Twenty weeks is five months. We stopped counting officially a few weeks ago now, but this is the 20th installment of “The New Normal,” the title assigned to this dining coverage, as of the advent of lockdown.
We had no idea in the middle of March that August would be looming in deep summer with no end in sight to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, the lockdown and the mutating restrictions for restaurants and diners.
On the occasion of this issue, I checked in on some of the places covered prior to the lockdown to gauge how they were faring.
Pillow Talk (PW January 15) closed in March when the lockdown ensued but reopened at the end of May. Its delicious Japanese-style “sandos,” as well as an expanded list of flavored tea concoctions, are still take-out only.
The refectory at Fuller Seminary (PW January 30) remains closed along with the rest of campus. Fuller spokesman Britt Vaughn suggests that they may be back in August for limited cafeteria service.
Namaste Spiceland (PW February 19) remained open as a grocery and went to takeout for its rotating selection of South Indian vegetarian specialties and chaat-style snacks. It recently staked out a portion of its parking lot to add distanced outdoor seating for 20 diners.
Porky’s Pitstop (PW March 5) is still serving Dena Freestyle barbecue but not from the kitchens of the Monta Factory, which is still thriving. Pitmaster Arsen Arabyan hopes to return to Washington Boulevard in the coming months but in the meantime makes his artisanal ribs and pulled pork available for delivery only. Yes, his mom still makes the fried cauliflower.
Finally, Me + Crepe is still open on Green Street but with a revised schedule of hours serving its delectable and savory Beijing-style jianbing rolled crepes. I recall chatting with owner Elena Yi just days before the lockdown. I had expressed my naïve belief that the immediate response to the virus seemed an overreaction. She quite emphatically insisted that, from her perspective, informed by her relatives in China, we were woefully underreacting. Of course, she was right.
Twenty weeks later, stand by your standbys and support the places you love. Seek out and support what makes our town unique. In this spirit, we arrive at Bobby’s Place, an unassuming storefront on Lake Avenue, just south of Walnut, next to the Ralph’s parking lot. Bobby’s Place has occupied this particular spot for the last six years, but it actually represents an impressive ongoing local legacy of 56 years and counting.
That legacy began when Ralph and Mary Lou Fonzo opened Rick’s Burgers on the corner of Walnut and El Molino on January 1, 1964. A burger stand also serving tacos and burritos, Rick’s built an unshakeable loyal clientele over decades. As detailed in these pages at the time, in 2007, a real estate developer bought up the block with the intention of building a condominium complex. A long seven-year battle ensued, as the developer’s plans were repeatedly challenged and delayed. In 2011, Rick’s long-time general manager Bobby Ramirez bought Rick’s from the Fonzo family with the promise of a name change. As Bobby recalled recently, he hadn’t thought of a new name until the final health inspection. The inspector asked for the new name as he signed off on approval. “Bobby’s Place” was the spontaneous, impulsively appropriate choice.
Though demolition loomed within a month of the changeover, more delays persisted, and Bobby’s Place did not ultimately relocate to its present location until 2014. Bobby maintained Rick’s menu and fanbase, while occasionally adding items of his own invention.
As local culinary icons go, The Spuderito might not command the slavish devotion of Roma Market’s The Sandwich but it is a venerable and unique local delicacy that can only be found at Bobby’s Place.
While no one is sure when it first appeared on the Rick’s menu, The Spuderito is the original creation of Ralph Fonzo and it remains as much an emblem for Bobby’s Place as it was for Rick’s Burgers. A burrito stuffed with French fries tangled in molten webs of jack cheese and dolloped with mild thick red salsa, The Spuderito is as much a carb bomb as it is a novel and tasty snack indigenous to Pasadena. At $4.15, it’s also a bargain. Looking for additional novelty?
Taco on a Bun ($4.65) features chopped carne asada, onions, cilantro, lettuce and tomato on a toasted hamburger bun. It’s more substantial than a street-style taco and delivers its own peculiar charm, though I’m not giving up tacos.
On my second visit in a week, I find myself in an extended and entertaining chat with Bobby. Ebulliently voluble and cheerfully gregarious, Bobby extolls the virtues of one his own inventions: the breakfast taco. Fried egg, cheese and chopped fresh jalapeno, topped with a slap of mild salsa and bundled into a small street-style tortilla, the breakfast taco delivers a satisfying meld of texture and taste with the hot crunch of the peppers playing against the comforting pillow of egg and cheese. It’s also a taco, so it has to be good. When I ask about the breakfast taco tradition of San Antonio, Bobby delivers a mildly withering glance and simply says, “I’ve never been to Texas.” Please make no mistake, this breakfast taco is a Bobby’s original. Priced at $3.65 for two or $5.80 for four, again only in Pasadena.
Bobby’s Place has stayed open for takeout throughout the lockdown, though the on-site crew has been reduced from an average of five to two and it’s now breakfast and lunch only 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Bobby laments the loss of his usual workday lunch crowd. “Without these businesses across the street? You’re toast.” He goes on, “Rick’s crowd is everything right now. We see more of the old school people. Now that it’s slower you can hang out and holler at them.” Indeed, two ladies, long-time regulars, enter from the front and Bobby “hollers” a warm salutation, as we chat.
He occasionally considers retiring. “I’m tired… (but) I start thinking about the people. It’s like an extended family.” He goes on to relate the story of a customer, who began coming to Rick’s as a 5-year-old boy, every year on his birthday. “Now he comes here with his 5-year-old. I love the people.”
Whether it’s tacos for breakfast or the fabled Spuderito, join the family at Bobby’s Place and feel the love.
POST-SCRIPT: Perry’s Joint (PW Cover July 18) is sponsoring its annual scholarship day from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, August 9. All proceeds from the day’s sales will be donated to a deserving graduating senior from John Muir High School. Buy a sandwich, send a kid to college. As Perry Bennett says, “Community first!” The restaurant is located at 2051 Lincoln Avenue, Pasadena.