It seems these days, to stay afloat, businesses have to diversify, mechanize, franchise and super-size. But I believe to be really good, you’ve got to specialize.
A growing crop of local food purveyors are finding their niche in specialty gourmet foods, particularly confections. Their small businesses might be housed in charming shops on hip walking streets or in simple storefronts off the beaten path. In fact, some avoid the expense of rent altogether and conduct business online (see sidebar).
Here are a few outstanding specialty sweet shops in the Tri-city area:
14 S. Fair Oaks, Pasadena
Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Nothing like those coconut macaroons you either loved or hated as a kid, these delicate Parisian cookies are a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. The beautiful colors hint at the unique flavors within, flavors like lemon (good and tangy), rose (an acquired taste) and Caribbean chocolate (incredible). These cookies taste heavenly, but it’s more about the textural experience. First, your teeth crack through an eggshell-thin crust to a light almond-scented meringue interior and finally into a jelly-like, deeply flavored ganache. Handmade in their Beverly Hills kitchen, the macarons are sold separately ($1.70) or packaged in a chic box ($10.50 for 6; $19.50 for 12).
Pauline’s Handmade Brittle
1926 W. Olive Ave., Burbank
Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Pauline Marasek used to front an indie rock band, but seven years ago she turned her creative talents to nut brittles. She’s still a rock star in my eyes. All of my friends are getting this brittle for Christmas. The thick chunks are rich and buttery with just the right amount of crunch. The best part is they don’t stick in your teeth. According to Pauline, that’s because the brittle is fresh, kept at the right temperature and made with the best ingredients. The classic pecan brittle is a best-seller, especially with the dark, white or milk chocolate coating. Equally delicious is the Spicy Dark Peanut Brittle with Sea Salt, cayenne-spiced peanuts in brittle dipped in good dark chocolate with a hint of salt. Quarter-pound bags of most brittles are $6.75, and one-pound gift boxes start at $18.50. As my 85-year old mother-in-law said, “This stuff rocks.”
2323 Honolulu Ave., Montrose
Open noon-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; noon-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
When the owners of this artisanal ice-cream company wanted to expand beyond their homeland of Denmark, they chose Montrose. They liked the small-town feel and guessed correctly that locals would appreciate their freshly made, creamy treat with 40% less fat. Paradis uses fruits from the local farmers markets and milk (not cream) from Alta Dena Dairy. They make about a dozen batches every morning in authentic Italian ice-cream machines at the back of the store. The results are creamy, flavorful scoopfuls that aren’t pumped up with unnecessary air or preservatives. Families often stop in for a scoop ($3.50) or milkshake ($6) while strolling through Montrose. The flavors change daily, but our favorites include Ferrero Rocher (flecked with bits of the hazelnut candy) and chocolate. The sorbets, made with fresh fruit and water, are a bit uneven. The cranberry, for instance, had a shallow flavor and an unpleasant aftertaste. But the strawberry tastes fresh from the garden.
There are food lovers out there creating products with care and attention, one batch at a time. These products do typically cost more. But I figure a small bite of something really wonderful keeps expenses down by keeping the doctor away. It’s good for the soul.
LISA DUPUY has been reviewing area restaurants since 2008. She can be reached at LDupuy@aol.com.