salads and ceviches) pack a lot more punch than most of the entrees, with one glorious exception. So go ahead, order an array of starters, and split an entree.
The tortilla soup, with strips of silken avocado, is tart with lime and smoky from roasted tomatoes and chipotle chiles — it‘s the perfect elixir for these chilly nights. Have it with the fresh, made-to-order guacamole, and there’s dinner.
I‘ve never been a big fan of the plump, husk-wrapped green-corn tamales — too sweet, too bland — but I’m a minority, as they fly out of the kitchen in droves. Also savory-sweet, but with more kick, are the sticky, caramelized plantains stuffed with black beans and white fresh cotija cheese — add a dollop of diablo, and all of your taste buds are at full attention. A chicken mole quesadilla made with long-roasted chicken, intense black mole and a sharp Spanish manchego cheese tastes like none of the aforementioned ingredients, but rather like the most meaty, intense, long-cooked, delicious pot roast ever to be griddled between tortillas — it‘s a marvelous, surprising dish, the biggest hit at our table. (In comparison, the beef-brisket taquitos, while pretty good, pale in sheer meatiness.)
Ceviches, raw fish ”cooked“ or brined in citrus, strike clean, fresh notes. There’s a classic rock shrimp brined in lime with onions, chile and cilantro. Albacore, also lime-soaked, with ginger, olive oil and yellow peppers from Peru, has an alluring astringency; it clears the mind. Calamari and crab, soaked in coconut milk and lime juice with red onion and cilantro, is richer, more full-bodied, but no less refreshing. Black-cod ceviche is actually prepared with smoked fish, and comes with baby potatoes, olives, tomato, onion and fresh oregano — it‘s a more Mediterranean-Latino dish.
My favorite Border Grill salads share the ceviches’ bright, quenching, citrus-spiked virtues — in particular, the peppery watercress with crunchy jicama and orange; the Mexican chopped salad with its scorched corn kernels, tomatoes, avocado, plump pinto beans and juicy, big-flavored cumin vinaigrette; and a paradigmatic caesar. The grilled-pear and endive salad is big-flavored, but with smoother tones — pistachios, cabrales cheese, a sweet ‘n’ smoky vinaigrette.
So what happens with all these sharp, fresh, deep, smooth, refreshing flavors when it comes to the so-called platos especiales? Herein lies a mystery. In entree after entree, the predominating impression is big ‘n’ bland. Chicken chilaquiles, described on the menu as a Mexican-style casserole, is like my spice-phobic Midwestern cousin‘s gloppy tamale pie: a mountain of cheesy mush. The Yucatan specialty cochinita pibil is long-marinated pork slow-braised in a banana leaf — but it would seem that in all that lengthy preparation, the flavors have leached out. A salmon special of the day is muddy and overcooked — no sauce could save it. The only entree everyone unabashedly loved — the only entree we’d all return for (stampede might be the better verb) — is the Border Grill‘s long-famous, much-beloved grilled skirt steak, a profoundly flavored piece of meat that’s been marinated until tender in lime and garlic. It‘s served with charred corn relish, black beans and avocado-tomato salad. Glory.
For dessert, we want everything. So we get half-servings of four different items (such an option exists on the menu): the tres leches, cakes soaked with milks and fruit purees; the redoubtable Aztec mocha cake, a flourless deep-chocolate cake with creme fraiche topping; smooth, cool espresso flan; and a slice of passion-fruit tart, which looks like a lemon tart, but has that fruit’s distinctive tropical perfume.
260 E. Colorado Blvd. (in the Paseo Colorado), Pasadena; (626) 844-8988. Full bar. Validated parking in underground lot. Entrees $13-$26. All major credit cards.