I recently received a restaurant suggestion from a reader that began by saying, “It’s just a good neighborhood café, not like the places you usually go to with valet parking, reservations and white tablecloths…”
That stopped me dead. I mean…me? I live in well-worn jeans and sneakers. I wear baseball caps. I can’t remember the last time I encountered a white tablecloth. I like Heinz ketchup, and French’s yellow mustard. I drive an ancient Prius with a ridiculous number of miles on it. And I love small neighborhood cafés, where I can get two eggs over easy, with bacon and sausage, and some toast on the side. For the luvva Mike — I’m as reg’lar a guy as I can be. And…I’d rather park 10 blocks away than use a valet.
Which is why my soul is soothed, no matter how tumultuous the world is, by a pair of nifty local eateries — the sort of restaurants that can be found all over the San Gabriel Valley, which as a rule don’t make culinary headlines on the foodie websites. They just…are. They serve good food at reasonable prices to those who just want a tasty feed in an affable setting.
Let us consider, first of all, Lemon Tree (57 E. Holly St., Old Pasadena; 626-396-3354, www.lemontreepasadena.com), which is open for breakfast and lunch only. It sits in the space that was last home to the SG Valley branch of The Pan, which has an obsessive following in the South Bay and Long Beach, but just didn’t catch on in Pasadena. The problem may have been The Pan’s signature gut-buster portions. They serve plenty of chow at Lemon Tree, but you don’t get the feeling your bathroom scale will pop a spring after breakfast. This is food for those who don’t want to run out of notches on their belts.
It’s a very appealing menu, with lots of snappy creativity. There are, for instance, four preparations of avocado toast — an object of relentless culinary desire. One mixes salad caprese with the toast, another with potato and egg, a third with smoked salmon, and a fourth with cranberry and tuna. There are three eggs Benedicts as well, one of which is traditional, followed by a smoked salmon variant, and a short-rib model — which is pretty wild. They seem to have a jones for avocados, since there’s also a dish called Devil’s Avocado, which is packed with tuna salad flecked with cayenne pepper.
In the midst of all this jolly creativity, there are tasty old-school dishes like chicken parmesan and Salisbury steak — which I haven’t seen since Pluto was a pup. There’s pasta and burgers, lots of pancakes and breakfast burritos, and a bunch of mix-and-match poke bowls.
There’s also a good-sized beer and wine list, for those who want a fine Delirium Tremens craft beer on draft for breakfast. I’ll stick with the organic iced coffee, thank you. I know it’s always 5 p.m. someplace, but not while I’m eating my banana Foster French toast. Reg’lar guys got their limits, don’t ya know?
Like Lemon Tree, Fox’s (2352 Lake Ave., Altadena; 626-797-9430; www.foxsaltadena.com) used to be breakfast and lunch only. But these days, they’ve added dinner from Wednesday through Sunday, which makes this definitively neighborhood hang on Upper Lake Avenue in Altadena even more of a destination.
The place was warm and cozy back then — and it’s warm and cozy now, with a cheerful staff who are kept running by the many orders flying out of the kitchen, especially on a Sunday morning when the population of Altadena shows up en masse. This is a place that’s easy to be loyal to.
It’s a finely easy-going restaurant to head for, for a fried egg sandwich topped with melted cheddar, griddled tomato slices, Tabasco-flavored mayo, with an option of smoked mushrooms, house-made ham, bacon or well-chopped, well-spiced machaca beef. There are crispy potatoes on the side. It bears only a passing resemblance to the sad fried egg sandwich so many of us grew up eating.
Many of the dishes at Fox’s are defined by the amendments, twists and turns. The French toast, thick-cut, can come with bourbon-soaked bananas if you like. There’s a dash of horseradish in the corned beef hash, which raises it from Mary Kitchen to happy town.
The BLT — and a very good BLT it is too — comes with roasted pepper, basil mayo and goat cheese, which makes it seem that BLT doesn’t have enough letters to properly define the dish. And look at this: A roasted chicken pozole, served by the (very large) cup, or even larger bowl, heavy with chicken chunks and spice — a dish that’s a meal in itself. But then, you’ll order more, because it’s all so tempting.
And what have they added for dinner? Well, for starters, there’s Breakfast for Dinner — two eggs, two pancakes, two slices of bacon. There’s also the house fish and chips, with malt vinegar tartar sauce, which is so much better than the usual blech sauce. There’s shrimp and grits, and a vegetable pot pie. There’s a pecan-coated catfish. Butternut squash “doughnuts” too.
And yes, the place does have a bit of a Southern tinge, even if it’s on the northern end of Lake Avenue. You can get grits on the side. But no fried chicken, despite the presence of red-eye gravy on the pork butt ham and eggs. If you want your tea sweetened, Southern-style, adding too much sugar is up to you. This Fox has bite. But it doesn’t hurt — especially when it comes to paying the check.