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A Good Time

The 8:30 Cafe in Pasadena goes for Southern comfort with a light approach to traditional favorites.

June 26, 1997|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All the clocks at 8:30 Cafe read 8:30. The charming story is that the owner's mother was born at 8:30 one Aug. 30, but it's actually an appropriate name. Eight-thirty is a comfortable hour--and just a bit past the kids' bedtime. This is a homey sort of restaurant with sophisticated touches.

There's a sofa where you can sit while you're waiting for takeout, but there's also live jazz on Saturday nights. The menu of old-time Southern favorites has been lightened up a bit. The meatloaf isn't greasy; one of the best dishes, the blackened chicken, is just about fat-free. The place even has a wine list, though a short one.

It's around the corner from a lot of Pasadena's restaurant action, down a quiet block from Papashon. This is Old Town, so naturally there's a hint of Old Town ambience: rough old wooden posts rising from the middle of the floor, some contemporary paintings, half a skylight.

There aren't any appetizers, so you just dive feet first into an entree, though you do get an automatic hot cornmeal muffin to start with. The all-beef meatloaf is meaty and juicy (if you're seriously looking for lighter food, there's also a turkey model). The fried chicken takes a little while because it's fried to order and it certainly has a nice dark crust. Once I found a few parts of the meat to have a pinkish cast, but they tasted perfectly well done.

The stuffed pork chops aren't literally stuffed--they're fried and served on top of a mound of sage bread crumb stuffing. This is probably the most traditional Southern dish, at least on the rib-stickingness scale.

I don't know where they barbecue the pork ribs here--there's no evidence of a pit on the premises--but they're perfectly fine. The dark tomato-molasses sauce is pleasantly doctored with vinegar and somebody's secret barbecue sauce ingredients. The only problem with the dish is that it's reheated, sometimes not quite all the way through.

As for that blackened (more exactly, seared) chicken, it consists of pieces of skinless chicken breast, rubbed with cayenne and maybe a little cumin, which have been mashed into a hot pan and arranged on a mound of barely wilted spinach dressed with a splash of vinegar. The result is like Southern food crossed with Thai and really pretty good.

You get two side dishes with an entree, nearly all quite good. Collard greens, distinctly dosed with red pepper. Homemade mashed potatoes, a little bit fluffy. Black-eyed peas dosed with a bit of vinegar. A tangy combination of okra, corn and tomatoes. The yams are not over-sweetened, and the macaroni and cheese (a massive portion) is good and cheesy.

The red beans and rice, however, are not cooked together--they're really red beans on rice; OK, but lacking the real Louisiana flavor. The only side dish that doesn't work at all is, by contrast, all too Southern--green beans cooked to death.

If you order gumbo (only available on Fridays), you don't get any of the side dishes, the theory being that it has everything in it already. This is a good, authentic soupy gumbo based on a dark roux sauce, flavored with plenty of file powder. The time I had it, it included some skinny crab legs and chicken but no sausage, possibly another effort to lighten this cuisine up.

On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be much effort in that direction at dessert time. Apart from the huge double chocolate cake, there's a pecan pie (heavy on the pecans, light on the custard layer) and a classic sock-it-to-me cake with its swirls of pecan. The showstopper, surprisingly, is the bread pudding, which might better be called raisin pudding. I've never seen a bread pudding so thickly studded with raisins.

There's peach cobbler, of course; you can't be Southern without making peach cobbler. Here the interpretation is a pie with a light, flaky top crust and no bottom crust, and it will satisfy most cobbler lovers. But one night they were out of canned peaches (imagine that) and had to substitute an apple cobbler, and I thought it was even better. I must have come at just the right hour.

BE THERE

8:30 Cafe, 36 E. Holly St., Pasadena. (818) 405-9492, 405-1067; fax (818) 795-7628. Wine and beer. Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 5-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; brunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Delivery ($10 minimum). Beer and wine. Street parking. MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $21-$35. What to Get: blackened chicken, gumbo (Friday only), meatloaf, fried chicken, greens, black-eyed peas, bread pudding, peach cobbler.

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