By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
If the opening of Agnes Restaurant & Cheesery was long anticipated by anyone, it was the owners and operators themselves, Thomas and Vanessa Tilaka Kalb.
It was over four years ago when they discovered the historic space on Green Street, where Agnes just opened. In the meantime, they kept their plans relatively quiet. It has only been in the last month or so that locals became aware of the impending opening of the new eatery. Fortuitously, Agnes arrives on a tide of popular interest in the Pasadena dining scene and is quickly proving itself as a worthy new neighbor in town.
Pasadena was founded by Midwesterners. Deciduous trees, planed by founding families from Ohio, Illinois and Iowa, pepper the area.
The executive chef at Agnes, Thomas was born in Iowa City and moved to Cedar Rapids to attend high school. After taking a year off, he enrolled in the well-regarded culinary program at nearby Kirkwood Community College.
“I got a great education for $10,000,” Thomas said. “I paid as I (went and graduated) at 21 without any debt. It felt pretty good. It still does actually.”
His Midwestern background and sensibility is very much at the new restaurant’s heart and spirit.
“Everyone talks about southern hospitality, I wanted to bring up Midwestern hospitality,” Thomas explained.
Agnes’s general manager is Kyrsten Salazar, a certified nutritionist and life coach.
Vanessa is credited as “head cheese” at Agnes. Indeed, she is the cheese monger responsible for the carefully curated cheeses available from the menu and in the buzzing market.
“She’s in charge. She’s the boss,” Thomas said.
Vanessa grew up in nearby Montebello, where her parents still live in her childhood home.
“My dad’s family had restaurants in Thailand, in Bangkok,” Vanessa said. “I remember hearing stories of my dad growing up in the restaurants. My dad came here in the ’70s, went to school and he and his brothers opened up Bangkok Market on Melrose. So, I grew up in that grocery store.”
After studying business management at Cal State University, Los Angeles and working briefly in human resources, Vanessa opted for the full culinary program at The Art Institute of California in Orange County.
“I decided to go to culinary school against my parents’ wishes. I should have been a doctor or a lawyer,” she said.
The couple met seven years ago in San Francisco, where they were working at the popular Flour + Water. Thomas oversaw the pasta station, and trained Vanessa at his station before departing on a month-long motorcycle trip. “After I got back from that month-long sabbatical, she was my boss. She’s been my boss ever since. I like to say I trained her really well,” Thomas noted with a smile.
Three years later, the couple married in LA. “I just loved coming down here more and more,” Thomas said.
“Also, it was getting too expensive (in San Francisco),” Vanessa recalled. “We were at a point in our lives wondering what we were going to do next. One trip down, we were telling my parents we were considering moving again. My parents said, ‘You should move back home.’”
They signed off on their wedding venue and had extra time in the afternoon when they were introduced to the former fire station horse stable on Green Street, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983.
A former colleague of Vanessa’s discussed the idea of opening a restaurant with the couple and discovered the space, formerly occupied by and outfitted as a recording studio.
Finally, construction on the build-out for the venture began in January of last year, then the pandemic happened in March.
“About April, things got crazy,” Thomas said. “Eight construction workers got COVID, and we just halted construction. As we were learning about the pandemic, we (told) our general contractor to stop, to erase the schedule.”
The couple worked closely with architect Oonagh Ryan of ORA, who was also responsible for the elegant buildout of Auburn on South Lake.
“She became our life coach,” Thomas said. “We got really lucky in meeting Tom Courtney, our general contractor. We had the best team in town in putting this all together.”
Best known locally as a luxury home builder, it was the first restaurant build-out for Courtney Construction.
“We wanted it to feel like a home, coming home to grandma’s was always the whole idea,” Thomas said.
Agnes is the name of Thomas’ maternal grandmother. It’s a recurrent theme here.
“You show up to grandma’s house, you come home and there’s a buffet of food for you,” Thomas explained. “It’s the love language. Vanessa and I, even though there’s a cultural difference between our families, there’s always that love language of food. There’s always that ‘Have you eaten yet?’ Just a way of showing affection. So that’s where it really started.
“It’s regional American cooking, with an emphasis in the Midwest. It’s supposed to evoke comfort, nostalgia, thoughtfulness and that feeling of being taken care of. We wanted to take our culinary expertise, our degrees and our skills and apply it to that type of food.”
Menu highlights include a luscious cornbread éclair ($5.95) with chicken liver mousse and black cherries listed under “Snackadoos;” California cheese curds with a buttermilk ranch dressing ($9.99); pineapple-glazed meatballs ($21.99) are served with a poblano chow chow relish and grilled flatbread; the loaded baked potato ravioli ($21.99) features crispy pancetta, broccoli relish, cheddar and crème fraiche with chives. Entrée highlights include crispy steelhead trout ($28.99) and barbecued beef cheeks ($32.99).
Vanessa curates a selection of 10 “dessert cheeses” ($7.99 each) grouped under the headings “soft and creamy,” “bold and funky,” “sweet and salty” and “lovely blues.” Pastry chef Vivian Penaloza concocted three dessert options ($10.99 each) including an impressive s’mores cocoa taco.
Beverage director and sommelier Liz Kelso manages a limited, accessible list of wines by the glass and bottle, draft and bottled beer, in addition to artisanal cocktails including the Tournament of Roses ($14) with Aperol, prosecco and fresh watermelon, as well as the Crown City ($15) with Buffalo Trace bourbon, Maple Giffard Peche, ginger and lemon.
There’s also a kid’s menu that comes with a box of crayons. “We’re a family restaurant in every sense of the word,” Thomas said. “We serve family-style. We’re family owned and operated. We’re family-friendly.”
Ultimately, a humble Midwestern lack of pretension prevails here.
“It’s not art at the end of the day. I’m not an artist. I’m a curator of delicious storytelling. We’re telling those stories and paying homage to family through our offerings,” Thomas mused.
“We’re excited to be here,” Vanessa added. “I grew up shopping on Colorado. We want people to come to Pasadena to see what we have.”
The couple lives a block away in Old Town and can be spotted walking their rescue dog, Clementine, in the neighborhood.
“Pasadena has been so welcoming,” Thomas said. “The community is awesome. We’re super lucky.”