Let me start by saying that I love El Portal and its younger sibling Yahaira’s Café. But like most restaurants, lunch and dinner hours are bustling and noisy. Of course, El Portal (set at the Green Street end of Arcade Lane in Pasadena’s Playhouse District) and Yahaira’s (which fronts onto the Colorado Boulevard end of the lane) command the long pedestrian patio and courtyard between them as well. So on a sunny noontime or balmy evening, seating at one of the tables along the lane is a pleasant option.
The El Portal family also has a little sister, about as well known to Pasadenans as Trump’s younger daughter Tiffany. And although we’ve frequented both the parent restaurant and Yahaira’s since they opened eons ago, I only noticed Vanessa’s because of a request at the head of Yahaira’s dessert list: “Please visit our Vanessa’s for desserts and specialty coffees or order from your server.”
The list below this invitation is headed “From Vanessa’s” and includes Letty’s homemade flan ($5), espresso bread pudding with ice cream ($5.75), warm brownie with ice cream ($5.75), cheese cake with raspberry sauce ($4.75), classic flan with Kahlua ($6.75), cappuccino ($4.75), espresso ($3.50) and Fosselman’s French vanilla, coconut pineapple, Dutch chocolate, dark cappuccino, mint and chip, mango, cookies and cream and horchata ice creams ($4.50).
Well, hey, who wouldn’t want to check out those? So last week, we parked in the Arcade parking lot, took our ticket to get a one-hour validation and meandered down the lane to find Vanessa’s. It didn’t take long; the entrance is directly across from El Portal’s. And, unlike the crowds filling both that restaurant, Yahaira’s and the courtyard tables, we found Vanessa’s almost empty.
I approached the counter to the rear to look at the ice cream display (as advertised in numbers and flavors) and the pastries (pretty disappointing, with only some Mexican sweet breads, cookies wrapped in Saran and a banana nut loaf). Vanessa’s certainly wasn’t going to supplant Europane, Lincoln or even Starbucks as a go-to destination for coffee and cake. But it doesn’t have to because, despite the sobriquet “specialty coffees, ice cream & pastries” under Vanessa’s name on the logo, caffeine and sugar aren’t the main draw.
The real reason to visit Vanessa’s is its tranquility and the fact that clients can order from Yahaira’s and El Portal’s menus and have their meals transported to Vanessa’s for consumption in a quiet, carpeted room free of rushing servers, incessant crashing of cutlery and plates and loud conversation by other diners. Yes, even at 12:30 p.m., Vanessa’s had only two of perhaps a dozen well-spaced tables occupied and we were able to enjoy our own company.
We chose a grilled shrimp burrito (“marinated shrimp grilled to order and wrapped with lettuce, tomato, cheese, guacamole, black beans and chipotle may in a spinach tortilla” – $10.25) from Yahaira’s and the “Yucatán Trio” (cochinita pibil, a Yucatàn style chicken tamale and grilled pok-chuc served with pickled onion, rice, black bean soup and tortillas – $15) from El Portal. And despite the heavy lunch load, these platters arrived in record time, delivered by the barrista (Maria) who ran over to get them from their respective kitchens.
As we attacked the burrito (which I fondly nicknamed “The Hulk” due to its immense rather lumpy bulk and green skin), I was reminded of why I always order it at Yahaira’s. Dominating the saffron colored platter, with a cuplet of tangy salsa and a single emerald spinach leaf as garnish, it’s visually impressive. The descriptive “lettuce” might lead you to think iceberg, but instead, the delicious roll encloses spring greens along with its other contents.
As for the Yucatán Trio — a feast! Since the closing of Merida a couple of decades ago, El Portal, with its page of Yucatán specials is the only Pasadena restaurant serving poc-chuk (grilled marinated pork loin), cochinita pibil (oven-roasted marinated pork) and Yucatán tamales (thin masa wrappers filled with shredded achiote and epazote seasoned chicken steamed in banana leaves and topped with fresh tomato sauce) on a daily basis.
The plate was lovely — a central heap of fragrant rice surrounded by tender tomato-coated tamale, lean pork slice topped with purple onions and avocado wedge, and spoonful of lime and achiote-infused pork stew. A small cerise ceramic bowl filled to the brim with rich black bean soup completed the array. Everything was luscious and much of it, along with half our “Hulk” was boxed for another meal.
I returned to the counter to pay our bill. Just as I got there, Maria was cutting into a pie plate of fresh flan, which looked so good I had a wedge packed to go. Then I ordered a triple scoop of ice cream ($5.49) with two spoons to see us home. We’d drunk iced tea ($2.75), but noticing margaritas being delivered to courtyard tables I guessed we could have had adult beverages at Vanessa’s. Later on a phone call confirmed my surmise.
There’s one main downside to dining at Vanessa’s. It’s only open from about 9 a.m. to about 1 p.m. and then again from about 4 p.m. to about 9 p.m. (another reason why it’s not a first choice for a coffee house). Another is that it’s often rented out. We’ve called twice in the past week to ask about having dinner, only to be told that it was closed to the public for a private party.
Once you’ve been inside, you’ll know why it’s so popular for celebrations: brightly painted walls with lots of even brighter folkloric artwork, wrought iron chandelier and staircase to a mezzanine and bay windows full of Mexican toys. From now on, we’re likely to peek into Vanessa’s to see if we can enjoy a cozy tête-à-tête whenever Yahaira’s or El Portal look crowded. And to proprietor Abel Ramirez, who celebrated his 75th birthday last Friday (May 19th) with a public party at Arcade Lane surrounded by his not one, not two, but three wonderful restaurants, muchas gracias and many happy returns!
696 E. Colorado Blvd., No. 17, Pasadena | (626) 796-8256 | Full Bar/Major Cards