On a quiet, one-way Pasadena street, a few doors down from a comedy club and where you must take caution not to get run over by little old ladies trying to parallel park in front of a medical marijuana store, El Metate Café is a family-run Mexican restaurant that's not so easy to find, and nearly impossible to forget.
This is the place for burritos the size of Popeye's forearms and a boiling concoction served in a giant pig-shaped mortar. It's where you can get tacos of chicken, beef, pork, brain, tongue and pig stomach. (The last three are cabeza, lengua and buche — more appetizing in Spanish.)
El Metate is a family affair, with laughter coming from the small kitchen and smiles at the counter. “Oh, that's my dad,” the guy taking my order shrugged as I pointed out framed photos of a horseman working a cow.
Swipes of green, bronze and gold paint camouflage a much-repaired beige wall. A wagon wheel and a few paintings are scattered around. Metal chairs with the word “Blue” cut inexplicably into the backs, circle plain tables. But at El Metate, your attention is on food, not décor.
You will find chiles rellenos, tamales and quesadillas here. Fish tacos come with richly spiced fresh fish. The chicken is among the most flavorful I've had, chopped into pencil-eraser sized morsels, though I had to scrape off a pile of shredded lettuce to find the chicken. The tacos al pastor are filled with shavings of beautifully marinated pork covered with a blanket of cilantro. I'd like to tell you I tried the cabeza, lengua and buche, but....
The rice and beans on full plates are standard, the salad served dry, though any of four excellent salsas from the counter bar can wake up the strips of romaine and shredded carrot.
Shrimp al mojo de ajo explodes with the scent of garlic (and so will you). Enchiladas de mole are drenched in the dark and rich chocolate, cinnamon and chile-infused sauce. Tortilla soup, one of several soups on the menu, has a rich tomatoey broth with litmus strips of tortillas fried crisp and dusted with Mexican cheese. The gigantic El Metate burrito is stuffed with wonderful, lime-scented beef, pinto beans, rice, salsa, and, oddly, bits of green beans and carrots.
Our favorite was the Molcajete El Metate. A giant stone mortar, or molcajete, is filled with carne asada, grilled cactus pads, shrimp, fish, a pasilla pepper with all its seeds, chorizo and a palm-sized slab of molten cheese. The brew bubbled and popped like the La Brea Tar Pits. We stared at it for a good few minutes before grabbling tortillas and venturing into the pot with a spoon. It's a salty, delicious and increasingly spicy meal that could stretch for two or three people.
Breakfasts are mainly eggs in various states of dress — rancheros, with chorizo, with ham, with dried beef. But the star is the chilaquiles, fried tortilla strips sautéed with salsa, mixed with cream and cheese. El Metate's are a bit oniony, like its pico de gallo salsa, but satisfying.
Drinks include the sweet rice concoction hortchata, hibiscus flower-flavored jamaica, or excellent aguas made with mango, cantelope, watermelon or other fruit.
When you head for the door, the Muro family bids you adios; even the woman cleaning the griddle shouts out a goodbye and thanks. But no warning about the parallel parkers down the street.
REBECCA BRYANT is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared in Newsday, the Los Angeles Times and other publications.
What: El Metate Cafe
Where: 12 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena
When: Mon. through Thurs. 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Fri. 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday.
Cost: Breakfast, $4.99-7.99; tacos $1.50 -$2.25; entrees $4.99 - $14.99
Contact: (626) 229-0706