Back for seconds
Even a devastating fire wasn’t enough to keep down Pasadena’s popular Plate 38
By Erica Wayne 07/05/2012
To those in our neighborhood, Plate 38’s opening in summer 2010 was a major event. For months, when we shopped at the nearby Vons, we were teased by banners reading “Coming Soon” and paper-covered windows. Anticipation was higher than for the final Harry Potter book or Lebron James’ decision. People circled. Yelpers yelped. Twitterers tweeted.
We decided to find out whether the restaurant’s boast was braggadocio or gospel. With a menu printed from the still incomplete Web site (must-try items circled in red), my mate and I headed over. We were greeted by a trio standing behind a counter and told the drill — read the displayed menu pages, order, pay, take a number and sit down to await our food.
Confronted with the need to choose our entire meal in advance, we consulted our list: roasted tomato soup with parmesan ($6.50) and a burger with wild mushrooms, demi-glace, caramelized onion, provolone, blue cheese aioli on a brioche bun ($10.50) for my husband; “sexy” mac (with ham, leeks, gruyere, fontina, white cheddar and parmesan-garlic breadcrumbs — $7) and fritto misto (shrimp, calamari, zucchini, artichoke hearts and lemon caper aioli — $9) for me.
The soup, a crimson creamy bisque with flecks of basil and shavings of parmesan, lived up to its looks. Ditto the fritto misto, with a barely there, super-crunchy batter. The mac and cheese didn’t strike me as particularly sexy, but the crisp crumbs topping the ramekin were fetching. The burger was fat and happy, standing about two inches high with a pleasingly pink middle and a bun-load of unctuous additions.
We enjoyed everything, but the simpler recipes were our favorites. The soup and fritto misto were superb. The mac might have been better with a sharper cheddar or gruyere base. Same thing with the burger. Somehow the rich mélange blunted the flavors (mushrooms and blue cheese) we expected to dominate. Next trip, we vowed, it would be the “classic” for us — lettuce, tomato, red onion and cheddar ($8.50). Less is more.
We couldn’t resist heading back to the counter to pay for an order of apple/chocolate bread pudding with dark caramel sauce ($6.50). The warm pudding was custardy heaven, but the only noticeable chocolate was drizzled on top along with the caramel. If they’d ditched the syrups, the naked pudding would have been, perhaps, even better.
Plate 38’s interior was pretty basic. Wood-grain tables, hard chairs, ESPN-tuned TVs and a wrap-around patio swathed in see-through plastic and topped with a forest green awning for pleasant summer seating. Folk-rock tapes made a soothing backdrop. The wine and beer lists were varied and international. We indulged in Lost Coast Great White and Spaten Premium draft ($7.50 for 16-ounce glasses).
Before writing my review, I called to ask the meaning of the restaurant’s name. The woman I spoke with was coy. She said it was a secret but promised that the owner would reveal the mystery on our third visit. Would we crack the code? With Plate 38’s enticing menu, I was certain we’d have the answer before August.
But then, two days later, Plate 38 (whose logo, ironically, includes a flame atop the figure 8) burned down. And once again, as summer faded and autumn turned to winter, locals drove past the plastic-sheathed and scaffolded remains wondering if the restaurant would ever reappear and if we’d ever learn the meaning of the magical number.
Phoenix-like, Plate 38 rose from its ashes within six months. And, in the past year and a half, it’s prospered, earning a 21 Zagat rating and a Chowhound rave about its classic burger (“Best in LA County”) that’s touted on a banner draped across the restaurant’s façade. As for its name, the Web site explains that chef-owner Robert Humphreys’ menu includes 38 gourmet dishes. Among them are smoked salmon croissants ($8.25) and brioche French toast with nutella and bruleéd bananas ($9.50) for breakfast; a barbecue short rib sandwich with roasted poblano chili, pepperjack, caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes and chipotle mayo ($11.75) for lunch; and buttermilk fried Cornish game hen ($18) and pasta pomodoro with burrata, pesto and garlic shrimp ($16.50) for dinner. They’ve turned us (and almost everyone else in the greater Caltech area) into regulars.
The reborn restaurant’s interior, like its menu, is still pretty close to the original. The patio’s been unwrapped, and while noise and temperature levels are higher out there, the cushioned chairs make my tush way happier. There’s a split in lunch and dinner lists, and there’s been some modest upward price tweaking.
We’re grateful they reconsidered the “order at the counter” service a while back, since the menu is well worth pondering. And, in order to facilitate late decisions on additional beverages or desserts, an open tab is essential. But even if we had to stand on our heads and rub our tummies while ordering, we’d continue to dine at Plate 38. It’s that good!
We just learned Humphreys is planning a major remodel in August. He’ll be putting in a bar and upping the beer and wine license to cover heavier drinks. I sure hope the revamp doesn’t change Plate 38’s wonderful ambiance. We think it’s pretty perfect just the way it is.
2361 East Colorado Boulevard Pasadena, CA 91107