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A Tasty Corner of Pasadena

At this quiet shopping center you can choose hummus, mole or foie gras


Allen Avenue is a grand old street that starts at the entrance to the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino and stretches to the foothills of Altadena. Its heart--at least food-wise--is where it crosses Villa Street in Pasadena, especially the great little shopping center on the northeast corner. Along with the dry cleaner, the liquor store and the dog groomer, you can buy a surprising variety of foods.

The surrounding neighborhood is filled with the kind of shady, bungalow-lined residential streets Pasadena is known for. Families sit out on porches; kids play on the tree-lined sidewalks. The area is more diverse these days but no less middle class than it was in the '20s and '30s when most of these houses were built.

The shopping center has been there about as long. Its facade had a make-over after the 1992 L.A. riots and, like many an L.A. face lift, it ended up looking worse than before. Just ignore it. The food being sold inside is about as good as food gets.

1. The radio greets you as you walk through the door of Linda Rosa Market, blasting Spanish love songs with the clerks crooning right along. If that puts you in the mood for tamales or Cuban empanadas, you can purchase the ingredients for both here. There are rows of masa, rice, dried beans, pan dulce, cajeta, canned jalepenos and salsas, moles and other groceries you'd find in Mexico. There's a carniceria where you can get carne asada, carne ranchera, marinated chicken, four kinds of chorizo--Mexican (rojo), Argentine (blanco), Salvadoran (mild) and Spanish--and ready-made masa (for tamales and pupusas). Marvin is the carnicero and he's generous with his knowledge.

There's also an assortment of fresh Mexican cheeses and pupusa fillings. The produce section is small but included fresh banana leaves on one visit. There are bins of dried peppers: Anaheim, pasilla, ancho and poblano. There are also huge bins of all types of dried legumes and spices. There are chile powders, camaron molido and dried epazote, to name a few. And, of course, there's lots of piloncillo and Mexican chocolate.

Linda Rosa Market, 1827 E. Villa St., Pasadena. (626) 449-8698.

2. Puebla Tacos #2 sells the usual tacos, burritos, rice and beans, but in the early morning it's packed with people eating big plates of huevos a la Mexicana, huevos rancheros, huevos con jamon, machaca or chorizo for $4.50 per plate. Everything is fresh. At lunch, the shrimp or fish caldos are really flavorful.

Puebla Tacos #2. 1819 E. Villa St., Pasadena. (626) 793-1083.

3. Don't look for somebody named Caesar at Caesar's Grill. Owner Tateo Hatsavorian says he calls his place Caesar's Grill because of his own striking resemblance to Julius Caesar. But did the Roman emperor elicit hugs? Tateo does. He's cute and kids love him. Even if you just stop in for the hummus, it will be well worth it. Seta Hatsavorian makes it fresh from whole garbanzos every morning. She makes a delicious mutabbal (also known as baba ghannouj) from grilled eggplant, tahineh, lemon juice and garlic. Try the shawarma (rotisserie beef marinated in wine and spices) or any of the kebabs, or get a whole rotisserie chicken to take home, along with some sarma (grape leaves stuffed with rice and walnuts) or tzatziki (thick yogurt with diced cucumber and garlic) and maybe a little tabbouleh salad. Take the kids; Caesar's loves kids.

Caesar's Grill, 488 N. Allen Ave., Pasadena. (626) 405-9000.

4. As you enter Nicole's Gourmet Imports in the morning, you may find a Mozart string quartet on the radio competing with the sound of Nicole GrandJean chirping in French on the phone. Nicole will win. She hails from the departement of Loire-et-Cher and originally imported and sold her French delicacies to restaurant chefs. Her clientele urged her to open to the public and, with the help of her son, Stephen, she keeps the shop well stocked with fresh foie gras, jambon cru, duck leg confit, duck breast, smoked salmon, pa^tes, caviar, baguettes and croissants from a local French baker, an assortment of French artisanal cheeses, butter from France, white anchovies and even, in season, fresh truffles. She also carries Valrhona, Callebaut and Scharffen Berger cooking chocolate, tablecloths and dish towels and various pottery from Provence.

Stop in on Saturday for cheese tastings and, on occasion, tastings of vintage balsamic vinegars.

Nicole's Gourmet Imports, 498 N. Allen Ave., Pasadena. (626) 792-1148.

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