By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
Timing is everything. The original location of Amara Kitchen opened in Highland Park on a sleepy stretch of Avenue 64 in February 2013.
The small, sunny café decorated with inverted bouquets of colorful, dried flowers served a limited breakfast and lunch menu of health-minded, freshly crafted dishes, perhaps best typified by avocado toast and the ensuing local craze for it — at the time.
That same year, Highland Park was about to explode as LA’s mecca for upwardly mobile hipsters and their budding young families. Sometimes compared to New York City’s Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, Highland Park rather quickly transformed from a somnolent eastside backwater into a buzzing destination for aspirational creatives and their projects.
The Highland Park culinary scene continues to thrive as one of the most diverse and interesting in the city. Amara Kitchen was at the vanguard when it all started. In other words, it has been a very successful venture.
For those on the Arroyo’s eastside, that success in Highland Park allowed Amara Kitchen to open its second location in Altadena on April 29. “We’re just expanding the brand,” explained owner and chef Paola Guasp. Indeed, the menu in Altadena is largely identical to its big sister’s in Highland Park.
The timing was peculiar. Installed in a storefront that formerly housed a dry cleaner, on the charming one-block strip of East Mariposa Street, west of North Lake Avenue, Amara Kitchen’s intended Altadena opening was announced in fall 2019.
Anticipating a lengthy, full buildout of the kitchen space, the opening was anticipated for late fall 2020. Suffice to say, the ensuing pandemic lockdown was not factored into the calendar.
“It should have taken maybe a year, but took almost two years. Although the rent is reasonable and I’m not complaining, it was one step backward,” Guasp said.
The discovery of the new location was sparked by a move to Pasadena. “Honestly, my partner and I had recently bought a house (in northwest Pasadena) on Marengo and Washington. I was just driving around feeling inspired. I love Altadena. I saw that location and I just fell in love with it,” Guasp recalled.
It helped that the landlord was amenable. “The landlord, Joey Galloway, was so great and was super excited about the idea of getting a restaurant in and he was super easy to work with. We just clicked. The rest is history,” Guasp said.
While the buildout in Altadena paused with the pandemic, Guasp and her Highland Park staff made a hard pivot last March.
“We were able to transition from in-house to takeaway and an online store immediately within 24 hours,” Guasp reflected.
“We did everything we could. Keeping people employed felt super important to me. And not just my employees, because when you shut down a restaurant, you’re shutting down farmers, you’re shutting down the linen company, you’re shutting down the wholesalers. It felt important to me to not just quit and surrender. I wanted to put in the effort to make sure we stayed open, in a way that made everyone feel comfortable. It ended up working out really well.”
She also focused on the safety of her staff.
“At Highland Park, we never closed one day,” Guasp said. “Thank all the gods in the world that we didn’t have any of our staff get COVID. We never had to close. We did regular testing for all of my staff members. Nobody went two weeks without testing.”
With the pandemic clouds lifting, the prospect of resuming indoor seating represents another hard pivot. For the moment, both locations are remaining in takeout mode. As Guasp’s affably patient general manager in Altadena, Mclean Denny noted, “It’s a big transition back to seating. We don’t even have dishware yet.”
Still, the small skylit dining room in Altadena will likely welcome indoor diners before Highland Park resets. “In Highland Park, I mean I can’t even start to process the idea of shifting back (to indoor seating),” she said.
“I’m just going to get Altadena open, since that’s a new start. I’ll start doing dine-in there and then start thinking about the process of shifting Highland Park back.”
For Altadena, she just wanted to open the doors and let people know they’re there.
For lunch, the menu at Amara Kitchen in Altadena mirrors the Highland Park location. How would Guasp direct otherwise clueless Altadenans around the menu?
“I really love the bison ragu and that’s a recipe that I’ve been making since before Amara was even Amara,” Guasp said.
“We also make a homemade almond milk that’s just so special. I like so many things. We’re also known for our breakfast burrito.”
The bison ragu ($14.50) is the star of the show on the lunch menu. The bison is pasture-raised, grass fed and sourced from Marin Sun Farms. The ragu is served on quinoa or rice and topped with cilantro, pickled red onions and mixed greens.
Other options include the sweet potato quesadilla ($12.50), a brown rice tortilla stuffed with a chipotle sweet potato mash; and the HIHO falafel wrap ($13.50) with feta cheese, tomatoes, greens, cabbage, pickled red onion and Greek yogurt. The latter is inspired by the Palestinian-owned HIHO Market, next door to the Highland Park location.
Besides the popular breakfast burrito, morning options span everything from buckwheat pancakes ($12) served with whipped maple butter to “purple eggs” ($12) poached with beets and greens and served on potato patties.
Of course, there’s also the now-ubiquitous avocado toast ($8.50) served on housemade brown rice bread and topped with pesto, purple slaw and sesame seeds. Paleo, vegan and gluten-, dairy- and nut-free options are all marked with the requisite blur of acronyms and a key at the bottom of the menu.
Pro-tip? The chocolate chip cookie made from Guasp’s recipe is an underground legend.
It might also be noted, that with her partner Joey Boyd, Guasp also just opened the Ziv Sandwich shop, inside the Tropicana Market in Highland Park. “Ziv” is a Croatian word that means “to live lively.”
“That formerly opened April 1,” Guasp said. “My partner wanted a food project. So, the menu is his. I wanted to have more time between two openings, but it is what it is, and they’re both going.”
She said the namesake sandwich is “really good.”
Guasp turned philosophical.
“Health food has always been pitched to the wealthy,” Guasp said. “That’s changing, thank God. We try to give back to the community as much as possible, so that everybody feels that the food is accessible to them. That’s actually a big part of Amara — making sure we’re contributing, giving access and resources (to the community), not just to the hipsters with the money.”