Sample the world’s cuisine in one city

I thought I’d post restaurant reviews that Lafayette Hight (staff writer and classic car aficionado) wrote for The Rose magazine.

An adventurous spirit is the only passport needed to experience the many cuisines of the world that can be found right here in Pasadena.

The options are endless. It’s entirely possible to, in a single day, have breakfast at the ever-popular Marston’s Restaurant, eat lunch at Robin’s Wood Fire BBQ & Grill, and then have the ultimate fondue dinner experience at The Melting Pot.

Here you can also hope and pray for a J-Lo sighting at Madre’s, or visit Bistro 561, where student chefs at the California School of Culinary Arts practice skills they hope to use in the future to tantalize the palettes of the masses.

Pasadena has both a Tommy’s World Famous Hamburgers location, and an In-N-Out Burger many, including myself, put these among the top Southern California burger joints Rick’s Drive-In, home to the Spuderito (that’s a burrito made from French Fries, in case you haven’t tried it), and finally, a place I call Conundrum Corner on North Lake Avenue, which has two fried chicken restaurants sitting next to each other and the only vegetarian drive-through restaurant I’ve ever run across is across the street.

I say again, the options are endless.

Let the restaurants that follow only serve as a beginning. These are far too few words about far too few experiences to be listed here. Let your taste buds be your guide as you make plans to eat, drink and be merry.

red white + bluezz
70 S. Raymond Ave.
(626) 792-4441

Behind the catchy name stands a jazz club, bar and restaurant offering the trifecta of wines, gourmet dishes and music.

Though open seven days a week, only happy hour and dinner are offered on weekdays. Live music is showcased every night.

The happy hour menu might seem limited, in quantity, but don’t think that they’re being chintzy. The Watermelon Salad looks like a small version of the game Jenga, a tower of tasty blocks made from cheese and watermelon and topped with greens. Both the Maryland Blue Crab Cakes and the Crispy Smoked Gouda Mac ‘N Cheese are unbelievably savory.

Dinner entrees border the exotic – with rack of lamb, Kobe beef burger and numerous sampler plates called “flights” which are divided into categories of wine, cheese, meat and cheese and chocolate.

In terms of music, dining on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday nights are impressive, typically featuring duos or trios.

But on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, they pale in comparison.

The venue nearly doubles in size as does the music. The back half of the restaurant opens, and there’s even outdoor seating with music piped to that area.

Despite the close proximity to the band for some indoor diners on these large band nights – I was so close to the keyboard player I could have accidentally spilled a drink on his head – the room is alive with an energy of its own and the music seems to ebb and flow with the mood, neither overpowering nor too quiet.

Know this, however: The wise make dinner reservations and request indoor seating for the Thursday to Saturday shows. This tidbit comes from personal experience. Nighttime temperatures easily drop into the 40s, sometimes lower, and “bluezz” is not a good color for your fingertips.

2525 E. Foothill
(626) 795-1311

I can’t recall ever recommending a restaurant with a menu item called “Heart Attack.” But this is one infarction that might bring a smile to your face.

Sushiya is, as the name hints, a sushi bar. While physically small, nearly hiding between a donut shop and massage parlor, the taste of their food is enormous.

The aforementioned coronary-suggesting appetizer is, in fact a jalapeno pepper, stuffed with chopped spicy tuna sashimi, coated with batter and deep fried.

Another wildly-named appetizer, “Monkey Brains,” is constructed similarly, but minus the pepper shell.

The sushi is to be found in great abundance here. Traditional sushi, hand rolls and cut rolls are all fresh, tasty, and rapidly prepared by the sushi chefs. But it’s the premium sushi rolls that are definitely the most fun.

The Bacardi Roll has enough pizzazz to become an instant favorite. It begins as a California Roll, which is topped with red snapper. Unlike the dishes that have names that are metaphorical, when they say the Bacardi roll is “on fire” they mean it in reference to combustion.

An ounce, or so, of rum is poured over the roll and ignited. Ahh, sushi that sizzles.

Other must-haves include the house specialty roll, which melds the flavors of tuna, salmon, crab and shrimp tempura into a soy paper wrap and the deep-fried California and Philadelphia rolls..

Sushiya offers a la carte dishes and an all-you-can-eat option. The latter has a 60-minute time limit to keep folks from camping out.

One last thing: Even though the complex that houses Sushiya has, quite possibly, one of the smallest parking lots in the city, it’s still worth it. So if you and a group of friends decide to go together, better take one car.

Il Capo
1001 E. Green St.
(626) 683-0550

There are three things to love about Argentinian cuisine: Empanadas, empanadas and empanadas.

At Il Capo, there are a few varieties of these turnovers, including cheese and onion, chicken and beef, all which are amazingly light and crispy. But the good stuff doesn’t stop there.

It’s both a cafe and deli, offering prepared foods as well as the raw materials, should you want to do it yourself at home.

Browse the display case for smoked provolone cheese, chorizo, roast beef or desserts. Or choose from the dry and canned goods, including pastas, canned vegetables, desserts. Il Capo also has a very abundant wine selection.

If eating in is your pleasure, the lunch and dinner menus are very similar, although during lunchtime, orders are filled at the counter. In the evenings, however, the linens and silverware come out for a more formal dining experience.

Light and crispy calamari, milanesa sandwiches, or any plate with some of the creamiest mashed potatoes to be found, are definitely a must try.

Dona Rosa
577 S. Arroyo Pkwy.
(626) 449-2999

Dona Rosa offers casual dining and an impressive menu that brings together the flavors of Mexico.

But the food seem a bit larger at this taqueria and bakery, located on the corner of California Boulevard and Arroyo Parkway.

The fish tacos are a personal favorite and sometimes I choose to use a knife and fork because they sometimes seem too large to handle. I had a similar experience with the Dona Rosa Burrito, a tasty tortilla-splitting wrap.

Tamales are always being steamed, in chicken, pork, beef and green pepper varieties. They even had pumpkin tamales for a season.

There’s almost nowhere to go wrong on the menu, even though the menu itself stretches over nearly the entire front counter and can take newbies a few minutes to find their favorite things.

Tamales, enchiladas, menudo, pozole, margaritas ($2 on Monday’s) or the signature Dona Rosa Burrito. And nothing beats warm champurrado on a cold night.

On the outdoor covered patio is a big screen television which makes things like a festive Monday Night Football fun, but during any other time there’s no escaping the fact that you’re sitting less than 10 feet away from traffic.

110 E. Union St.
(626) 683-3310

If you enjoy chicken, lamb, cardamom, yogurt and rice, then you’re well on your way to loving the cuisine of Afghanistan.

Azeen’s Afghani Restaurant has been a spot for cozy and romantic dining in Old Town Pasadena for more than three years.

Located away from some of the more heavily trafficked areas of the neighborhood, the restaurant itself features ceiling-high landscape drawings, traditional music plays in the background, and the food is a good representation of the chorus of flavors unique to the Middle East.

Two of my favorite appetizers are mantu, lamb-filled dumplings with vegetables and spices, and bulanee, an assortment of leeks, onions, and cilantro fried into a thin pastry shell.

Traditionally, rice is an important part of an Afghani meal, and therefore accompanies nearly every entree. Azeen’s has pallaw, a rice seasoned with spices that brown when cooked (an end product that resembles Chinese fried rice, though in color only), and challaw, which is simply seasoned white rice. The entree selections include vegetarian items, such as eggplant spinach or butternut squash, and meat dishes are generally chicken and lamb.

Freshly grilled kebabs, juicy and grilled to perfection, are removed from their skewers tableside by the staff.

Quabili pallaw was another dish sampled – a mound of chicken and lamb, covered entirely with pallaw, is then topped with carrot strips and raisins.

For dessert, firnee or baghlava are highly recommended. While many are familiar with the latter flaky pastry dessert, firnee, which is served cold, is a silky-smooth custard, flavored with cardamom and rose water. Tamales, enchiladas, menudo, Dona Rosa also offers pastries and pan dulce, whether they be cinnamon rolls, croissants or cream-filled pastries or more traditional sweet breads.

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