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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Hungry Wolfe

July 01, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

It's a place of good cheer, Pasadena's Wolfe Burgers, the smell of cooking meat heavy in the air, tables filled with shirt-sleeved businessmen and seminary students, co-proprietor Josephine Arroyo dispensing marital advice to a sad biker-looking dude leaning over the counter.

Four women in baseball caps, one of whom you sort of know from art school, hover over a condiment station in the corner, loading their cheeseburgers with chopped onions and Ortega chiles, cracking nasty jokes out of the corners of their mouths. Two policemen talk quietly over coffee and tacos; a father tries to persuade his 4-year-old that French fries are a good thing.

A straight shot from San Marino, a two-minute walk from Pasadena's toniest shopping district, Wolfe Burgers is an archetypal good-neighborhood dive: exposed brick walls and heavy wooden beams, house plants and classic rock, smartly gleaming Formica and giant cartoon wolves. You can buy not only Budweiser but Dos Equis and Kirin; mineral water is served.

The place kind of feels like a college-town burrito shack circa 1973, cute menu names and all--Sea Wolfe fish sandwiches, Wolfe Hound hot dogs, Belgian Woofles with sauteed apples or maple syrup--except the college kids are all grown up now, and burritos are served only before 10:30 a.m.

The first thing about Wolfe Burgers is the chili, which tastes less like what's usually slopped over an L.A. burger than what you'd expect in a good New Mexico diner--a dark-red, musky sauce with the beef more as a flavor note than as the point of the chili, a half-bitter spiciness, a burnt-bread undertone and a mellow, building chile buzz. Arroyo is Apache, and her rich, thick chili has the pungent duskiness of a well-made American Indian stew.

You can get the chili straight or with beans, with grated cheese or with minced onions, on a baked potato or blanketing a basket of fries. The chili bathes a quite decent homemade tamale--the "Lobo"--its masa firm yet tender, with a tasty filling of stewed pork. Chili smothers the "Wolfe size," a gargantuan--if dry--take on the chili size (a dish that was invented only a few miles south of here). The chili dog's not half bad.

Wolfe Burgers is also famous for its onion rings: crisp, sweet, greasy things fried in clean oil--probably the best onion rings you can get at any place less expensive than City Restaurant or Campanile, onion rings that actually taste like onions. Awesome.

It almost seems all right that the hamburgers are a bit ordinary, that the fresh-cut French fries are over-caramelized and limp, that the soft, white-meat chicken tacos are just OK. So, then . . . chili and onion rings. And extra-thick chocolate shakes. Cool.

Breakfast here involves sweet, dense Belgian waffles--"Woofles"--that taste something like graham crackers; burritos stuffed with chorizo, eggs and cheese; and a saucy green-chile/ground-beef variation on huevos rancheros , "eggs Josephine," that resemble what somebody's Mexican-American grandmother might serve for breakfast on a good day.

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