Eagle Rock/Highland Park/Pasadena/Glendale | 99 Essential Restaurants 2015

Eagle Rock/Highland Park/Pasadena/Glendale

Cacao Mexicatessen

photo by Anne Fishbein

Cacao Mexicatessen is a mash-up of a variety of third spaces: coffee shop, deli, neighborhood restaurant, taco destination. The cafe de olla keeps many an Oxy student awake through finals, for instance, and Sunday Night Football can only be improved with the tortillas and guacamole in the deli case that you can pick up after you make your run to Trader Joe’s next door. As for its restaurant side, the kitchen makes all sorts of terrific Mexican fare: You’d be more than happy to unwind here after work on a weeknight with a bottle of Tijuana Guera, mole fries and an enchilada plate. And then there are the tacos, of which the carnitas de pato has become something of a legend on this side of town: shredded pieces of duck, simmered in its own fat, tucked into a warm, homemade tortilla. And the avocado taco, too, delicately fried in panko, is pretty great whether you’re a vegetarian or not. As unlikely a space as Cacao might be, it works. Very, very well. —Tien Nguyen

El Faisan y El Venado

photo by Besha Rodell

People throw around the term “mom-and-pop” a lot for the small, family-owned restaurants that make up the heart and soul of dining in L.A., but El Faisan y El Venado is the real deal. The cheerful Highland Park restaurant specializing in the food of the Yucatán is run by Angel and Maria Eugenia Contreras de Campos, a husband-and-wife team who are generally the only people working there, he in the dining room and she in the kitchen. From that kitchen comes moist, luscious, long-simmered cochinita pibil, but also zesty escabeche oriental, a vinegar-stewed turkey leg swathed in mounds of cooked onions, and panuchos and salbutes, variations on fried tortillas topped with meat, refried beans, avocado, lettuce and pickled onions. Angel is one of the most welcoming and enthusiastic hosts around, and he’ll walk you through the menu if you’re feeling unsure. He may also offer his services as a handyman — we can’t vouch for that side of the business, but if his painting and repairs are as good as his wife’s cooking, then you won’t be disappointed. —Besha Rodell

El Huarache Azteca

photo by Anne Fishbein

The king of Highland Park antojito parlors, El Huarache Azteca is the locals’ preferred source for that satisfying snack between meals, eaten quickly off a paper plate and drowned in watery but stunning spicy salsa. Chewy carne asada sopes, sprinkled with queso fresco, or a foil-wrapped torta stuffed with soft stewed lengua are both immensely satisfying, but most customers opt for the namesake huarache, a Mexico City specialty formed from a sandal-shaped oval of fried masa and layered with beans, lettuce, cheese and meat. You’re supplied a flimsy plastic fork, but the only reasonable way to attack this oblong construction is with one’s hands. Once you’re done wiping the crema off your chin, take note of the signs promising spit-roasted barbacoa on the weekends and killer chilaquiles verde in the mornings. For a restaurant named after a specific dish, El Huarache Azteca is a surprising jack-of-all-trades. —Garrett Snyder

Ración

photo by Anne Fishbein

Loretta Peng and Teresa Montaño’s ode to the Basque is as personal as a restaurant gets: It’s a passion project, radiating the warmth that only comes from a business powered by heart and soul. Ración’s modest but elegant dining room, tucked into a leafy block in Pasadena, is as unassuming as it is comfortable, but it’s the cooking that truly sets this place apart. Brilliant orange, citrus-cured salmon might lay draped across your plate nestled against a creamy, thick sauce based on ajo blanco, the white Spanish soup made with crushed almonds and garlic. House-made squid-ink pasta, served with mussels and piquillo peppers and giving off the soft perfume of saffron, is impossibly light — a trick made all the more magical when it’s done with black pasta. This is food more touched by the best of international fine dining than it is by the jumble of small plates seen everywhere these days. Unlike so many of the kale salads and bowls of blackened Brussels sprouts, which taste good but could be made by any of a thousand cooks, the food at Ración could only be here, in this place, from these people. —Besha Rodell

Multiple-location Essential restaurants also in this neighborhood: