A recap of a dining year for the books
By Frier McCollister

When I started writing about food for Pasadena Weekly last January, I was excited about what was to come with my neighborhood.    

Bustling dining rooms and counters with customers seated elbow-to-elbow yielded a cacophony of crowded cafeterias and cramped kitchens.

It’s all a lost world now.

As the pandemic loomed in late February and early March, I was dubious and in deep denial about the threat of an impending lockdown. I recall chatting with Elena Yi, the young Chinese owner of Me + Crepe on Green Street and expressing to her my sense that we were overreacting to the spreading virus. Her eyes widened at this and she quite emphatically insisted that from her family’s perspective in China, we were very much underreacting. A few days later, the state’s lockdown came, and all our lives changed.

Some restaurants quietly folded and vanished forever. Many operations shuttered indefinitely, later to reopen. The community witnessed the resilience and ingenuity of chefs and restaurateurs and their sequence of “pivots” to accommodate for the changing state mandates.

Instead of listing my favorite experiences, chefs, restaurants or dishes, I decided to break down the year into a few lists of “highlights.”

Local heroes

These operations and the folks behind them lend an air of hope, inspiration and direction for the coming year.

• Urban Homestead (Pasadena Weekly, April 22): This self-sustaining urban farm and its nonprofit teaching institute provide resources and models to all of us for the way forward. urbanhomestead.org

• Rosebud Café (Pasadena Weekly, April 8): This nonprofit café provides professional development for underserved youth and demonstrates the utility and efficacy of community cooperatives. rosebudcoffee.com

• Chef Onil Chibas (Pasadena Weekly, September 17): Our locally undersung, classically trained Black chef provides a collaborative venue for other local chefs and colleagues at Deluxe 1717. He’s a big part of the invisible community glue that holds us all together. chibasevents.com

• Chef Perry Bennett (Pasadena Weekly, June 18): This artisanal sandwich wizard behind Bennett’s Joint on Lincoln Avenue sponsors scholarships every year for deserving graduating seniors from John Muir High School. This year, his one-day fundraiser brought in over $15,000 for three lucky graduates. perrysjoint.com

• Rose Tree Cottage (Pasadena Weekly, December 10): For Mary and Edmund Fry their tea salon and British import emporium exists for one purpose: to support and sustain 800 underserved students in Kenya. rosetreeco.com

The few and the brave

These independent operators opened for business either immediately before the pandemic lockdown arrived or in the midst of the chaotic kaleidoscope of changing restrictions. Listed in roughly chronological order, they remain locked in a daily struggle for survival and deserve our attention and support.

• La Camarona (Pasadena Weekly, July 23): A Nayarit-style seafood buffet transformed for take-out. The ceviches and cocteles are bracingly fresh, spicy and authentic. 626-744-2777.

• Hummus Labs (Pasadena Weekly, June 25): Artisanal scratch-made hummus and kebobs from Joseph and Leal Badaro. hummus-labs.com

• Paper Rice (Pasadena Weekly, October 1): Customized Vietnamese spring rolls and banh mi are the tastiest (and healthiest) offering to be found on the burgeoning block of eateries on Union Street. paperrice.com

• Zephyr Café (Pasadena Weekly, October 28): Authentically delicious and unusual Lebanese and Syrian specialties brought to you with love, care and attention by Silva and Hovig Bilamjian. zephyrpasadena.com

• Noodle Street (Pasadena Weekly, November 19): Forced to attempt to open two locations within months this fall, the outlet at the Westfield Santa Anita in Arcadia holds steady, while the Pasadena opening on East Colorado Boulevard and South Raymond Avenue remains blocked by delays. noodlestreetusa.com

Local icons and dishes

These places remind us that there is a long and living culinary heritage here that can still be sampled and should be supported.

• Roma Market (Pasadena Weekly, May 20): Rosario Mazzeo’s “The Sandwich.” If there is anything more iconic to Pasadena dining than the sight of those pink-wrapped parcels and their delicious contents, please let us know! 626-797-7748.

• Twoheys (Pasadena Weekly, December 3): This local landmark recently reopened in South Pasadena. Since our last report, they initiated carhop service in their parking lot. The Stinko burger and hot fudge sundae remain as fixed stars in the local family dining firmament. twoheys.com

• Gourmet Cobbler Factory (Pasadena Weekly, June 30): Clifton and Gloria Powell have been conjuring the downhome magic of their fruit cobblers for years. And don’t forget about Clifton’s barbecue. cobblerfactorypasadena.com

• Shiro (Pasadena Weekly, December 17): The sizzling whole catfish with ponzu and cilantro here must be eaten to be believed and is simply a must-try before exiting this dimension. restaurantshiro.com

• Bulgarini’s (Pasadena Weekly, July 9): Leo Bulgarini’s fresh pistachio gelato exists as a platonic ideal of what gelato can be. That said, a scoop each of strawberry and mascarpone can be life-changing, too. And try the housemade pasta, if we can ever have lunch again. bulgarinigelato.com

Delicious discoveries

These are the dishes that simply surprised us and brought us back for more.

• Thirty-Two-style chicken at Rotisserie Chicken of California (Pasadena Weekly, November 25). 626-405-0365.

• The roast Peking duck jianbing at Me + Crepe (Pasadena Weekly, March 18). meandcrepela.com

• The guru sandwich at Perry’s Joint (Pasadena Weekly, June 18). perrysjoint.com

• The derby pie at Cindy’s Diner (Pasadena Weekly, March 26). cindyseaglerock.com

• The papdi chaat at Namaste Spiceland (PW 2/19). namastespiceland.site

The most profound discovery of the last year with all of its challenges and unsettling surprises was realizing the truly unique diversity and depth of Pasadena’s food culture and its compelling history.

At one time or another Pasadena has had three culinary schools. There’s a thriving ghost kitchen in Kitchen United and the primary restaurant supply wholesaler in Restaurant Depot. It’s the birthplace of Julia Child and was the home of the late critic Jonathon Gold.

There is a generational collision of cultural influences here that reflects greater Los Angeles and provides much of the foundational bedrock of a culinary and dining scene that rivals any city in the world.

Finally, it must be said: it’s worth fighting for the beleaguered local restaurants. Whatever one’s opinion may be regarding the ban on outdoor dining, no restaurant should be allowed to fail in the midst of it. In the coming year, let’s try to take care of each other. Stay hungry!