Equator is Hot!
Eclectic food and décor spice up Mills Place café
By Erica Wayne 06/26/2013
Hey, artsy folks! If you've never been to Equator Café in Old Pasadena, you're missing a real treat. The eatery occupying this 1908 brick-walled, terrazzo-floored former stable still carries the sobriquet of "café," even though the immense, well-stocked, glittering mosaic-fronted bar along one wall tells part of the tale of its transformation from coffee house (founded in 1992) to full-fledged restaurant about six years ago.
You'd think from my description that the glitzy bar would be the main focal point once you've passed through the iridescent aqua glass and wrought iron doors and the two-story, cherry red theatrical curtains that flank the interior of the arched entry. But it pales against the gargantuan gilded bas-relief Buddhas, huge, multi-tiered crystal chandeliers and enormous number of riveting, disturbing (and sometimes rather revolting) surreal paintings of every size and shape on every available wall surface.
About those paintings: The artist is a Southern Californian of some renown, Michael Hussar, many of whose oils pay homage to both Renaissance and post-Renaissance masters. His are extreme perspective flourishes; Caravaggesque chiaroscuro, images cribbed and transfigured from artists such as Fouquet, Botticelli, Dali and perhaps O'Keefe. Other works may owe more to Cirque de Soleil (or vice versa). According to Wikipedia's bio, Hussar's patrons include Leonardo DiCaprio, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Kat Von D and Madonna.
If you're interested in examining the décor up close, the best time to visit is during the day. At night, lights dim and the bar does a booming business. The Equator Web site tempts you to "check out its madness at night." But in the afternoon, there's ample light and space to wander around and peer at everything. And it's also a good time to relax upon one of the upholstered chairs or nestle into a red and black banquette, propping yourself up with a pillow or two and sampling Equator's very unusual cuisine at a leisurely pace.
Friend Pam and I wandered in last week at about noon for a girls' lunch out and spent a long time contemplating the very eclectic (it bills itself as Asian fusion) menu. Most of our eventual choices came from the 30-item appetizer list: tempura sweet potatoes ($4), popcorn chicken (not the original, but "Freddie-style" with spicy peppers - $11), panko halibut fish sticks with sweet chili sauce ($8), tandoori glazed shrimp with crispy coconut rice ($9) and a single lunch special (baked crab roll and spicy seared albacore tataki - $9). Oh, and iced tea ($2) to wash it all down.
Our more-than-accommodating server (Justin) didn't even blanch at the amount of food we selected. We used my husband, supposedly famished and waiting anxiously at home for any leftovers as the usual excuse for our excess. In actuality, he hardly ever gets any. However, Equator's portions were so generous and the amount of items so numerous that, despite our hearty appetites, Alan actually did get to sample quite a bit at supper.
Plate after plate was delivered to our table (the top of which, by the way, was fashioned from polyurethane-encased river rock). First came yams - four thick slabs with a light batter and mild tentsuyu dipping sauce. We polished off two before the halibut appeared and eclipsed our interest in the tubers. "Sticks" is not the right word for the magnificent free-form tangle of crunchy, tender snaky fish curls. They had not only the advertised sweet chili sauce for dipping but an additional remoulade. Fabulous!
We didn't quite know what to expect of the shrimp. Four crispy rice cakes, each topped with a plump crustacean and blanketed in a thick, sunshine yellow, yogurt-based, honey-curry sauce, arrived on a long rectangular white plate. And immediately thereafter, another square platter with a mélange of thinly sliced seared albacore doused in a tangy sesame-ginger sauce and delicate fried onion-curl garnish with four mega-roll segments, fashioned from real seasoned crab wrapped in rice paper, each decorated with an embedded triangle of avocado, around the perimeter.
By the time the popcorn chicken joined our feast, we were pretty sated with excellent and intricate fare. The deep-fried morsels were sprinkled with a colorful relish of jalapeno rings, red chili flakes and green and purple onion. Our only complaint was minor - there just wasn't enough of it for the massive portion of chicken. Justin was more than happy to ask the chef to make up some more, which we poured over the remnants (way more than half) for the trip home.
Desserts (about which we only desultorily inquired) sounded way more standard (e.g., cheese cake) than the rest of Equator's menu, not tempting enough to pack up for later. My guess is that they just keep a few on hand for dullards who haven't focused on the fascinating items that populate the main part of the menu, or for folks who've stopped in for an afternoon latte and just want something sweet as a go-with. Of course, Equator does have an extremely enticing list of inventive shakes and smoothies for the even more enticing price of up to $5 apiece. Alas, we had no room to sample even the Mango Madness.
Equator's dinner menu adds a nice (and guilty) pleasure in its miso Chilean sea bass with sweet potato mash and baby bok choy (at $23, it's the most expensive thing on the list). Coriander-seared salmon with fried vermicelli, bok choy and stewed tomatoes is only $15. Korean short ribs with edamame fried rice, Chinese broccoli and kimchi is $17, while basil mignon with honey-black pepper sauce and rice sells for $16.
Amazingly ambitious, Equator's recently started serving dim sum on weekends. And, while I don't think they're likely to eclipse Chinese stalwarts like Monterey Park's Ocean Star (our long-time favorite), it's yet another chance (like their lunches, dinners, coffee-house drinks, smoothies and cocktail creations) for Equator to show off its versatility and culinary talents.
22 Mills Place
Full Bar/Major cards
LA Street Food Fest returns to the Rose Bowl Saturday
Break out your best stretchy pants for Saturday, when more than 85 food trucks, two beer gardens and live bands set up at the Rose Bowl for the 4th Annual Street Food Fest.
“Our goal when we started the LA Street Food Fest was not only to fill a gap in the local food event scene, but to create community and a platform to support independent small business owners like ourselves,” says Shawna Dawson, event founder and producer. “For that reason, all of our events aim to do more than just entertain.”
Along with crowd favorites Starry Kitchen, The Grilled Cheese Truck and Chef Fred Eric, local Pasadena restaurants Trattoria Neapolis and Bar 1886 will be making their debuts this year.
“The historic, iconic site of the Rose Bowl has proved to be an ideal setting for our food festival, and there’s nothing better than being able to walk on the field,” says Dawson. “You can picnic on the field listening to live bands, wander the concourse sampling bites and imbibing. Over the years, the Rose Bowl has become a partner and the city of Pasadena has been incredibly supportive of us. It’s a pleasure doing business here.”
The 4th Annual LA Street Food Fest starts at 3 p.m. Saturday for $75 VIP early admission at the Rose Bowl, 1001 Rose Bowl Drive, Pasadena. General admission, which is $50, begins at 5 p.m. Admission covers the cost of food. Tickets are available at eventbrite.com.
— Karla Rendon