What's in a name?
The food is as great as it ever was at Cafe; 140 South, formerly Crocodile Cafe
By Erica Wayne 02/16/2012
When the first Crocodile Cafe opened on South Lake Avenue in Pasadena back in the late 1980s (the brainchild of local boys Gregg and Bob Smith, who also operate the Parkway Grill, Smitty’s, The Arroyo Chop House and Cheval Blanc), it was an incredible success.
Within a month, they were serving up to 1,000 meals a day — no mean feat in a restaurant that only holds about 150. Every time I passed by, there were hoards of enthusiastic diners happily munching away or expectantly waiting for their chance at the edibles.
During its early days, my family (mom, dad, husband, kids) were great fans of the Croc. We all sported Crocodile Cafe sweatshirts with the lounging reptile logo, and a few of us even had caps. We still have these duds, but I have to confess that the last time we ate there (so many restaurants, so little time) was about five years back.
I knew exactly what I wanted: an original oakwood-grilled cheeseburger with crocodile fries. Although I hadn’t seen that burger in ages, I’d never forgotten its thick, juicy beef, charred outside, rare inside, with ketchup, mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomato, pickles, cheddar cheese and a slab of raw purple onion. And I was still besotted by the curly thin-cut fries, fashioned from fresh Idahos, skewered, spiraled and deep-fried per individual order.
Today, the flagship store is still there, although others (scattered offspring) have come and gone. But this marvelous space, with its wonderful outside patio, where you can catch the pulse of Pasadena by watching Lake Avenue passersby, has undergone a transformation. For some reason, a couple of years back, the crocodile in Crocodile Café was retired and the place renamed for its address: Café
This change concerned me mightily. As little as we visited, we still relied on the Croc for its interesting and eclectic menu, an amalgam of three major ethnic cuisines (Mediterranean, Latin and Oriental) with a tip of the hat to more traditional American fare (e.g. hamburgers, beer-battered onion rings and a carrot cake to die for).
Sandwiches, salads and pizzas always dominated, with grills, platters and pastas suitable for main meals. And although menu items came and went, the spirit always remained the same — innovative, informal and moderately priced. In other words, perfectly embodied by the sunglassed lizard that graced the original menus and souvenirs.
So it was with some trepidation that we made our way to the restaurant a couple of weeks ago. But we were immediately relieved of our fears. There it was at the top of the lunch menu: “Oakwood Grilled Burgers” all served with curly (no longer “crocodile”) fries.
And many other long-remembered favorites were also on hand: onion rings ($5.95), Asian pear and stilton salad with raspberry-balsamic vinaigrette ($12.95), handcrafted pizzas ($12.50 - $13.50), ravioli of the day ($14.50) and “killer” carrot cake ($6.95).
Even the complex Thai salad (with grilled chicken, yakisoba noodles, Napa cabbage, fresh mint, basil, toasted coconut, peanuts, mango and a spicy dressing - $14.50) had survived the demise of the croc. I wanted to try it, but since our visit coincided with dineLA, we took advantage of the $16 three-course prix-fixe meal instead.
Our appetizers were a cup of fabulous tomato bisque, whose smoky quality reminded me of a good single malt whiskey, and marvelous blue corn taquitos with a mildly fiery sauce perched on a bed of “Asian” slaw with carrots, onion, cabbage and scallios. Also, a small “boule” of hot bread with a crisp crust and a steamy hot interior emitted a heavenly fresh-baked aroma as we slathered it with butter and wolfed it down.
My beloved cheeseburger, dolled up with a fan of avocado, bacon and arugula on a toasted house-made bun and accompanied by fries, was one of our main course choices. We also selected a margherita pizza, which, although not claiming to be cooked in strict Neapolitan fashion, was a good facsimile thereof, with a charred and bubbled outer rim and a pliable center covered with Mozzarella, fresh tomato slices and whole, emerald-hued basil leaves.
We boxed much of this course because the dessert was so tempting: “killer” carrot cake and butterscotch pudding (without a descriptive to let us know its personality). But, as she helped us package our leftovers, our server gently confided that the carrot cake was no more but that there was an equally aggressive chocolate cake in the kitchen.
Disappointed, we accepted the change and awaited the appearance of our sweets. Now, although carrot cake is a favorite, and no chocolate cake is ever dark and bitter enough to please me, I must admit that this one came close; and, if it were to appear on the printed menu, I might be tempted to order it occasionally.
As for the pudding (which is on the menu), the word butterscotch may cause you to think Jell-O, but get that out of your heads immediately. This pudding is of the consistency — and probably calorie count — of crème brulee, topped with a thin liquid caramel layer, a glob of whipped cream and a necklace of strawberry slices. It is, simply, Platonic butterscotch pudding! Once you’ve tried it, you’ll never be able to taste butterscotch again without deep longing.
So, I’m truly relieved to end this review by saying that nothing bad has happened to the Crocodile Café’s food, ambiance or service with the change of name to Café 140 South and the dismissal of the old mascot. But, Brothers Smith, whatever shall we do with our sweatshirts and caps?