There are a lot of things to do in northwest Pasadena on a weekend, even if you're not much for looking at stately elms or turn-of-the-century mansions. There's an all-jazz record store that's pretty cool; there are a lot of leafy parks and almost too many Armenian delis to count. You could pick through some of the thrift stores, though they're nothing like the ones in Old Town before the zillion-dollar redevelopment. You could even head up to the mountains for a morning hike.
Northwest Pasadena, an African-American neighborhood, can be a nice place for a walk, with dense-canopied trees and probably more good architecture per block than you'll find anywhere else in the Southland. And after a neighborhood stroll, at the top of Los Robles you'll find Aunt Gussye's Place, a Creole stronghold of fried shrimp, catfish 'n' grits and bottomless glasses of fresh lemonade.
Aunt Gussye's is in a Spanish courtyard shopping center of a type common in the '30s: a high-ceilinged space with arched windows, ceiling fans and the smell of clean grease. There are occasional celebrity sightings, if your definition of a "celebrity" is broad enough to include members of the Pasadena City Council, some of whom seem to regard Aunt Gussye's as almost an annex. Last time I was there, outgoing council member Isaac Richard, who for the last four years has dominated council meetings the way James Brown used to dominate the Famous Flames, was pacing around waiting for takeout.
If you're here in crawfish season, what you want is the live crawfish boil: Twist off the heads, suck the yellow fat out of the carapace, slip the tail meat free and throw the shells on the Louisiana-expat newspapers a waitress has laid down as a tablecloth. It's kind of hard-core crawfish, the way you get it at the Acme in New Orleans or a New Orleans friend's house in L.A.--not a few wimpy tails in a sauce ravigote but a bowl the size of a Buick hubcap, piled high with the bright-red crustaceans, fragrant with allspice, hot with a megadose of black pepper.
For an extra buck, you can get the crawfish boiled with coins of hot sausage and a couple ears of corn, and you might as well. There are worse ways to kill a rainy afternoon than with a mountain of crawfish and a bottle of beer imported from the market across the street.
But the restaurant can be spotty. One afternoon, the collard greens are tough and fibrous, as if they've barely been cooked; a couple of weeks later, collards are tender and delicious, seasoned with vinegar and little flecks of chile. A side dish of okra and corn can be hard, way overcooked, gritty with black pepper that adds only bitterness to the dish, and the next time tender and awesomely hot.
Generally, the Creole stuff's better than the soul food; the catfish po' boy or the murky, seafood-rich file gumbo are surer bets than the listless, smothered pork chops. The jambalaya's a little soupy, but it's not too bad, a big plate of rice simmered with spicy tomato sauce, chunky with bits of chicken, chopped bell pepper and firm shrimp made smoky with disks of smoked sausage.
Shrimp Creole is pretty basic boiled shrimp in a dull tomato stew flavored with green pepper and onion, but the dish might as well be what Tabasco was invented to cure, and a bright dash or two brings it into almost perfect balance. The red beans and rice are just fine.
Before dinner comes a salad tossed with croutons and what tastes like--but probably isn't--bottled Italian dressing. Instead of bread, there are yellow cornmeal pancakes, crisp-edged and sweet, golf balls of whipped butter melting down one end. You probably haven't lived until you've rolled a few peeled crawfish up inside a corn pancake and eaten a down-home Louisiana taco.
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WHAT TO GET
Boiled live crawfish, jambalaya, file gumbo, bread pudding.
WHERE TO GO
Aunt Gussye's Place, 2057 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena, (818) 794-6024. Open Sunday-Thursday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard and Visa accepted. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$18 (more with live crawfish).