Old Town Pasadena is No Longer a Food Tourist Trap

Innovative chefs and intriguing concepts have jumpstarted Old Town Pasadena’s food scene

Old Town Pasadena has never—at least in recent memory—boasted much of a food scene. Sure, it has always had too many restaurants to keep track of, but despite a few gems, most of the shopping district’s culinary options have skewed “touristy.” Until now. For the past few years, innovative chefs and intriguing food concepts have steadily infiltrated Old Town, making it yet another worthy L.A. food destination. And, hey, it’s even Gold Line accessible.

Here are some of our favorite new breed eating and drinking spots in Old Town Pasadena:

Union: Chef Bruce Kalman’s Northern-Italian-via-California menu gives Old Town exactly what it’s been missing—seasonal, market-driven dishes made with the simplicity that only a perfectionist could execute. Much more casual than most of Pasadena’s other fine dining options, the small restaurant hosts a lively atmosphere, encouraged by a good wine list and vibrant dishes, like succulent meatballs made with lardo, sultry porchetta served with heirloom potatoes and salsa verde, and a spaghetti alla chitara that’s just about perfect. 37 E. Union Street, 626-795-5841

Copa Vida: A poster child for the third wave coffee movement, this is the kind of place that hands you a sparkling water “palate cleanser” with your shot of espresso. Yeah, it’s a little much. Still, Copa Vida’s slight insanity does yield an amazing cup of coffee—poured over, of course. They also serve a small selection of tea from Art of Tea, which is beautifully brewed in a super-cool, see-through machine. Sandwiches hand salads are by Chef Erick Lee, and Farmshop supplies the pastries. 70 S. Raymond Avenue, 626-213-3952 

Picnik: Handcrafted sausages make up the bulk of the menu at this outdoor eatery, where patrons share communal picnic tables. Spicy lamb Merguez, the adventuresome Head-to-Tail, and 12 other sausage varieties are done up with your choice of toppings, or you can go with one of Chef Eduardo Ruiz’s (also of Corozon y Miel) creations—no substitutions, please. The burgers are also tasty, and beer list is curated with care. 168 W. Colorado Boulevard, 626-793-8008

Punch: Right upstairs from Picnik’s patio is Punch, a speakeasy lounge, specializing in alcoholic punches from the 1600s to 1800s. The work of Darwin Manahan and Robin Chopra, who also run the bar at Corozon y Miel, this dark, casual spot opens from Thursday to Saturday to serve a potent selection of well-balance punches and thrown cocktails that are never too sweet, but very easy to drink. We love the Royal Vice City, bright green and sprinkled with peppercorns. 168 W. Colorado Boulevard, 626-639-8169; reservations encouraged

85°C: If sea-salt coffee turns you off, you probably haven’t tried one. The luscious treat is one of the specialties of 85°C, a Taiwanese chain that recently opened shop in Pasadena. The pastries are nothing short of delicious—we like the sweet and delicate sponge cakes—and you’ll probably have a tough time choosing between a wide variety of Japanese, Euro, and Taiwanese style breads. That long line isn’t there for nothing. 61 S. Fair Oaks Avenue, 626-792-8585

800 Degrees: This think-it-up-yourself pizza chain from the minds behind Umami Burger (also now in Old Town) makes a lot of “Best Pizza in L.A.” lists, and rightfully so. Despite a quick turnaround, the Neapolitan-style pies come to you with a crispy crust and high-quality toppings, ranging from the basics to the less expected, including rock shrimp, pine nuts and a whole list of cheese options. Specialties, like the Piccante with soppressata, garlic and chiles are ideal for the decision-averse. 2 E. Colorado Boulevard 

Intelligentsia: When Intelligentsia Pasadena opened four years ago, it was an unexpected, but very welcome, addition to Old Town and a harbinger (and probably the impetus) for things to come. This location is decidedly friendlier than its Silver Lake and Venice sisters, and along with primo macchiatos, there’s also craft beer, wine, and a chocolate bear claw that regulars swear by. 55 East Colorado Boulevard, 626-578-1270

Little Sheep Hot Pot: Who would have expected a legit hotpot chain from China to come to Old Town Pasadena? Not us, but we were excited when Little Sheep’s doors opened this summer. The traditional Mongolian dish they serve comes complete with a giant pot of boiling broth—original or dark red and spicy hot—and any combination of veggies, noodles and meat, which includes everything from Kobe beef to pork blood. Don’t forget the sauce bar. 45 S. Fair Oaks Avenue, 626- 229-0888

Escuela Taqueria: Restaurateur Steven Arroyo opened the second location of his taco joint at One Colorado in September. One of the few Mexican-influenced eateries in Old Town, Escuela Taqueria offers a wide array of creatively conceived tacos and burritos. The crispy beef and pickle tacos are as crowd-pleasing as they were at Malo, where he first introduced them, and the carnitas are braised ‘til tender. Agua frescas are made in-house daily, and there are plenty of Mexican sodas to choose from. 16 Miller Alley, 626-578-0646