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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The popular and worthy All India Café is right across the street, but our preferences for subcontinental eating in Pasadena run a little northeast of India. Himalayan Café is a humble restaurant on the southern edge of Old Town, close enough to make parking a drag but far enough that you’re unlikely to be swarmed by shoppers. The restaurant itself is generally pretty quiet. The food, however, is anything but ordinary, from the thick-skinned and perfectly plump Himalayan dumplings called momo to the fabulous curries to the spiced meats that come sizzling out of the tandoori oven. Many of the dishes take the shape of more well-known Indian counterparts, but the flavors are distinctly different, earthy and warm and unusual in the best way. 36 S. Fair Oaks Ave.; (626) 564-1560, himalayancafe.net.
Old Town has rarely been the destination for the best cooking in Pasadena, and it isn’t hard to see why — rent is crazy high, and most of the traffic in the area is from casual shoppers looking for an easy stopover that won’t challenge the palate or the wallet. But over the last couple of years the scene has greatly improved, thanks in no small part to Union, Bruce Kalman’s home of pasta and pickles. The space is small and decorated with folksy, vegetable-focused sayings from Alice Waters and friends, the menu is interesting and hyper-seasonal, and it’s still one of the toughest reservations in the neighborhood. Pasadena needed a place like this, with staggeringly good cacio e pepe and a thunderous porchetta, where the bread comes with delicious giardiniera and the star dessert is olive oil cake. 37 E. Union St.; (626) 795-5841, unionpasadena.com.
Loretta Peng and Teresa Montaño’s ode to the Basque is as personal as a restaurant gets: It’s a passion project, radiating the warmth that only comes from a business powered by heart and soul. Ración’s modest but elegant dining room, tucked into a leafy block in Pasadena, is as unassuming as it is comfortable, but it’s the cooking that truly sets this place apart. Brilliant orange, citrus-cured salmon is draped across your plate, nestled against a creamy, thick sauce based on ajo blanco, the white Spanish soup made with crushed almonds and garlic. House-made squid-ink pasta, served with mussels and piquillo peppers and giving off the soft perfume of saffron, is impossibly light — a trick made all the more magical when it’s done with black pasta. This is food more influenced by the best of international fine dining than it is by the jumble of small plates seen everywhere these days. Unlike so many of the kale salads and bowls of blackened Brussels sprouts, which taste good but could be made by any of a thousand cooks, the food at Ración could only be here, in this place, from these people. —Besha Rodell
119 W. Green St.; (626) 396-3090, racionrestaurant.com.
If you’ve ever wanted to feel like a high-society lady (and let’s be real, who hasn’t?), then we’ve got one very simple answer for you — go have brunch at the Raymond. The restaurant is peak Pasadena, built into an old and beautiful Craftsman cottage rich with history, hidden down a long driveway just off Fair Oaks Avenue. As you walk up the brick-lined path and open the mostly unmarked front door, it’s easy to pretend you’re on your way to a boozy, book club brunch, or a sophisticated dinner party with some land barons. The food lives up to its environment, too, whether you're having an indulgent benedict at brunch, a fried chicken sandwich for lunch or a big, classic entree for dinner. Everything is prepared perfectly and presented beautifully, and perhaps best of all, the cocktails from the attached bar 1886 are truly phenomenal. 1250 S. Fair Oaks Ave.; (626) 441-3136, theraymond.com.