Crocodile Cafe, 140 S. Lake St., Pasadena, (818) 449-9900. Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m (till midnight Friday and Saturday, 10 p.m. on Sunday). Beer and wine. No reservations. Validated parking; valet parking at night. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$35.
No-frills food came to Pasadena and the people responded with their feet. Within hours of opening, the Crocodile Cafe was besieged by hungry hordes. On their third or fourth day, I called at noon to see how long it would take to get a table. "Don't come before 3," said the woman on the phone. She paused for a moment and reconsidered. "Better yet, don't even try to come today."
What were they promising at this offshoot of Pasadena's popular Parkway Grill that sounded so enticing? Nothing more exotic than good food at reasonable prices.
But if this menu, with its Italian, Asian and Latin influences, bears a resemblance to that of its uptown sibling, the packaging is decidedly pared down. The room itself is bright, open and attractive, but there is nothing remotely luxurious about it. Tables are simply set, chairs are the patio kind, waiters and waitresses come casually clad in black pants and pink sport shirts. The kitchen is in full view, its attendant roar going full blast. And what a blast it is. There is nothing restful about the Crocodile, little that would lead you to linger over a leisurely meal. The floors are tiled, the walls are covered with mirrors and even the pleasant outdoor patio is right on busy Lake Avenue.
The service can be similarly spare. Waiters are likely to bring you soup without a spoon, pie without a fork, coffee without cream. With the exception of one extremely competent waitress who made dinner one night a real pleasure, everybody who has waited on me seemed to be stumbling around in a daze. "It's my first day ever waiting table," said one waiter, setting a saucerless cup of espresso onto the table as if to prove it.
Still, you may not mind. When you order well here, the food can be so good and so reasonable, you'd be glad to serve yourself. Order the wrong dishes, however, and you'll wonder why you bothered to wait for a seat in this extremely noisy room.
Most of the "small plates and bowls" will make you happy to be here. The grilled chicken and pork skewer comes with two delicious chutneys. A red chile relleno is a beautiful dish, a startling swatch of red in a bright-green tomatillo sauce. The flavors are highlighted by the creamy smoked Jack cheese that fills the pepper. Soft carnitas tacos are topped with wonderfully crisp, richly tasty bits of pork on a bed of avocado and lettuce. (This dish is somewhat marred, however, by the sogginess of the tortillas on which they are served.)
But just as you are thinking how well the kitchen does with these spicy dishes, you taste the black bean and sirloin chili--and disappointment. The heat is right at the top, as if a bottle of Tabasco had merely been waved liked a wand across the top. Fried smoked mozzarella is another disappointing dish; it is a bland square thing that has been fried to a fare-thee-well.
Salads, with the exception of spicy chicken with crispy rice noodles, a sort of Thai version in a piquant peanut dressing, also need work. A lettuce dryer would be a good place to begin, for all the greens arrive dripping with water. The Caesar, despite its nice homemade croutons, suffered from too much anchovy and too little egg and garlic in the dressing. The feta salad looked so delicious sitting at another table that one day at lunch I simply had to order it. I wished I hadn't bothered; for all its colorful slivers of olive, peppers, tomatoes and onions, its sprinkling of cheese and its generous cubes of feta, it had remarkably little flavor.
You can skip the salads--but don't miss the pasta dishes. Linguine with tomatoes, ricotta cheese and basil could not have been less fussy; it delivered exactly what it promised, simple ingredients in perfect balance. At $4.85, this dish is a real bargain. I also liked the fettuccine with chicken and vegetable sauce, a sort of Caribbean pasta topped with generous slices of grilled chicken.
Pizzas, which are baked in an oak-fired oven, come topped with all manner of exotic ingredients; one is draped with pork, peppers onions and black beans, another with bacon, goat cheese, leeks and garlic. (There is a sausage-and-pepperoni pizza and a couple of quite-traditional calzone .) The toppings are delicious, but to my taste the dough is too soft.
One of the two clear winners among the larger plates is the grilled chicken breast with papaya and chili-mint relish, fried plantains, crema and black beans. This is a generous plate of food filled with fresh colors and sprightly flavors; for $7.45, you could hardly ask for more. The other bargain is a hefty pork chop with tiny potato pancakes, griddled tomatoes and apple sauce. The pancakes may be puny, but at $7.80 this is a very satisfying dish. I found the homemade sausages less of a thrill; the polenta that came with it was thin and greasy. Grilled chicken with mole sauce needs more thought too; this is a very weary version of what should be a pretty peppy sauce.
But even with the losers in the bunch, there is a lot of good food to be found on this menu. Why then does it seem that on any given day, half the room is sitting down to cheeseburgers? Try one and you will instantly understand; these are big meaty burgers touched with the tang of the grill, topped with pickles, tomatoes, onions and more, then served with a heap of curly fried potatoes. This whole gorgeously messy plate of food costs $4.95, and when you've finished, you will know that you have eaten.
At the moment, there are only a couple of desserts. The beignets-- hot little eggy doughnut holes--have been dropped for lack of interest. It's a pity. They have, however, been replaced by a deep-dark chocolate cake. There is also an apple pie--which needs to spend some more time in the oven--served with rich homemade ice cream. If you're in the mood for something cold, avoid the awful sugary sorbets and opt for the brownie sundae.
The wine list shows the same concern for quality at reasonable prices; there is a nice list of moderate wines and a large variety of beers, including the incomparable Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Clearly this is a kitchen that cares. Good ingredients are used to make the food, which seems to be constantly improving. In a time when many restaurants seem to worry more about the way that they look than the food that they serve, the Crocodile is bucking the trend. It is putting its money where your mouth is; how nice to see that the public is eating it up.