Growing up in the middle-of-nowhere Midwest, my childhood consisted of cornfield hikes, seasonal poison ivy flare-ups, and birthday parties where the main attraction was a creek. It was pretty idyllic, and yet, in the years since moving away, I’ve forgotten the joys that come from rural Midwestern simplicity. After dinner at Agnes, it all came rushing back.
This meat-and-cheese-heavy spot in Pasadena is where Midwestern childhood nostalgia meets great food. Dinner here is as comforting as it is exciting - regardless of where you grew up.
As you walk through Agnes’s massive barn doors on Green St., don’t be alarmed if you’re hit with a wave of bucolic happiness. There’s a full market and cheesery up front, an open hearth loaded with sizzling meats, and giant wooden rafters soaring above the dining room and back patio. The building was once an actual horse stable, making the rustic interior seem closer to an upscale supper club in central Iowa than a lunch and dinner spot in downtown Pasadena. Once the food hits the table though, you’ll realize this is far from anything you’d ever find at a local fish fry.
Look, it’s no secret that the Midwest doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to exciting food. Most people openly mock it. Rich culinary pockets exist (Chicago, Minneapolis, Dearborn, to name a few), but I was fed too many cream of mushroom casseroles to argue against the played-out stereotype. If two people are capable of changing the perception - at least in LA - it might be co-owners, Iowa-born chef Thomas Kalb and LA-born cheesemonger Vanessa Tilaka.
Agnes isn’t the first new restaurant in LA to dip into Midwestern nostalgia, but it’s the only one that goes all-in. For native Midwesterners, seeing things like cheese curds with buttermilk ranch and puppy chow on the menu might inspire a text to a high school friend, “I’m at a restaurant in Pasadena that serves f*cking puppy chow.” Biting into dishes like cornbread eclairs topped with silky chicken liver mousse and loaded baked potato dumplings that taste exactly like a loaded baked potato could cause visceral flashbacks. If you didn’t grow up in the Midwest, or can’t even point to it confidently on a map, who cares? You’ll still be eating immensely delicious food - no matter your personal relationship with cornfields and roaring hearths.
There’s a reason “Cheesery” is attached to the official name of Agnes and it’s because cheese is serious business here. Take them up on it and order a board either at the beginning or end of your meal. Vanessa Tilaka’s pitch-perfect curation makes eating cheese here the one thing it should always be - fun. It should also be noted that buying cheese on the way out of a restaurant is common practice in the Midwest - whether it be at a Wisconsin cheese chalet or a local family diner. The fact you can do it at Agnes makes for an unabashedly authentic Midwestern experience.
You can find chicken liver mousse all over LA, but there’s only one that comes served on top of a thick cornbread eclair, and that’s at Agnes. Order it. It’s sweet and buttery and an ideal way to begin your nostalgic journey.
Raw chicories can be an overwhelming element to any dish, but thanks to the earthy sweetness of nectarines, roasted almonds, goat cheese, and a dijon vinaigrette, the intense bitterness is perfectly evened out
All the pastas at Agnes are exceptional, but our favorite one at the moment is the saffron cavatelli with braised lamb. The cavatelli itself is soft and slightly chewy, but it’s the rich butteriness courtesy of the lamb fat gremolata and aged sheep’s cheese that take this dish to another level.
If you walk into Agnes, spot the roaring hearth filled with sizzling meats, and don’t order a steak, then you have a level of mind-body control we’ll never achieve. Bathed in an herbaceous garlic butter, this is just a simple, beautiful piece of meat and one you’ll definitely not be able to take down alone.
We’ve already put Agnes’s soft serve on our best ice cream in LA guide, so that speaks for itself. But when it comes to choosing toppings, puppy chow is non-negotiable. Maybe you grew up calling it monkey munch or muddy buddies or maybe you have no idea what we’re talking about. Either way, you’re ordering this chocolate-dusted rice chex snack from the gods.