Dining: Peter Dills – Food as Adventure

Peter Dills at Trattoria Neapolis Italian Restaurant
Photo by Walt Mancini


By Michelle J. Mills

Many of us remember the legendary So Cal food critic Elmer Dills. He died

in 2008, but not before his son, Peter Dills, was firmly on a food path of his own.


Peter Dills is continuing his father’s legacy by giving people recommendations

about where to dine, while also expanding our knowledge of food and drink in

general. He covers restaurants and happenings from Laguna to Ventura, on

radio, TV, the Internet and in print.


Dills not only gives advice and shares his opinions, he encourages radio listeners

to call his show with their own restaurant reviews. He also fields questions and

will do research when necessary to provide answers. Dills often brings experts

into the studio as well to share their knowledge.


Dills manages Robin’s Wood Fire Barbeque restaurant in East Pasadena.


Q. What makes someone a food critic?


A. I don’t know how many food critics are left. I’m more of a food adventurer.

On my show, we talk about food, hospitality and, of course, restaurants and

what makes them authentic. People are looking for ‘what does this guy know

that I don’t know?’ Am I foodie? Yes. Are there people that get to go eat out

more often than I do? Yes. But I do my research on what is authentic and not.


Q. What makes a meal good?


A. It’s got to have value, especially the way things are now. Value can be $45 for a steak;

I’d rather pay a little bit more and be happy with the meal than go somewhere where the

steak is $20 and not really good. Now if I’m spending $65 for a steak, it had better be really good.


Q. What is your favorite meal?


A. Shellfish — king crab, lobster, shrimp. My favorite dish would be king crab legs. Expensive.


Q. Tell us about your father and growing up.


A. My dad was a CIA operative; the whole restaurant reviewer was a front, a cover, at least at first.

 

He was in the CIA for 20 years. After the CIA, he kept doing restaurant reviews for real.


Dad lived in Germany in the late ‘50s. I was born in Greece and we moved to Maryland just

outside of Washington, D.C. for two years, and then we moved here in 1970 to Pasadena and

I’ve pretty much lived here my entire life.


I worked for Jurgensen’s grocery store and I learned about fine food, wine, cheeses, dry-aged beef.

In my early 20s, I got to be a food snob because I was eating really good food. By the same token,

I probably went out to dinner with my dad a thousand times.


Q. Were you ever in competition with your father?


A. When you’re younger, you agree with everything your parents say, but I know as I got older

I had some different opinions on things. It’s not competition, though. I’m just trying to follow

him and give people information.


Q. What are your plans for the future?


A. I want to do more traveling. Traveling is a little different than eating in restaurants. In a

dining review, I am reporting what I find out, giving the information back to the readers

or listeners. When you’re traveling, it’s a bigger dynamic. You don’t even have to get into

your opinion, you just come back and say here’s what the dollar is, here’s where to stay,

is it expensive, and is the food good as a whole. When you’re doing a travel story, it’s more

of a brushstroke, a generalization.


Q. What is your ultimate food adventurer goal?


A. The thing that I’m still striving for is getting to where my dad was. When my dad said you

gotta go, people went. I’m still not at that point. I want them to say, ‘Peter Dills said we’ve

got to go.’ But maybe I’m already there, I’m not sure.

 

You can find all things Peter Dills at www.peterdills.com and follow him on Twitter @kingofcuisine.

“Dining With Dills” airs at 6 p.m. Saturdays on 790 KABC radio and is livestreamed through his website.

The “Dining With Dills” television show airs 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays on Charter Channel 101.

It is also on PBS SoCal — check TV listings for times.

DINING: Tender Greens serves up first-class eats

Inside the Tender Greens restaurant

By Claudia S. Palma

Photo by Walt Mancini

It’s been said you are what you eat.

At Tender Greens’ Pasadena location, that means fresh, local, organic when possible, and innovative yet familiar.
But most of all, delightful.
“We’re blending high-end market and the low-end fast food (concepts) — I wanted to borrow a little from both ends,” said co-owner Erik Oberholtzer.
The concept of Tender Greens isn’t far from how he had been cooking for 20 years in various restaurants on the East Coast and in California, using locally grown produce and ingredients, he said.
“It really came down to a time in my life and my partner’s (co-owner Matt Lyman) and a need in the market,” Oberholtzer said.
That need, Oberholtzer and Lyman felt, was a homey place where one can enjoy healthy and delectable dishes, prepared in a reasonably quick time and still be gentle on the wallet.
Tender Greens Pasadena, the seventh location in the chain, is celebrating its first birthday this July.
“We capture a broad demographic with different price points, and the fact that our food is not intimidating,” Oberholtzer said.
Most of the restaurant’s produce comes from Scarborough Farms in Oxnard. A select group of small local farms bring in other produce Scarborough may not grow. The beef is from grain-fed cows free from antibiotics and hormones. Grain-fed chickens are raised on the range in Northern California. Tuna is Pacific line-caught.
Breads and desserts are baked and prepared fresh daily. The beverage menu features local organic tea blenders, boutique wineries and microbreweries.
“We try to keep a couple different house beers on tap and we change and rotate a couple beers a month,” said Oberholtzer. “There’s a real trend in Pasadena for craft beer.
“We remember when we were the small guys starting out, so we try and support the small guys.”
Pasadena is also the first Tender Greens restaurant to go 100 percent bottle-free as part of their dedication to sustainability.
Oberholtzer turned to a former colleague to be the executive chef in Pasadena; he knew chef Daniel Schauffhauser could embrace the Tender Greens culture and that he shares the owners’ values. He also has creative freedom.
Schauffhauser brings his 30-plus years of experience as a chef as well as his childhood memories growing up in a small town in France to the Pasadena location.
“I very much appreciate what Tender Greens culture is (about),” he said. “I’m very comfortable here. It’s definitely something I’m very used to, farm-to-table.
“California has a lot to offer: the environment, it’s a big plus.
Schauffhauser said he knows his dishes are well received when he hears how guests enjoy the freshness of the food.
The chef said he gets inspiration for menu items from various places like farmers’ markets, magazines, books and his own experiences from growing up.
“I’m always reworking (dishes) such as goat cheese in an onion tart — we make it more SoCal,” said Schauffhauser.
“He’s reaching back into his roots,” Oberholtzer added. “(Certain dishes) can be commonplace to him, but can be very novel and be romanticized for (local diners.)”
There is also a lot of collaboration going on among the chefs at all seven restaurants and the pastry team.
“There’s some friendly competition and lots of creativity,” said Oberholtzer.
To round out the dining experience, Pasadena artist Chris Reccardi was commissioned to create a new permanent art installation for this location. “Love, Pasadena” features various paintings starring Pasadena landmarks. Reccardi, an award-winning animator, has worked on “Ren and Stimpy,” “Samurai Jack,” “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”
In Pasadena, “we started with the artwork as a way of expressing ourselves and showing that we understand the community we’re in,” Oberholtzer said. “This is a great city. They’ve been very welcoming to us.”
Tender Greens is also dedicated to being socially responsible through community partnerships and events. They offer an intern program for at-risk youth with the Los Angeles County foster care system.
Tender Greens, 621 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, 626-405-1511, tendergreensfood.com

Caterer Q & A: Peggy Dark

(Photo by Walt Mancini)

Peggy Dark is the owner of The Kitchen for Exploring Foods, a full-service catering company that also offers Gourmet to Go takeout food and a shop with a variety of gift items such as cookbooks, candles and art objects.

The majority of The Kitchen’s business is catering, serving everything from small groups to parties of 1,200 people. Based in Pasadena, the company serves clients throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties and even goes out as far as Palm Springs.

Dark said a lot of caterers have gone out of business during the recent sour economic times, but The Kitchen has remained strong, thanks to good relations with party planners and its loyal customers.
“A lot of my business in other areas comes through party planners,” Dark said. “It’s saved me in these last years of the recession.”

But the key is satisfied clients. Dark said most of their business comes from repeat customers and referrals.

A culinary instructor at one point, Dark was told by her students she should start catering. She was asked to cater lunches at the Gamble House and then a neighbor asked her to cater her daughter’s wedding.

“All in one week!” Dark said. “I took it as a sign. Pretty soon I looked around and, by golly, I had a business.”

She’s been catering for 28 years now.

PEGGY DARK’S THE KITCHEN FOR EXPLORING FOODS

  • 1434 W. Colorado Blvd.
  • 1 a.m. to 6 p.m Tuesday-Saturday
  • Catering: 626-793-7218; catering@thekitchen.net
  • Gourmet to Go: 626-793-7234; gourmettogo@thekitchen.net
  • www.thekitchen.net

R: What drew you into the culinary world?
Dark: I came from a family that loved food. I grew up with two grandmothers at home and they were both great cooks. My mother went off to work and left them to hassle it out.
I always had an inclination to do something with food. I have a bachelor of science degree. I became a food stylist and also taught at Pasadena City College in adult ed classes related to food.

R: Where did the name “Kitchen for Exploring Foods” come from?
Dark: When I taught, I inherited a gourmet cooking class called “Exploring Foods.” We thought I had recognition under that name and used that when we set up the business. I liked the name “The Kitchen,” but legally we have to include “Exploring Foods.” But everyone knows it just as The Kitchen.

R: What is Gourmet to Go?
Dark: We do not have a set menu. The larger portion of our business is catering. If we’re making a lot of food for a party, I’ll ask the chefs to make extra for the takeout.

R: When someone’s planning a special event, what should they expect from their caterer?
Dark: A prompt response to their inquiry. I have three women in my office whose sole job is answering the phone and arranging for parties. If it’s a new client, we welcome them to come in and taste the food in the takeout. For a large party, we have a party manager who will meet them at the home or the site. For a party of 10, we can probably do it on the phone.

R: How does someone find a good caterer?
Dark: The thing to watch out for is to get good references.

R: What’s changed in the catering business?
Dark: Now we’re very, very reliant on the Internet. A lot of people look at our website, which was designed by my son. We don’t have as many meetings as we used to.

R: You’ve been in Pasadena for 28 years. Do you like it?
Dark: I love Pasadena. The people are very cordial and they pay their bills on time. It was a lucky day when my husband and I moved to Pasadena.

R: Do you enjoy catering?
Dark: I love it. It’s been an extremely enjoyable business to be in. We’re there when people have holiday parties, bar mitzvahs, weddings, anniversaries … and we’re there for funerals, too. In the catering world, you are part of their family. There’s something warm and beautiful about serving food to people and being around for their happy — and sometimes — sad occasions.

– Karen Weber

CHEF Q&A: Yujean Kang’s

Q&A: Yujean Kang, owner and executive chef of Yujean Kang’s
By Claudia S. Palma

(Sarah Reingewirtz / Staff Photographer)

Yujean Kang, owner and executive chef of his namesake restaurant in Old Pasadena, grew up  with his father’s business sense; he keeps an eye on the financial aspect of running a restaurant. But he also inherited his mother’s culinary skills and creativity; and those traits have garnered many accolades for Kang and his dishes for the last 20 years here.
Kang, 47 of Pasadena, is a Taiwan native who immigrated to the United States as a  boy. After culinary school and various jobs throughout the San Francisco area, Kang and his new wife Yvonne opened his first restaurant — Yujean’s Modern Cuisine of China — in 1986.
For two years, Kang worked to perfect his skills of traditional Chinese cooking while exploring new boundaries to create his own cuisine.
Still, Kang prefers to call his cooking “gourmet Chinese”; nothing else.
“People try to label us, but we don’t want to be labeled,” he said.
At Yujean Kang’s in Pasadena, Kang continues his modern twist on authentic Chinese dishes such as dim sum, by using classic methods paired with high-quality ingredients such as Chrysanthemum petals.
“Fresh chrysanthemum is used in many Chinese dishes,” said Kang. “You can eat the petals.”
He also offers an extensive wine list to complement each dish.
Kang occasionally holds special culinary events such as a recent tofu dinner that featured the soybean curd in various imaginary dishes.
The tofu “was an interesting idea,” said Kang.
When not in the kitchen, Kang and Yvonne find time to spend with their grown sons, including the oldest, who at 22, works in the restaurant kitchen with his dad.

(Sarah Reingewirtz / Staff Photographer)

—————————————————-
ROSE: How did you end up in the United States from your birth home of Taiwan?
Kang: At 12 years of age, I came with my family (to the San Francsco area).

R: Did you always know you wanted to be a chef or own your own restaurant?
K: My mom had a restaurant in Taipei. The first dish I made was noodles for myself at home. It was good. I had an idea for a restaurant and wanted to implement that idea. The Chinese restaurants are so different in this country (than in China). Chinese restaurant mentality is different. Americans lack understanding of what Asian cuisine is supposed to be like. Then people began to travel and  became more educated … they know more and are more demanding for that type of food.

R: What did you learn from working in bay area restaurants?
K: About age 15-16, I started working (in restaurants) in the summertime, dishwashing, other small stuff. Didn’t learn much about Chinese cooking there.

R: Do you have your own recipes? How do you decide what’s on the menu?
K: We have our own recipes, passed down from family. It’s not just the flavor, preparation is important. The menu can change. When you have quality ingredients, quality costs more. Lately, we have Chinese people coming to the U.S. and they care more about the food, no matter how much they pay. In Shanghai, the average cost per person is $125 to eat out. Here, if you charge an average $40 per person and are packed every night, then you do good as a restaurant. We don’t have that kind of market to charge $125 per person. In New York, many restaurants are charging at that level:  $100 to $150 per person.

R: How did the wine pairing start? What do you enjoy about wine?
K: We always enjoyed wine. Traditionally in China, in the older days, they drank Chinese wine. When I was in the bay area, we were close to wine country. I had friends working in wineries and started to learn about wine. Nobody says wine shouldn’t go with Chinese food, but there are so many varieties of tastes in wine, the trick is to find exact match, to pair wine and food together. Find that, and you have an experience. A pinot noir or burgundy, without a lot of tannins goes well. On the lighter side, there’s riesling.

R: What is your personal favorite pairing?
K: I personally enjoy riesling or pinot noir; they’re pretty flexible wines to go with many dishes. If I could have one white, it would be riesling, if I could have one red, it would be pinot. For dessert wine, I tried a late harvest German riesling once; it was really unforgettable. The flavor exploded in my mouth.

R: What do you want patrons to feel when they come to your restaurant?
K: It’s really an experience, going out to eat. What it takes to satisfy your appetite can vary. For upscale dining within a price range, we’re looking for originality, like lamb tripe, and still have flavor.

R: Do you visit Taiwan?
K: We visit sometimes; my wife still has family there. After we sold the first restaurant (in San Francisco) to my sister, we tried to open a restaurant in Taiwan, but it never opened. We decided we didn’t want to invest there after all, so we returned to the States. When we returned, it was right after the 1989 (San Francisco) earthquake. So we said never mind, we’re not opening in the bay area. Then we came to Pasadena.

R: What is your favorite style of music? Any good music and wine pairings?
K: I like all music: classical, rock, jazz, pop. The type of music to enjoy depends on the environment, scene, time and the company. Food, wine and music is meant to be enjoyed with company. For pop music, most of the ’70s music I like a lot. The ’80 and ’90s are kind of weird. I enjoy some classical jazz, some Japanese jazz, sometimes just classical music. I like Russian classical music. My wife plays the piano and she enjoys Chopin. I wish I could play an instrument.

R: Do you or your wife cook at home?
K: My wife cooks at home. She also helps out on the floor at the restaurant sometimes.

R: How is it working with your son in the kitchen?
K: Working with my son is good. He graduated from Cordon Bleu and worked at Drago’s for about a year. Then he wanted to learn to cook Chinese, so he came here. Maybe one day he will own a restaurant.

R: You’re celebrating 20 years in Pasadena, how does that feel? Any big plans?
K: Twenty years feels just like yesterday. Pasadena is nice, the people are pleasant, very classy. We have loyal customers. We celebrate every day.
———————————————–
Yujean Kang’s
67 N. Raymond Ave.,
(626) 585-0855
yujeankangs.com
Lunch offered daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner is served from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 5 to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday

Elements of Happy Hour

By Stacey Wang

(Sarah Reingewirtz / Staff Photographer)

Portobello mushroom fries, artisan sausage, lobster hot dogs: Happy hour menus have made great strides since the days of peanuts and french fries. It’s upscale eats at good prices.
At Elements’ Kitchen & Lounge, it’s also about discovery.
Whether it’s taking a well-known dish and adding a bit of the unfamiliar — think nachos with pork belly or garlic fries prepared with truffle oil — the restaurant and bar wants its customers to have an experience when they eat, owner and executive Chef Onil Chibás says.
“I wanted to make happy hour special and fun. The food has a twist, but it gives people what they want,” he adds.
The restaurant has expanded its new happy hour to include items off the regular menu. Included is a vegetarian-friendly polenta cake, which is topped with caponata and served with a romesco vinagrette, and Asian fish and chips — a Far East take on the British classic fried fish with a side of rice wine vinegar-Sriracha and miso-lime dipping sauces.
The creation of the new eats has also been a discovery process for Chibás and his chef de cuisine, Alberto Morales. The chefs, in an off-the-cuff creative session a day before the menu debuted, swapped ideas about adding elements to the dishes.
“I want happy hour to be like our dinner menu,” Chibás says. “Eclectic and evolving.”
The key to Elements’ happy hour success has been its “5 to 7” concept — $5 to $7 food and drink from 5 to 7 p.m. — and a focus on creating bites that go well with the bar’s drinks.
“Our bartenders are really craftsmen. They’re really chefs behind the bar,” Chibás says.
Happy hour drink favorites include Elements Gin & Tonic, gin and housemade tonic water served on the rocks, and the Widow Maker, housemade punch and malt liquor. But if a customer wants something off the menu, the bartenders can tailor drinks that fit around the happy hour price.

(Sarah Reingewirtz / Staff Photographer)

For those looking to satisfy their stomachs, a must-try on the food menu is the pork belly nachos — pork belly braised in chicken stock with a twist of orange, jalapeño, garlic and cumin. It’s served on a bed of pickled jalapeños, homemade cheese and corn tortillas.
These menu items are just a few of what’s to come for Elements. The restaurant will continue to expand and change up the restaurant’s happy hour food selections.

Elements Kitchen & Lounge
37 S. El Molino Ave.
(626) 440-0044
$5-7 happy hour menu
5-7 p.m. daily
elementskitchen.com

———————————-
OTHER HAPPY HOUR FAVORITES
There’s no better way to let loose after work than heading into a nearby restaurant for a bite and cool cocktail. Here are some of our favorite Pasadena haunts to offer tasty dishes at a reasonable price:
A/K/A BISTRO
Robert Simon and his wife Deborah had a restaurant running and operating in Napa, when they decided it was time to return to the place where everything started for them. They packed everything up and headed home for Pasadena to open a/k/a Bistro.
Try: Portobello Fries. The portobello fries are a true house specialty  They are crispy, savory and perfectly fried — not too greasy — and will convert even the most cynical fried food nonbeliever into an adoring fan. We must advise extreme caution around the portobello fries and that delicious truffle aioli with which they are served. These things are seriously addicting. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
– Evelyn Barge and Jessica Donnellya/k/a Bistro
41 Hugus Alley
(626) 564-8111
4:30-6:30 p.m.  and 9-10 p.m. daily
akabistro.com
—————————————–KINGS ROW GASTROPUB
Kings Row Gastropub, a combined vision of managing partner Rob Rice and Chef Thomas Jesse, is a place dedicated to re-inventing pub classics.
A clever happy hour menu featured items like Asian Duck Sliders, Tandori Chicken Pizza and ‘Merguez’ Sausage Corn Dogs. From first read, you can tell that extraordinary love and care has been put into the menu.
Try: White Chocolate Mac ‘n Cheese. Served in a crusty sourdough bread bowl or a traditional crock, the subtle sweetness of the chocolate marries perfectly with the saltiness of the bacon and truffle as this dish comes together in your mouth. The combination of gouda, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses finish the mac ‘n cheese experience in style.
Also try: Oxtail Osso Bucco. This entrée is simply served with buttermilk mashers, bourguignon sauce and garnished with cippolini onions.
– Michelle J. Mills and Michael DavisKings Row Gastropub
20 E. Colorado Blvd.
(626) 793-3010
Happy Hour food: $5-$9, cocktails are $6 and beers are $3.
Happy Hour hours: 4-7 p.m. daily, plus 10 p.m-midnight Sunday-Wednesday and all day Tuesday.
www.kingsrowpub.com
—————————————-

POINT 08
The dishes served at Point 08 reflect the cocktails pretty well: a mixture of old and new, classics and dishes-of-the-moment. And in some cases, a bit of both.
Consider the stuffed fried green tomatoes. Fried green tomatoes are a venerable dish from the South. In this case, they’ve been tweaked in all sorts of curious ways. They’re coated with Japanese pank crust, and stuffed with burrata mozzarella. They come with a Green Goddess dressing made in-house.
Try: Lobster Corn Dog. The lobster corn dogs are another new take on an old dish, a mash-up of corn dogs and lobster rolls. There’s a baby spinach salad that’s sweet – as spinach salads often are – but this one is especially sweet, topped with chopped honeydew melon, candied walnuts and a dressing made with Chambord raspberry liqueur and balsamic vinegar.
Also try: Kobe beef sliders — The Kobe beef sliders are topped with caramelized onions, and a sauce of lemon, basil and bacon, along with bleu cheese and arugula, served on sweetish King’s Hawaiian bread. They are served with Tater Tots flavored with truffle oil on the side.
– Merrill Shindler

Point 08
95 E. Green St
(626) 683-0808
Happy Hour: Two-for-one Wednesday through Saturday from 6-8 p.m. and from 11 p.m.-1 a.m. Sunday is two-for-one all evening long.
point08bar.com
—————————-

RUTH’S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE
You’ve worked hard all day, haven’t you? So treat yourself to a visit to Ruth’s Chris Steak House for its Monday through Friday $6 Sizzle, Swizzle and Swirl Happy Hour.
The menu’s appetizer-priced portions are appropriately appetizer-sized. However, two Sizzle selections, plus one of the several Swizzle and Swirl choices, puts the bill under $20 per person. It would be the perfect stop to make before seeing a weeknight performance at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Try: Spicy Lobster. The spicy lobster dish featured good-sized chunks of lobster meat with just enough coating to be crispy and crunchy, lightly tossed in “spicy cream sauce.
Also try: Steak Sandwich with Fries.  A lovely filet, pink in the middle, cut into tender, tender slices, laid along on a grilled roll with a little rich bearnaise sauce drizzled along the top.
– Linda Fields Gold

Ruth’s Chris Steak House
(626) 583-8126
$6 Sizzle, Swizzle and Swirl Happy Hour:
369 E. Colorado Blvd.
5-7 p.m. Monday-Friday
ruthschris.com
——————————————

GYU-KAKU
70 W. Green St.
(626) 405-4842
Discounted drinks, appetizers, barbecue items, rice and dessert
All day Monday; 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 9 p.m.-last call Tuesday-Thursday; 10 p.m.-last call Friday and Saturday; 4 p.m.-last call Sunday
gyu-kaku.com

POP CHAMPAGNE & DESSERT BAR
33 E. Union St.
(626) 795-1295
$3-8 food menu, $3-6 drinks
5-7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
www.popchampagnebar.comREDWHITE+BLUEZZ
70 S. Raymond Ave.
(626) 792-4441
Happy Hour lunch menu and drinks
Noon-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday
redwhitebluezz.com

ROY’S HAWAIIAN FUSION CUISINE
641 E. Colorado Blvd.
(626) 356-4066
Aloha Hour: Menu and bar items $5 in bar area
4:30-6:30 p.m. Sunday-Friday
roysrestaurant.com

VERTICAL WINE BISTRO
70 N. Raymond Ave.
(626) 795-3999
$5-7 food menu and drinks
5-7 p.m. and 10 p.m.-midnight Tuesday-Thursday; 5-7 p.m. Friday – Saturday; All day Sunday
verticalwinebistro.com

YARD HOUSE
330 East Colorado Blvd.
(626) 577-9273
Drinks and food, including half-priced pizzas and appetizers
3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 p.m.-close Sunday-Wednesday
yardhouse.com

CHEF Q&A: Norma’s Tacos

Q&A: Norma and Ulises Medrano, owners Norma’s Tacos
By Claudia S. Palma

(Photos by Walt Mancini)

Norma and Ulises Medrano wanted to pump some authentic Mexican food into the Pasadena area. A combination of simple but tasty food and a unique location – a former gas station from 1924 – has led to rave reviews for the taqueria, or taco stand, they opened on Green Street last April.
“We opened as Taco Station because I thought it went with the idea of the gas station but we found out there was already a Taco Station in Riverside so we had to change it,” says Norma.
All the items at Norma’s Tacos – from the carne asada and beans with sausage or soy, to taquitos and burritos – are made to order and the tortillas are handmade daily.
The two Mexico natives (she’s from Sonora and he’s from Sinaloa) rely on their family tradition and some restaurant kitchen experience to create an authentic taqueria experience. Norma was a nanny and caregiver for about 22 years; Ulises worked as a cook in the kitchens of different Mexican and American restaurants for 15 years.
The couple, married a happy 10 years now, share their South Pasadena home with their two adult children from previous relationships.
Now that their dream of running their own business has become reality, the Medranos look forward to keeping busy at the small stand and planning what their next venture will be.
——————————————————————————————————————–
Rose: How did you find this location?
Norma (in Spanish): We always liked this spot. We drove by in December (2009) and saw a sign (for an eatery) that said “Coming Soon.”
Ulises (in Spanish): I always drove down this street and saw this lot and thought that would be perfect for a taco stand. We came by again and then saw a For Lease sign. We signed an agreement the same day we spoke to the owner. There were a lot of twists and turns with the city and permits but thank God everything worked out.
Norma: In three months, we did everything.
Ulises: The owner had the (vintage) gas pumps in storage and one was just refurbished. He asked if we wanted them and we said yes, so he put them back on. It looks great.

R: Why this location?
Norma: In Mexico, the taquerias are small with just a counter (and grill). I liked that (the location) was small and resembled the taquerias in Mexico.

R: What are the challenges/benefits of the small space?
Norma: (The kitchen area) is small but we make it work. That’s why I prefer women working in the kitchen, only women. At lunch time when it gets busy, we’re all moving around and bumping into each other.
Ulises: There is one window only. We thought of adding another one on the side but thought it was too much. Everything goes through that window – orders go in, food comes out. It’s a magical window.

R:
How well do you work together? And who cooks at home?
Norma: We like working with one of us inside the kitchen and the other outside with the customers. That’s how we have control and are able to please customers, which is what we want.
Ulises: We used to be open seven nights a week when we first opened then we decided we needed a break so we chose to close Sundays. And we still do catering at least once a week.
Norma: At home after work, each night we sit and talk about the day — what went good, what went bad. Since I started this business, I closed the kitchen at home. I don’t cook at home. I spend the whole day smelling food, I still smell it when I get home. On Sundays, we go out to eat at a nice restaurant with a real plate, not a paper plate. I like all types of food. We also learn (about the restaurant business) when we go out to eat. Robert Simon (of AKA Bistro) has come to the taco stand and he likes it. So we went to his restaurant and we’ve learned from him just from visiting, eating there and the feeling we get being there – it’s good food, fresh.

R: Do you get any ingredients from special vendors?
Ulises: Restaurant Depot (in Los Angeles).
Norma: We get almost all our ingredients there, even the produce. (Ulises) goes every morning. They have everything.
Ulises: We also get our meat delivered fresh every day from a vendor, Picos de Europa. And we get Coca-Cola from the Coca-Cola company.

R: Are any of these recipes passed on?
Ulises: These are family recipes.
Norma: From the moms. My parents had taco stands in Mexico. When I first came to Los Angeles, I had carne asada tacos and it was boiled, the meat had been boiled. It wasn’t good. Ulises’ mom taught me how to make her crispy potato tacos. All this (food) no one else made here. This is all made in the morning, it’s fresh. The beans are different, the carne asada, the cochinita pibil – it’s all different (from other Mexican taco stands here).

R: How did you decide to include vegetarian-friendly dishes?
Norma: We like to eat healthy. Everything we make here is fresh and not greasy. We thought vegetarians also want to eat with their (non-vegetarian) friends so we have something for everyone.
Ulises: Vegetarians like it, too. At times when we did catering, also called Norma’s Catering, we would get more ideas of what vegetarians like.

R: What other items would you like to add – seasonal, temporary or permanent?
Norma: We have fish tacos, Mexico-style, on Friday and Saturday. For us, we started it for “semana santa” or lent. But people like it so we’re going to keep doing that on the weekends. We might add some ceviche tostadas (made of chopped seafood and lime juice) but that’s it for now.

R: What do you hope people feel/experience when they come to Norma’s?
Norma: I hope that they feel good with the food. We have had mostly good experiences with customers so far with just over a year open. We have a lot of great reviews on Yelp.
Ulises: With the economy how it is now, customers are happy with our prices.
Norma: A lot of customers say thank you, because the food is good and the prices are good.

R: What’s next for Norma’s?
Norma: In the future, we hope to open a sit-down restaurant serving authentic Mexican food. I don’t want to say what we’re thinking but something different with unique desserts. Not until we find the perfect location though, just like how we found this one, and in Pasadena. I want to stay here. I love Pasadena.

R: Would you be willing to share a recipe with our readers?
Norma: For two million dollars (jokingly). No, really, I can’t share any recipes. We’ve had people walk up to the window with checks to buy our recipes and I said no, so then they try to ask for my cooks. The most someone offered is $300,000 for a recipe but I said no because this is our life; it’s our business.

Norma’s Tacos
1265 E. Green St., Pasadena
626-795-1224
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Monday through Saturday, closed Sundays