I‘m all for the occasional 45-minute wait, or month ahead reservations for the newest dining hot-spot; there’s an appeal to being a part of big, shared food moments. When it comes to this column I try to avoid those big name places, drawing crowds and garnering thousands of Yelp reviews, because popularity doesn’t always equate to quality. Instead I try to dive deep and find the unsung heroes of Pasadena and its surrounding cities. That scouring led me to two of the area’s hidden gems Ding’s Garden on East Colorado Boulevard and Nori Sushi Wraps on West California Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue in South Pasadena. The former, offering traditional Chinese cuisine, sits across the street from Pasadena City College, the latter a fast-casual sushi spot that bucks tradition.
Ding’s Garden features a quaint interior filled with small, wooden, two-top tables, and TV screens displaying the menu highlights. The slideshow of menu items really helps out as you pour over the menu with so many options, making Cheesecake Factory’s 20 pages seem like a mere primer.
Duck is not a common find in Pasadena or its neighboring cities, so when I saw the glazed red Shanghai-style braised duck flash across the screens I knew I had to try it. Offered on the appetizer menu, you have the option of a half duck ($11.95) or a whole ($21.95). Since, my dining partner wasn’t feeling duck, I went with the half serving and was left with quite a bit to take home. Served in a sweet sauce, the meat was tender and the sauce paired well with the more fatty areas of skin. Just a heads up: the duck is served whole, beautifully presented I might add, but eat cautiously as many bones (large and small) remain throughout.
In my pre-dining Yelp research a few diners called negative attention to the chicken pan-fried noodles ($8.95), calling them greasy and simple. I respectfully but strongly disagree. In fact, my girlfriend and I have reminisced about that monstrous plate of tender noodles and shredded chicken ever since. In fairness to the yelp crowd, were they greasy? Yes, somewhat. But what guilty pleasure food isn’t? The pan-fried noodles may not be the healthiest menu option, but that’s not why you ordered them, so go ahead and enjoy that massive plate of some of the most flavorful noodles in Pasadena.
I had two wildly different experiences with Ding’s dumpling and wonton options. On the positive side of things were the shrimp and pork spicy wontons ($8.25). I cannot wait to go back, have craved them daily, and would easily call them one of my top tasted dishes this year. Served hot in a soup bowl covered in a chili oil sauce and peanut crumble, the layers of flavor on these dumplings is astounding. Lingering in the flavor recall section of my brain is the tender wrap of the wonton coated in spicy sauce and crunchy peanut flakes, the snap and texture of the shrimp and the tender sweet bits of pork. For under $10, the shrimp and pork wontons are haute quality and flavor for the price of a combo at a fast food joint.
On the less stellar end of the menu were the steamed mushroom and spinach buns, which were presented as a vegetarian option. Simple enough, a spinach slaw inside of a soft steamed bun, I found lacking in flavor as well as texture.
While Ding’s (disappointingly) doesn’t serve alcohol they do offer a variety of milk teas and smoothies. Trust me you’ll definitely need something more than water if you try any of their spicy menu options. If you enjoy an herbal taste try the rose milk tea ($3.50), for a traditional sweeter milk-tea go for the brown sugar milk tea ($3.50).
From the traditional to the contemporary, take on Asian cuisine on display at Nori Sushi Wraps. Tucked away in a grocery store shopping center is one of the most unique and fun takes on sushi. Nori takes ingredients typically found in poke or traditional sushi and wraps them in a blanket of rice and seaweed paper. While the sushi-rito concept may have been floating around foodie Instagram and food trucks for a while, Nori takes the idea from novelty to fully formed concept.
As a connoisseur of sushi and someone who lacks self-control, I typically go to all-you-can-eat sushi spots. One or two rolls a la carte never satiates my sushi craving. Fortunately Nori’s monstrous wraps and generous rice to fish ratio left me pretty stuffed after just one.
Up first on my list to try was the salmon wrap ($11), with mango salsa, crab meat, masago, avocado, and kale lettuce slaw, and since I’m all aboard the hot-Cheetos-on-everything trend I paid the small upcharge to have my wrap coated in a layer of the spicy, crunchy bits. The salmon was fresh and plentiful; the flavors, especially the mango salsa, all work cohesively to compliment the salmon. I’m a convert. In fact, I would definitely choose a Nori wrap over a poke bowl. The crispy wonton chips served as a side with all wraps provide a nice counter texture and a savory crunch.
As an unabashedly messy eater, I was concerned the wrap wouldn’t hold together and I’d be left with a tray of fish and rice. The artists behind the counter, however, pack those guys tight then wrap them in sandwich paper, so as long as you don’t turn down too much paper at a time you’ll preserve the burrito style.
Although I was pretty stuffed from my wrap, there was one more menu item so unique I knew I had couldn’t leave without a taste. The spicy tuna fries ($8) shoestring fries covered in spicy tuna with a cilantro and onion garnish finished off with a spicy mayo and eel sauce. Nori doesn’t skimp on the portions. In terms of taste, the saltiness of the fries pairs well with the subtle heat of the spicy tuna and the textures of the fries and fish play off each other nicely. These definitely take the gourmet fry game to the next level.
There are a variety of other wraps, including some vegetarian options. The Veggie ($10) has tempura Portobello mushroom, cucumbers, avocado, and more tasty veggies. If you’re a more diehard sushi fan, try the sashimi ($12) which contains tuna, salmon, albacore and yellowtail. If you have little ones or picky eaters there’s something for everybody. They can enjoy one of the more basic menu items like the chicken ($11) or beef ($10) teriyaki bowls.
For the value, style and sushi-quality fresh fish in a fast casual setting, Nori is the place to be.
If you can’t make it to their Pasadena location, Nori also has a second home in South Pasadena at 711 Fair Oaks Ave., Ste. K, (626) 529-2841