If you’ve so far managed to keep your 2018 resolutions to eat well, drink less and exercise more, I pity you. Beginning Jan. 7, folks in Pasadena have been gorging on cheeseburgers in honor of local hero Lionel Sternberger, reputed to be the first restaurateur ever to have crowned a meat patty with a slab of melting cheese at his father’s 1500 W. Colorado Blvd. eatery The Rite Spot back in 1924.
The creation myths about the birth of the cheeseburger at The Rite Spot are numerous: that young Lionel accidentally burned a hamburger and placed a slice of cheese on the burnt side to hide the damage, that a hobo who ordered the burger asked Lionel to add cheese or that Lionel was in reality a “culinary” pioneer who just liked to experiment.
Whatever the inspiration, there’s no doubt that the cheeseburger, in all guises from basic fast-food to gourmet extravaganzas, is one of America’s most beloved foods. And since its inception six years ago, Pasadena’s Cheeseburger Week (sponsored by our chamber of commerce) has likely earned a permanent place on Pasadena’s winter calendar.
If you’ve been oblivious to the festivities, you still have another two days (today and Friday, Jan. 12) to chow down and five days (until the 15th) to vote for your favorites. For a complete list of the almost 40 participants, log onto pasadenarestaurantweek.com, and once you’ve finished cheeseburgering weigh in with your opinions.
Speaking of weighing in, I’ve gained a little weight in the past few weeks, helped along by an overabundance of holiday goodies and baddies. I swore I’d apply myself with rigor to a strict regimen as soon as the last dregs of eggnog were dispensed with. So far I’ve managed to steel myself against the siren call of sizzling beef and melting cheese although I’m likely to have succumbed by the time this piece is in print.
But even if my resolve does hold up until tomorrow, I know it’s going to break down almost immediately since Friday marks not only the end of Cheeseburger Week but the beginning of the 15-day winter 2018 dineLA period. Sigh! The prospect of all those fine and varied menus at such bargain prices is irresistible.
Between lunches as low as $15 and dinners as high as $95-plus, the calorie count is likely to be astronomical (but worth it) and the only exercise I’m going to have time for is whatever I’m able to get while moving from one eatery to the next. So I’m just adding another five to those 10 pounds I wanted to lose and making plans to maximize the indulgence.
Although dineLA covers the greater Los Angeles area, the good news for locals is that of the first week of January, 38 restaurants in Pasadena, South Pasadena, Arcadia, Glendale, Highland Park and San Gabriel have signed up. The website (discoverlosangeles.com) lists participants by neighborhood along with the menus they’ll be offering.
Most entrants are repeaters, many with minor variants on menus from years past. Just like an old sweater you pull out of the closet every once in a while remembering how much you’ve always loved it, some of these menus are oldies but goodies. But there are also a few newcomers and some restaurants whose current offerings will surprise even those who frequent them.
My first priority is to visit a few places I’ve never been to. In 2016 I managed to hit Bourbon Steak and Granville in Glendale, Crossings in South Pasadena, Del Frisco and Sugarfish in Pasadena. In 2017, we visited Bacari GDL and Bar Verde in Glendale, Chang’an in San Gabriel and Café Birdie in Highland Park. All these restaurants have reupped this year and all are highly recommended.
My 2018 first-time visit list includes the two-year old Monkey Bar in Arcadia. Its $29 dinner includes starters of kale and farro salad with pomegranate, pear, candied walnuts, bleu cheese and champagne vinaigrette or roasted Brussels sprouts with persimmon, Marcona almonds, chipotle and Banyuls vinaigrette and entrées of 10-ounce Niman Ranch pork chop with sweet and sour figs or shepherd’s pie with oxtail, mirepoix, roasted wild mushrooms and pommes purées. Desserts? Sweet red bean crème brulée or pumpkin cheesecake. And they’re tossing in a non-alcoholic beverage to boot.
We’re planning to try two-year old Paul Martin’s on South Lake. Its $15 two-course lunch menu is a real bargain. The French onion soup and the Asian roasted chicken salad with radishes, cabbage, Marcona almonds, crispy wontons and peanut vinaigrette or the field greens salad and Columbia River grilled steelhead sandwich with pesto aioli would set you back around $30 if you ordered à la carte. It’s so reasonable that sharing six-layer chocolate cake ($10) or a campfire sundae with hot fudge, candied walnuts and toasted marshmallow fluff ($6) from the regular dessert menu will still leave a bill under $20 before taxes and tip.
Sage Vegan, which only opened its Pasadena branch about two months ago, is also on the list. Its $20 two-course lunch menu will appeal to even to dedicated carnivores; honestly, the word soy doesn’t appear even once! Select from four starters: spicy tomato-based tortilla soup topped with garlic aioli and avocado; pomegranate, quinoa and kale salad with candied walnuts, cranberries and pomegranate balsamic dressing; fried coconut meat calamari with marinara; or quinoa, potato and corn croquette topped with pickled cabbage and habañero cream cheese.
Seconds are equally intriguing: tacos al pastor with pineapple, grilled onions, jalapeños and coconut meat subbing for pork; garlic butter pasta with broccoli, pickled cabbage and habañero cream cheese; fried artichoke spinach dip pizza; and rosemary sourdough grilled dill cashew nut “cheese” with a cup of tomato bisque. Yum.
We’ll also be heading to Twohey’s Tavern. Open since mid-November, its $39 dineLA prix fixe dinner includes a choice of four salads, four mains, four desserts and a glass of wine or beer. For me, the Boston bibb salad with orange, scallion, almond, sweet onion, soft herbs and orange vinaigrette, followed by fried chicken with braised greens and cranberry beans and wildflower honey and, to finish, brioche bread pudding with hachiya persimmon, crème anglaise and I hope lightly salted caramel.
My husband, so sweetly willing to share whatever I order for both of us, is going to have pickled and roasted beet salad with shaved carrot, Shaft’s ellie 2-year-old blue cheese and beet vinaigrette, “dock to dish” catch of the week with carrot mash, mole verde and charred fennel and citrus pound cake with peach preserves and sage ice cream. For his patience and malleability, he’ll also be rewarded with most of my beer and, I expect, a very satisfying dinner.
Having dispensed with these four restaurants, I’ve only managed to fill two days of lunches and dinners with 26 more slots available, many for old favorites, including Celestino, Green Street Tavern, The Raymond and Sesame Grill. But there are miles to go, other eateries to visit and many more dineLA meals to eat if we only can muster up the stamina to persevere. So many restaurants, so little time!
Despite the low-blow of the Republican tax bill, we’ll probably break open our piggybank before we consult with our accountant and splurge on at least one of the three tantalizing high-end $95-plus menus being offered in Pasadena: a $100 five-course Bruce Kalman dinner at Union, a $130 seven-course Dominique Shelton dinner at The Royce and a $119 six-course Jesse Lugo dinner at Alexander’s Steakhouse.
This extravaganza is likely to mark the grande finale to winter 2018’s dineLA experience for us. And, as I said at the end of last January’s roundup, a way to temporarily lose ourselves in admiration of outstanding culinary artistry in these increasingly troubling times. Since then it’s only gotten worse. So once again I urge you to heed the advice in Ecclesiastes 8:15 — “A man hath no better thing under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be merry.”