Pasadena is a mixed bag. Part of LA county, yet it somehow feels worlds away. European? Not quite. Bostonian? Kind of. Hybrid of ghettos stubbed up against old money Victorians. Maybe that’s what makes it so LA, another cultural, architectural hybrid.
Warning – cliche ahead. I argue with my friends from New York who think the idea of Los Angeles as a melting pot is a joke. And it’s true the collection of nationalities may be more segmented geographically when compared to the dense, claustrophobic grids of Manhattan, but the city of LA, I try to argue, allows a breath between cultural pockets as well as room for a true saturation of them. Up close and personal or, as often is the case, from your car.
I don’t feel that way about Pasadena. With it’s old town sitting like a film set, the Rose Bowl, the modern Norton Simon and noteworthy Art Deco structures, it’s a microcosm of a melting pot.
I’ve popped in and out of Pasadena throughout my life. So did my husband. He lived there for three months during his second and final stint in rehab in 1997. He got sober there and due to the comfort of a 12 step regimented day, he still says those were the best nights of sleep he ever had. Never-mind the sounds of gunshots outside or the old black man with one leg he roomed with who’d take off his leg at night to let it “air out”.
Pasadena. We got married in Pasadena in 2001, two months pre 9/11, in the art-deco Castle Green. A dreamy, whirlwind of a day, ensconced in the garden, while the crowded pedestrian streets hummed away, deliberately oblivious, around us.
Apart from the solid ‘King Taco,’ I’d never had a great meal in Pasadena. A few months prior, on Mother’s Day, Matt, my brother and I spent a day there to help out a loved one in a grave situation. We started that day at King Taco, ordering the burrito spicy and getting what we asked for. Our pallets cleansed, ready to face that days daunting task. Apart from that, the meals I’ve had in Pasadena were of the chain variety, mediocre but consistent. Of course there are better meals to be had there, I’ve just never experienced them.
Union was our first “nice,” newer restaraunt on the list. Zay, Maria and I headed out. What was meant to be a double date was thwarted by a husband stressed with work. I was fighting a sinus infection but rally’d. Figured I’d take Laz, but what I read as part of a new (semi amusing) teenage mood, he surprised me by declining the invite, siting “too much school work.”
We all dressed up. My brother and his wife looked lovely.
The restaraunt was predictably on Union st. There was no sign on the door, just the address on the building ’37’ and a sad chalkboard sign on the street outside, a precursor to the chalkboard scrawled with Alice Water quotes inside.
Northern Italian food via California. So delicious. Isaiah started our exchange with the server by ordering one of each starter (there were five). The handsome server gave us a slight raise of his eyebrow, but ultimately approved. He was perfect casting for this environment. Knowledgable, there when you needed him, but laid back, not auditioning.
The food wasn’t groundbreaking in experimentation, but every dish done just right with the highest quality ingredients paired with great wine, and a cider for Zay. We were happy. We discussed complex family dynamics while sharing pork meatballs, charred octopus, bread & giardiniere, roasted heirloom carrots, bucatino cacio e pepe and the dreamiest polenta with chanterelles. We were tipsy and very full by the time the olive oil cake with salted honeycomb gelato, pot de creme and dessert wine were proudly placed on our table.
The general manager came to touch our table prior to the check drop. Expressing interest in our JG journey and what seemed like authentic appreciation for our rush hour commute to get there. Sitting in Union gave me the feeling of being in San Francisco. The food, the crowd, less stereotypical LA scenesters, more sophisticates.
Maria and I both have a love affair with Northern Cal. I was born in San Francisco and it’s always felt like an extension of – perhaps even a true home. For Maria extended family, of aforementioned complex dynamics, surrogate parents really, were in Berkley and Piedmont. The latter, some would argue, the birthplace of the CA food movement.
Again, slippery Pasadena, a historical city able to put on the veil of yet another. Thankful to Union and Jonathan Gold for taking us back there. Yet another pivotal Pasadena memory.