Here is what I knew about Pasadena before exploring it recently and chatting with the locals about food:
1. It exists.
2. It is located southeast of Houston.
3. It has a reputation as a culinary wasteland filled with chain restaurants and mediocre hole-in-the wall Mexican joints.
After a few sojourns down to the "Strawberry Capital" (something else I learned about Pasadena--it hosts a large strawberry festival every year), I discovered that the city isn't so culinarily deprived. Yes, there are a number of chain restaurants, and yes, I believe there might be a pupuseria or taqueria for every five or so citizens.
But the local establishments in Pasadena aren't bad at all. In fact, they're somewhat nostalgic. I found a burger place that makes classic roadside burgers and a snowcone joint with the same wonderfully wistful fake fruit flavors I remember from my childhood. There's Cajun soul food, doughy pizzas and, yes, a fabulous Mexican restaurant or two.
5. Tostada Regia La Tostada Regia is actually a local chain with outposts on Airline, Long Point, Park Place and I-10 East, as well as a hopping location in Pasadena. It's not so hole-in-the-wall as places like El Rey on Preston Road or Pupuseria y Restaurante Martinez (both worth a try), but what it lacks in mom-and-pop charm it makes up for in great, dependable food. Open for breakfast and lunch, La Tostada Regia is known for its tostadas and giant tortas, but I prefer the trompo tacos and the enchiladas norteñas, with their ruddy red seasoned corn tortillas and creamy queso blanco.
4. Dollar Daze Snow Cones This place isn't exactly a hidden gem. In fact, the brightly painted snow cone shack is hard to miss, and that's how I found it a mere week after it opened in front of a car wash that's been there "forever," according to a Dollar Daze employee. The small shaved ice shack is getting in more syrup flavors every day, but for now, cool off with a bright green lemon lime or cherry cup (or mix them, as I did). The flavors might not be what you expect from the gourmet sno-ball shops in Houston offering strawberry and Thai basil or grapefruit and cardamom treats, but there's something wonderfully nostalgic about cherry syrup made with red dye that'll turn your tongue a shocking shade of crimson.
Note: Dollar Daze does not appear to have an address, but it's on Red Bluff Road a few blocks north of Spencer Highway.
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3. Pizza Agave To be honest, I have no idea why this place is called Pizza Agave. As far as I know, you get tequila and mezcal or agave nectar from the agave plant, not anything pizza-related. Regardless, this is a great little pizza shop nestled inside a gas station convenience store. There's a coal pizza oven inside the small space, and the pizza is the type I remember eating at birthday parties as a child--somewhere between gourmet, wood fired pies and delivery pizza. It's doughy and clearly hand formed, and though the slice I got could have used another several minutes in the oven to get the cheese bubbly and the crust more toasted on the bottom, but the tomato sauce is bright and acidic, the pepperoni spicy and the crust wonderfully doughy.
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2. Credeur's Cajun Cookin' Be forewarned: Credeur's is so popular, it often sells out before closing time at 3 p.m. That's what happened on my most recent trip to the Cajun eatery for some crawfish étouffée and buttermilk pie, and unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of the food on a previous trip because I was so excited to eat it. Credeur's serves everything cafeteria style, and diners can choose from a variety of Cajun classics that are every bit as good as what you'd find in the bayous and backwoods of Louisiana. Though I'm a Danton's devotee when it comes to most Cajun food, this little family run joint could certainly give any Houston Cajun restaurant a run for its money. If you've been in search of smoked boudin, crawfish-stuffed pistolettes and catfish po'boys like mama used to make, look no further.
1. Star Burgers What do you get when you cross an old fashioned Texas drive thru burger joint with a Chinese restaurant and plant it near the Gulf Coast? You get Star Burger, a classic burger shack that also serves some great seafood fried rice and baskets of fried shrimp and fish. It's the burgers most come for, though, and they never disappoint. Each burger is grilled fresh to order, and the cheese is placed on top while the patty is still on the grill, allowing it to melt into the meat. The bun is also toasted on the grill, and the whole thing is topped with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles and mustard, in true Texas style. The patties are thin and crisped on the outside, but even though they're almost flattened, they spread flavorful juice throughout the veggies and bun. Order a cheeseburger basket for just over $6, and you'll get fries and some of the most crispy onion rings in town with your burger.