A Moveable Feast
Melting Pot Food Tours introduce guests to tasty nooks and crannies of Old Pasadena — and fellow travelers in foodie-dom.
By Bradley Tuck 10/01/2010
Colorado Boulevard in Old Pasadena is, by any measure, a vibrant and bustling commercial hub. Its cafés spill people onto the sidewalks, and the rustle of shopping bags against shins is almost audible, even in these tough economic times. But it wasn’t always so. Listening to Diane Scalia during a recent Melting Pot Culinary Tour of the area, it was hard to keep my eyes from widening as she recounted how Old Pas barely escaped the wrecking ball in the 1970s.
But it’s Scalia’s passion for food that drives her — and her sister, Lisa — to lead groups of total strangers on a nibbling and gawking meander through the alleys and courtyards of the 21-block Historic District. The sisters founded the company, which also explores L.A.’s Farmers Market on Fairfax Avenue, two years ago and recently added a Thursday evening route in Old Pas only for the summer.
My group of eight met at Heritage Wine Company (155 N. Raymond Ave.) for the usual introductions. I inadvertently sat down on the hand of an Air New Zealand flight attendant which, thanks to the Kiwi’s easygoing disposition, turned into an icebreaker rather than a clumsy faux pas. This part of the tour was an optional add-on to the evening gatherings. Heritage gave us some nice wines and seriously good cheeses, served at room temperature and fully ripened. From there, with Scalia pausing occasionally to offer nuggets of local lore, we headed to Mignon Chocolate Boutique (6 E. Holly St.): lovely handmade chocolates from the Terpoghossian family, which has been in the chocolate business for three generations.
There was just enough time for a sample; then, like someone herding kittens, Scalia whisked us out the door to Tortas Mexico (90 N. Fair Oaks Ave.) to try its asada torta and a vegetarian alternative. The tortas we had at that tiny hole-in-the-wall were grilled sandwiches on fluffy buns, baked fresh daily, filled with delicious carne asada, beans, lettuce and jalapeños. The place is tucked away at the end of an alley where, after quickly filling up, we were ushered into a charming courtyard by Scalia. This shady oasis, with vines clambering over brick façades, was a revelation. In the corner lurked The Old Towne Pub, an authentically dingy bar that would have looked at home in an alley in London, with tattooed patrons puffing cigarettes outside.
Next stop was a “sensory tasting” at Soap Kitchen (43 N. Fair Oaks Ave.). Owner Dali Yu took us into her kitchen at the back of the store to marvel at the work that goes into making a 2-by-4-inch bar of soap. We all left clutching samples and headed off to try the falafel at Father Nature (17 N. De Lacey Ave.). Scalia had told us what to expect — crisp shell, fluffy interior and no greasiness — and we weren’t disappointed. It was a whirlwind pit stop, as there was tender beef to be eaten at Equator Café (22 Mills Pl.). Scalia explained how Equator had morphed from a popular coffee shop into a full-fledged restaurant, while we marveled at the metabolism of a 14-year-old in our group who was able to put away a third helping of orange chicken. By this point, a senior member of the group was flagging; there’s a fair bit of walking on the tour. Luckily, there were only a few more stops, so we weren’t forced to leave her to the animals. Beyond the Olive (10 N. Raymond Ave.) is a purveyor of artisanal vinegars and fine California estate–grown extra virgin oils. We tasted a super-fresh, grassy, spicy arbequino olive oil, made some hasty purchases and were shepherded to our next tasting stop, Choza Mama (96 E. Colorado Blvd.). Hearty Peruvian fare was followed by a quick tea tasting at Bird Pick Tea (10 S. De Lacey Ave.), then dessert at Tutti Gelati (62 W. Union St.), where the 14-year-old’s metabolism was again sated.
The Melting Pot Culinary Tour is definitely not a fine dining tour, and it’s all the better for that. It’s almost like a casual dinner party on fast-moving legs. It was informative and lively, with Scalia’s enthusiasm proving highly infectious. It’s a perfect way to occupy out-of-town guests who might have tired of the usual tourist traps and want to learn a little about the real Southern California. More than anything, it’s a wonderful way to meet a diverse group of strangers joined by a common interest in food, culture and history. The flight attendant and I are now, of course, Facebook friends.