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Looking for your new favorite restaurant? Chances are it’s in Pasadena

The Ibérico Pork Chop dish with cabbage and fennel pollen furikake is seen at Bar Chelou.
The Ibérico Pork Chop dish with cabbage and fennel pollen furikake is seen at Bar Chelou.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
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I’ve lived most of my life in Pasadena, a sprawling suburb northeast of downtown Los Angeles. It’s where Julia Child and Jackie Robinson lived for a time, where the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl are held every year. And it’s home to the world-renowned Caltech Seismological Lab. It’s a city known for many things, but it’s never really been a culinary destination.

There are plenty of great places to eat. I’ve written about many of them. But I don’t know that I’d spend an hour in traffic to get there, from where I live currently. Two recent openings are solidifying the city as a culinary destination. A place worthy of a drive for a French-ish bistro where I’d recommend the entire menu, and a restaurant centered on an excellent bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.

Pork chop, snap peas and carrots at Bar Chelou

Plates containing, from left, snap peas, carrots and a pork chop.
From left, the snap peas, carrots and Iberico pork chop dishes at Bar Chelou.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The Iberico pork chop arrives sliced, black-edged and nestled up against the bone, buried under a tangle of slightly wilted and sour cabbage and raw shaved onion. Underneath is a hot mustard sauce and on top, a furikake made with sesame seeds and fennel pollen. It is the dish on most tables at Bar Chelou, Doug Rankin’s new restaurant adjacent to the Pasadena Playhouse. I’d had cured Iberico ham only as red and white ribbons of pure meaty, earthy funk, but the fresh pork chop was the equivalent of a nice piece of Wagyu beef. It picked up the smoke from the Josper charcoal oven it was cooked in and cut like room temperature butter. But the best part of the dish is the one Rankin says he has to actually encourage people to eat.

“The bone is insane, but I watch every plate come back into the kitchen and a lot of people aren’t eating it,” he said. “We bought little hand towels, because we think maybe people just didn’t want to get their hands dirty.”

The Ibérico Pork Chop, Carrot and Snap Pea dishes are seen at Bar Chelou.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
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On a recent visit, I calibrated perfect bites of pork, cabbage and mustard sauce until the slices were gone and I was left with the bone. I contemplated taking it home to be alone with it but couldn’t resist. I gnawed on it, stripping the charred edges that turned sweet and smoky in the oven. I was in the middle of a crowded dining room, but in my head, I was alone with the bone.

If you’re going to listen to a single thing I’ve ever said in this column, let it be this. Eat the bone.

A flower arrangement decorates the main dining area at Bar Chelou.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

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The pork chop is reason enough to visit, but order the snap peas too. It’s a dish crowded with depth and texture, with grilled snap peas tossed in a creamy anchovy mayonnaise under a loose sheath of grated, cured egg yolk and crispy fried chistorra that registers bacon bits. The first bite conjures a warm summer potato salad, but with the freshness of snap peas. The best way to appreciate the full dish is to get a little bit of everything into each bite: creamy, crunchy, salty and bright.

And don’t skip the carrots either. They turned out to be a labor-intensive play on salade de carottes rapes. Rankin shreds a bunch of Weiser Farms carrots, then juices more carrots. He vacuum-seals the shredded carrots in a brine he fashions with the carrot juice, salt and sugar and lets them sit overnight. The vegetable ends up tasting like a superhero version of itself, with an intense, fresh carrot flavor that Rankin dials up with a coconut and ginger dressing. To add even more texture, he adds a heap of grated, fried potatoes to the top along with dehydrated lime leaf. Imagine a Thai papaya salad with carrots. It’s also one of the completely vegan dishes on the menu.

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Chef and owner Doug Rankin prepares the Snap Peas dish at Bar Chelou.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

“I guess this is me finding my cuisine,” Rankin said. The chef recently closed the French Bar Restaurant in Silver Lake and cooked alongside Ludo Lefebvre at Trois Mec and Petit Trois for a time. “I’m just trying to break the rules, I guess.”

Break the rules. And remember what I said about the bone.

Beef noodle soup from Le Chateau de Tien Tao

A blue and white tureen full of braised beef noodle soup.
The braised beef noodle soup at Le Chateau de Tien Tao in Pasadena.
(Justine Wong )

Taiwanese beef noodle soup is a simple but grand dish steeped in comfort. A bowl of broth made from simmered bones, brimming with chewy noodles, vegetables and slabs of meat. It’s the focal point of the limited menu at the new Le Chateau de Tien Tao, a restaurant that opened in Old Pasadena in January.

Owner Aaron Ho, whose family is from Taipei, wanted to create a restaurant devoted to his favorite soup. He partnered with Andy Wang, the chef at Chateau Zoe, Chateau Andy and formerly of the Grand Hotel, all in Taipei. At Le Chateau de Tien Tao, there are three varieties of soup with the same base: a clear broth made by simmering onions, carrots, beef bones (thigh, joint, shoulder, spine and marrow) with water for 24 hours. You can order it as the clear broth, or opt for the braised beef, infused with a soy sauce marinade used to season the thick slices of beef shank that garnish the soup.

There’s also a tomato beef soup that incorporates four types of tomatoes. The fruit adds a prominent sweetness, making it the perfect candidate for the chopped pickled mustard greens and sandy chile sauce garnishes that accompany each bowl.

The braised beef is the favorite of the three, and the most similar to the versions I’ve enjoyed at places like Pi Pi Pop in Monterey Park. The beef marinade turns the broth a deep chocolate brown and imparts an unctuous beef essence that’s rich but not heavy, redolent with what I imagine is five spice and white pepper. Ho’s sister Mimi, who helps with marketing for the restaurant, divulged that there was low sodium soy sauce in the marinade but kept the herbs and spices a secret.

The noodles in each bowl are long and chewy, and the pieces of shank as thick as the steak you might order at the Ruth’s Chris down the street.

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Mimi said the thickness of the cut of the beef is meant to encourage a wine pairing, like at a steakhouse. The restaurant is in the process of transferring a liquor license, which will soon allow them to serve wine.

The name, she added, is a reference to an ancient Chinese mythological character that likes to eat and drink. The restaurant, or “le chateau,” is meant to be a castle for the sophisticated gourmand. It tracks.

Where to eat now

Bar Chelou, 37 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, (626) 808-4976, www.barchelou.com
Le Chateau de Tien Tao, 69 W. Green St., Pasadena, (626) 314-3002, lechateaudetientao.com

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