The joy of spuds
A guided tour of Pasadena places serving some of the best French fries in Southern Cal
People from all over Southern California rhapsodize about Pasadena’s historic mom and pop restaurants, especially their French fries.
Many of these eateries began as a way for immigrants to start businesses that met the needs of the new post-World War II baby boomer families. But the family owned food establishment appears to be going the way of the cassette tape, as many have been forced out of business by the competition from corporate conglomerates fast-food chains or by real estate developers eager to gobble up freeway-close locations.
The restaurants that survive in Pasadena all offer an old-fashioned customer service translated into cozy comfort food that’s fresh, prepared quickly to patron requests with the cleanliness and caring one might expect dining at a neighbor’s house.
It seems that Pasadena residents are more passionate and opinionated about their family run French-fry establishments and spud favorites than they are about the current presidential debates.
When I began my fry crawl, I thought I could never eat too many fries. I was wrong. After a day of sampling spuds across town I first felt euphoric from the potassium in the potatoes, then a numb and foggy feeling set in.
If your favorite French-fry palace is not included in this list, please be understanding … I’m out shopping for bigger pants.
— Arlene Schindler
Connal’s is a small red-and-white-striped shop on Washington Boulevard with a big sign that reads “Sandwiches by Connal.” It opened in 1958 and Tony Gannos and his family have owned it since 1987. On a sultry Saturday afternoon when patrons come up to the order window, Tony, cheerful and ageless, is the one who takes the order and fills your soda cup. It’s as if Donald Trump held the door and greeted patrons at Trump Plaza. The family pride shows.
Tony says, “The (hamburger) chains didn’t affect us much. People come here for the high-quality product and personalized service. My customers are regulars. The business has stayed consistent over the decades.”
Connal’s has an extensive menu, offering more than 30 sandwiches, 13 kinds of burgers and, of course, French fries. Theirs are square-cut, evenly cooked, good for dipping. Softer than crunchy, these fries are lightly dusted with a secret seasoning (instead of salt) that makes them irresistible, and more flavorful as they cool (or was I experiencing spud euphoria?).
1505 E. Washington Blvd., Pasadena
Rick’s Drive-In opened on New Year’s Day 1964 on East Walnut Street with only a handful of tables for outside seating, where diners shared their meal with the ever-present pigeons. The menu board boasts burgers, burritos and tacos.
Manager Roberto Ramirez says, “About 85 percent of customers get fries with whatever they order, even if it’s a taco or just a drink.”
Restaurant owner Ralph Fonzo has been in a much-publicized dilemma. His landlord sent him a notice to leave in February. But because the real estate market is depressed now, developers are not chafing to tear down the old drive-in and build condos. So Rick’s remains open on a month-to-month basis. Ralph’s wife, Mary Lou, says “We’re looking for a permanent spot nearby, even though many customers say they’ll follow us anywhere.”
Rick’s fries come to the table too hot to handle. Crunchy on the outside and golden brown around the edges, with soft, pillowy potato comfort on the inside, they stay firm and hold ketchup well. Delicately salted, most fries are three to four inches long and finger-wide. Not greasy, they stay hot for the car ride home, if you can wait that long.
680 E. Walnut St., Pasadena | (626) 449-4842
Wolfe Burgers opened 27 years ago, but it’s just two years ago Dino Georgopoulos and wife Mimi took it over. Above the register a sign states Wolfe’s philosophy: “You know best how your burger should taste.” Dino prides himself on the folksy neighborly service. “Most of our customers are regulars. I know them by their first name,” he says. “Recently, breakfast business increased by 50 percent. I think that’s because of the service, good quality food and super cleanliness.”
Wolfe’s fries are soaked in cholesterol-free canola oil. They taste hand-cut, appear to have no salt and are visually appealing, with some skin left on. As healthy as you can get with a French fry, choose your own poison with the condiments. They’re served with ketchup and mayo. The spacious restaurant has three separate seating areas — two indoors and one outside. It’s easy walking distance from Lake Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.
46 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena | (626) 792-7292
The Original Hat of Pasadena opened as a family owned restaurant in 1951. There are now offshoots in Alhambra, Glendora and Brea, a total of nine locations surrounding Pasadena, all owned by C&J Food Company.
Known for its legendary pastrami, the Hat serves a gigantic portion of fries that could feed two to four, brown-edged and softer in the middle with less crunch than most. This softer fry consistency is the ideal base for a generous offering of chili and cheese — their specialty — outselling naked fries by almost 40 percent. Because portions are so large, they provide extra plates.
491 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena | (626) 449-1844
Lucky Boy opened in 1971, designed in shades of orange and sepia popular in the era, on a now highly trafficked corner of the Arroyo Parkway. Owners John Rellos and Tasos Karagias pride themselves on good food and fast service. When asked about chain competition, Rellos says, “I don’t care about them, I know what I’m doing is better. My customers keep coming back.” Lucky Boy’s owners also own their land, and developers come to them all the time. “We won’t sell.”
Their fries are hot, crisp on the outside, soft and perfectly potato moist on the inside, an adequate portion for two diners, in a bag that captures the excess grease. The menu board offers 13 burgers, six burrito choices and 11 sandwich options. Their chili cheese fries are boxed to serve four. Outdoor seating offers a parkway view, or you could watch cars scramble for spots in the Trader Joe’s lot across the street.
640 S. Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena | (626) 793-0120
Is there a winner, as in Best French fry in Pasadena?
Here’s a fry guide:
Biggest/thickest fries: Rick’s
Healthiest: Wolfe Burgers
Most flavorful: Connels/Wolfe Burgers
Largest portions: The Hat/Lucky Boy