Growing up in Monterey Park and then the Inland Empire as the oldest son in a large working-class family, Daniel Torres’ role, part by design and part by choice, was house chef.
He took it upon himself to grill hot dogs on a fork over the gas burner in the kitchen, when not working culinary miracles with ramen or Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
Before becoming formally trained at the Cordon Bleu, no less, that was his mission and modus operandi—get the food on the table and feed the family.
His home was his clientele and community. Now decades later with years of experience in some of the best restaurants in the country, he wants to bring that same sense to his new eatery on Holly Street, Holy Saints!
“That was the whole goal,” he said in a recent interview.
“Our mission when we opened this place was to be part of the Old Pasadena community, but also be part of the neighborhood where they could rely on us to be here when they need us most.”
This was after a career of street tacos in Alhambra and East LA, which led to a glittering string of gigs at prestigious eateries like Waterloo and City in Venice, as well as Oma in Downtown LA.
Those brought him to yet another fab gig as chef cuisine at the historic 100 year-old Evergreen Lodge in Groveland, deep in Yosemite National Park. His own cabin on the property was just 150 feet from John Muir’s cabin that he built for his own family.
“That’s where I started to learn how to manage,” he recalled, “and that’s where I saw things differently. I was like, ‘All right, I know how to cook, and I know how to do this and that, but managing is a different story.”
With still more experience on his own, he and wife Stephanie opened their own catering business at the onset of the pandemic. The surprising success of the enterprise threw open the doors of opportunity for them to join the thriving restaurant community of Old Pasadena.
Holy Saints! is essentially a sandwich and salad lunchtime spot by day, and even those offerings are a cut above the every day, reflecting Torres’ range of experiences. There are their own Cuban sandwiches, a Hickory Ham and Cheese, an Italian-influenced “Tony Soprano” sandwich, and a “Beatdown” barbeque, among the choices.
But we were here for dinner, which is a bit more of an elevated affair even among ordinary dinner offerings.
Like the Duck Fat Fries, for example.
As Torres described them, “We make our own creme freche in house with pickling liquid. And then we end up folding in banana peppers inside there. And to date, knock on wood, no one has asked for ketchup! And I love ketchup!”
I wouldn’t have minded ketchup, but you can have ketchup anywhere.
The Duck Fat Fries followed a refreshing Arugula-based summer salad with strawberries, walnuts, peaches, bleu cheese and a pesto Genovese—perfectly tart and sweet.
Then it was taco time. This is what launched Torres, and the 2023 version is frankly not that far from what was likely served on the streets of East LA.
Three smoked Angus tri-tip steak tacos were served with a cool Avocado salsa, pico de gallo, and Habanero on a corn tortilla. It all tasted like a Friday night after a Dodger game. Including the Jarrito orange soda.
Dessert was a stack of six (!) freshly-made cannolis, which came with their own history: In Torres’ not-so-distant history, he was challenged to create his own “Holy Cannoli,” essentially a hundred cannolis stuffed into a cannon-sized cannoli, for a wedding. That mission was a success, but it was considerably down-scaled for the evening’s dinner.
Even still, half of the mascarpone-filled cannolis went back to my modest apartment to spend an evening. I needed at least two other dining mates for the full experience.
As Torres’ himself notes, “We really suggest family style sharing, say, bring four or more people, get two salads, get a couple of these, get a couple of those. Or, if it’s just you and I coming in, then let’s get a salad. Let’s get two mains and let’s share.
“I want to pay homage to that and things that we’re missing,” said Torres, still the older brother cooking up ramen in the family kitchen. “There’s something out there where people are forgetting the idea of food and how it brings friendship and family together.”
Holy Saints is the perfect dramatic conclusion to Torres’ culinary trajectory, and one worthy of success in Pasadena’s competitive restaurant scene.
Holy Saints! 21 East Holly Street, Pasadena. (626) 627-9515.