It’s bad enough that the world is broken. Can I cut my hair yet? Yes, in fact last Monday I got my first haircut in seven long months. I managed to track down my long-time “stylist” Priscilla Ochoa at Coven Studios and we were finally and happily reunited. Now I can actually sit down (albeit outside) at a restaurant with a fresh haircut!
With COVID-19 cases now slowly declining in LA County, it all projects the vague sense of positive progress. When the lockdown arrived in March and we began labeling my reports here under the episodic banner “The New Normal” we had no idea it would extend to this, the 30th installment. On the occasion of my first haircut, I will declare this entry to be the final episode. This “normal” is no longer so “new.”
Fear not, our weekly dining coverage will continue.
The first episode in March (PW 3/26)—reporting on the very first week of the lockdown—compared my experience with takeout at two local eateries. One was an unnamed “fine-dining” establishment, where the experience was less than felicitous and the other, better one was Cindy’s Diner in Eagle Rock. That said, no one really knew what they were doing at that point and I had no interest in drawing negative attention to any beleaguered local restaurateur.
When that local restaurateur and chef happens to be Claud Beltran, 56, of Bacchus’ Kitchen, let’s just say he deserves a second chance. I’m happy to report that—30 weeks later—he, his staff and the restaurant are deservedly thriving, all things considered. If you are unfamiliar with Beltran and his array of inventive local culinary gambits over the years, you really haven’t been paying attention.
The graduate of San Marino High School—where a job tinkering with X-ray equipment led him to a nascent interest in aerospace—began studying for that career at PCC, but was led by the encouragement of friends to enroll in UCLA Extension’s erstwhile culinary program. As Beltran notes, “I was already cooking (for friends) at home. So, somebody said, ‘Why don’t you do this for a living?’”
A combination of ambition and good fortune landed him in the kitchen of legendary culinary guru Chef Thomas Keller at Checkers Hotel. The five-year association and collaboration with Keller set the stage for Beltran’s extended engagement on the Pasadena dining scene. Received to wide local acclaim, Beltran has built his fanbase over 30 years. It provides ballast to traversing the uncertain rapids of the pandemic and in creating some sense of stable sustainability in the midst of the ongoing chaos for local restaurants.
On a random October Tuesday afternoon, Beltran was winding down from a 300-person catering job the previous weekend. Meanwhile he was in the process of planning the prep for another big job on the next impending weekend. Each of the jobs were for nonprofit groups conducting remote Zoom-broadcast fundraisers with Beltran’s meals delivered to attendees’ homes. Reflecting on the current mode of his catering operation, Beltran muses, “It’s not the same. It’s me putting things in boxes.”
At one point in 2016-17, Beltran had three local restaurants running successfully all at once. Though not his first restaurant venture, Claud & Co. (aka “The Eatery”) opened in 2013 in an unmarked corner shop, next to a liquor store on Allen Avenue and Villa Street. The Eatery announced Beltran’s presence on the burgeoning wave of popular and adventurous culinary interest that swept the greater Los Angeles scene over the last decade. The menus at Claud & Co. reflected quirky, changing monthly themes and broad novel takes on traditional ethnic dishes, served in a small dining room that evoked the atmosphere of an illicit speakeasy.
Bacchus Kitchen opened five years ago in 2015, as a wine-centered, farm-to-table local bistro.
A year later, Beltran then opened Perry’s, as the inaugural restaurant at the Hotel Constance, when it first opened on Colorado (PW 7/1/16). The menu there trended to Asian fusion and fresh seafood, and drew popular notice, until the hotel suspended its dining operations in 2018.
After this impressive run, Bacchus’ Kitchen remains as Beltran’s sole outpost in town. Since the advent of the lockdown and the stuttered reopening, Beltran has expanded his outdoor dining capacity from the side patio, into the parking lot and can now seat up to 30 socially distanced diners. Mind you, the indoor dining room seats 85 and is used for catering prep and personal office space for Beltran.
Beltran still likes to change the menus. Most recently, Bacchus’ Kitchen has been featuring “Dinner for Two-sday” with thematic prix-fixe menus for two ($50 for takeout; $60 for dine-in). This month the Oktoberfest theme menu offers a starter of endive and mustard greens with yellow beets and mustard vinaigrette, followed by three entrée choiceas: currywurst, with fresh bratwurst, sauerkraut and fries with curry ketchup; jagerschnitzel, a breaded pork cutlet served with chive spaetzle and braised cabbage with mushroom sauce; or blumenkohlgulasch cauliflower florets in a tomato paprika sauce served over egg noodles. Dessert? Fresh apple strudel baked on-site. You can also opt to add a discounted bottle of Schnaitmann 2017 Lemberger ($38) or a quart of “Oktoberfest lager” ($8).
In the summer, Beltran’s take on barbecue was the Wednesday special. Currently, chicken pozole and fresh churros are the featured midweek focus. “On the weekend, we add a lot of additions,” Beltran added. Please also note: foie gras and oysters are always in play at Bacchus’ Kitchen. There’s also a tightly curated reasonably priced wine list. What could go wrong?
Across the Arroyo in Eagle Rock, the subjects of my original coverage—Monique King and Paul Rosenbluh—have managed to sustain Cindy’s Diner for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as their beloved Fox’s in Altadena for dinner service, where the stalwart Armando Ortiz mans the helm.
At Cindy’s, part of the relatively expansive parking lot has been refashioned as a nicely appointed, shaded dining area that seats 35 (with chairs from the once popular and now-closed Lincoln restaurant in Pasadena). The indoor dining room—which had been quickly rehabbed in May at a cost of $3,000 for safe indoor dining during the brief three-week window, when it was allowed—seats 75.
The couple maintained the beloved Firefly Bistro in South Pasadena for 14 years, before their first “pivot” into diner rehab and the casually sophisticated comfort food that reliably anchors the menus at Cindy’s and Fox’s.
Catering is not a mainstay here, but the sale of their fresh-baked whole pies and cakes have been consistently brisk during the pandemic. (Pro tip? Rosenbluh is from Louisville and renders a spot-on authentic chocolate pecan Derby Pie.)
As Monique King reflects on the last seven months, “Right now, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a business owner.” To accommodate the shifting mandates, prescriptions and expectations accompanying the lockdown and reopening, “We’ve probably pivoted 30 to 50 times. It’s the art of the pivot.” However, make no mistake, “No matter what; we’re going to figure it out.”