As fate would have it, as I was waiting for my order at Hot Wings Cafe in Old Pasadena for my last column I noticed the annual Best of Pasadena edition of this very publication had been left on the seat by someone before me. I flipped through the pages with a new perspective, one taking into account where readers and locals are eating.
Inspired by what I read about two local Best of Pasadena winners, this week I took a trip over to North Lake Avenue to explore a pair of very different kinds of restaurants that warrant another shout out.
One is Mely’s Pupuseria & Restaurant, which took home a Reader Recommended award in the Best Central American Food category.
The other is Bonnie B’s Smokin BBQ Heaven, which was a Reader Recommended pick in both the Best Barbecue and Best Soul Food categories.
Whereas both eateries serve entirely different cuisines and styles, there are a few common threads — they both offer not only delicious food but also some of the best values and lowest prices I have encountered within our city limits.
Bonnie B’s is a very traditional soul food barbecue joint. It feels like a family that threw one of the best neighborhood cookouts took that idea straight to a storefront. They make their own lemonade and tea, fry up catfish on weekends, and justifiably brag about their ribs.
While I was there, I had an opportunity to speak to a few employees about their recommendations in order to get the full experience. Almost as if it was rehearsed or taught in a training manual, they all at separate times shot me a smirk and without hesitation mentioned their “fall-off-the-bone” spare ribs. I took their suggestions, and for $15.99 I got five spare ribs and two-sides. One of the hardest choices I had to make was narrowing down which of the two classic soul-food sides I would try. Slim’s Mac and Cheese was a definite. When there is a dish that has a namesake next to it, you know it is going to be great. Deciding between the potato salad, candied yams, okra and tomato over rice, and baked beans was tough. But in the end, I ended up pairing my ribs with yams.
The knowing glances were correct; there is a reason their ribs come so universally recommended. The meat hangs on the bone just enough and are not slathered in sauce to make up for a lack of flavor. They’re smoky, tender and taste like they were made with care. Slim’s mac was flavorful and just the type of homestyle backyard mac and cheese you would want to pair with some classic barbecue.
Bonnie B’s is classic Southern barbecue, and they offer far more than just ribs. There’s also smoked chicken (half for $12.99) with two sides, smoked salmon with two sides ($15.99), and two chicken hot links, bread and two sides ($8.75). They also offer a flavorful fried chicken sandwich with homemade sauce. If you crave a Southern classic, they also have smoked bologna ($7.75).
Like Bonnie B’s, there is a lot to love about Mely’s — the traditional Salvadoran desserts, the ensalada de fruta, the breakfast options. But what really makes Mely’s stand out are the pupusas. If you have never had a pupusa, please allow me to be your guide to these beautiful, stuffed, pancake-sized orbs of heaven. Pupusas are a traditional street food in El Salvador, made with a yellow corn flour called masa harina. They are typically stuffed with a variety of meats, beans and cheeses, and usually served with a cabbage slaw known as curtido.
Mely’s has 15 varieties of pupusas, and I tried a dozen of them to make it seem as if I had some semblance of self-control. That’s because, well, to be honest, a quinoa/vegetable mix did not seem the most effective use of my limited stomach space. Quick note: nearly all of the pupusas, save one or two, come stuffed with cheese. I mean when you cut into, or bite into one, the cheese comes pouring out. Which, don’t get me wrong, lots of hot, melty cheese is a great thing, but it does make the pocket of goodness a bit rich. So, to counter that richness, you are going to pile on the curtido, cabbage slaw with a vinegar brine to it that brightens each bite.
While I absolutely would (and likely will) order every one of the 12 pupusas over again, for the sake of brevity, I will list off the heavy hitters. First up, the carne asada y queso ($3.25) packed the most flavor, as the tender, tasty asada, creamy cheese and masa casing all complemented one another the way a good trio should. On the vegetable side, the spinach, zucchini and cheese ($2.99) can best be compared to an improved take on a vegetable pizza — the wildcard that I did not expect to become one of my favorites. Possibly the most traditional and my honorable mention for “papusa that stole my heart,” the chicharron y frijoles ($2.75) is the perfect embodiment of Central American flavors, and what I imagine is the item that inspired readers to nominate Mely’s in the Best of Pasadena contest.
So, on your next trip up North Lake, do yourself a favor and check out these two Best of Pasadena favorites. You’ll be glad you did.
Bonnie B’s Smokin
1280 N. Lake Ave. Pasadena,
Major Cards Accepted
Mely’s Pupuseria & Restaurant
863 N. Lake Ave. Pasadena
Major Cards Accepted