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Home / Life! / Dining / Love and cheese in Pasadena: Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery celebrates first anniversary

Love and cheese in Pasadena: Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery celebrates first anniversary

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It almost seems like fate brought Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery together with Thomas and Vanessa Tilaka Kalb. Bringing their vision to life was a difficult journey, especially amidst the pandemic, but they—and the space—seem meant for each other.

Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery owners, Vanessa Tilaka (left) and Thomas Kalb (right)
Vanessa Tilaka (right) and Thomas Kalb (left), co-owners of Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery. | Photo courtesy of Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery.

But let’s back up first.

The two chefs realized their love for food and desire to pursue it as a career at different stages in life. Thomas has almost solely worked in the food and hospitality industry—aside from one unfortunate stint working at Toys”R”Us during the Christmas rush—his entire career, starting from his part-time jobs as a high school student. In fact, he credits the owner of the pizzeria that he worked at when he was seventeen as being a crucial mentor into his culinary career. She inspired him; she was Muslim, and he watched her cook for customers all day during Ramadan while fasting, then afterwards cook a delicious family meal for the entire staff once the sun had set. The exposure to new flavors and ingredients he hadn’t seen in his family’s pantries, as a young man in Iowa, was incredibly influential, as well as her encouragement in his interest in cooking.

Meanwhile, Vanessa grew up surrounded by food, but never really considered the food industry as a career until college, partway into her business management degree. Her parents established the first Southeast Asian grocery store in Los Angeles in the ’70s, and she grew up going to the market and warehouses. At home, though, her mom cooked dinner most nights, and Vanessa herself mostly cooked simply for sustenance and without much deeper thought until college.

However, for both chefs, the decision to pursue the culinary arts was one born of a sincere and profound love for the craft. And despite their differences in ages and backgrounds, they both coincidentally started culinary school in the exact same year.

Their journey to Agnes only continued to unfold in a similarly uncanny fashion. 

Thomas moved from Iowa to Colorado, and then Chicago, in search of a more competitive and lively restaurant scene. He soon decided that while Chicago was busier than Colorado, if he really wanted to work with more diverse ingredients, he needed to move to a coast. He chose the West Coast, which brought him to San Francisco.

Vanessa finished culinary school, and after her first apprenticeships at the Spice Table and Huckleberry Bakery and Cafe, she chose to leave Los Angeles. She began staging—taking mostly unpaid apprenticeships at restaurants—across the country, visiting cities and eating at restaurants where she would want to work. Her experience dining there informed her decision on which restaurants she would apply to stage at. This search brought her to Flour + Water in San Francisco, where she met Thomas, and where she would eventually be introduced to the world of cheese. 

This introduction happened several years and a promotion in, when Vanessa helped coordinate classes between Flour + Water and the Cheese School of San Francisco. She realized, through this process, that she wanted to switch focuses and become a cheesemonger. During a three month long trip to southeast Asia shortly afterward, Vanessa mused to Thomas about opening a cheese shop. Thomas added the idea of a restaurant tucked behind her cheese shop—and the concept that would grow into Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery quietly grew in the back of their minds.

However, they didn’t plan to open their restaurant in Los Angeles. In fact, they had recently helped a friend open a restaurant in Portland, and were more seriously considering Oregon than California. Unexpectedly, a friend contacted them about a space he had recently acquired in Pasadena that he thought might be right for them. On a whim, because they had extra time while they were booking their Los Angeles wedding venue, they decided to visit the space on Green Street that is now Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery.

It’s beautiful, they thought, but what would we do with all that space? They dismissed it on the initial visit. 

As they continued searching for spaces, though, they started realizing they were comparing every space with Green Street; and so they ended up committing to the space, despite their concerns it was too big for what they had intended.

Their architect had a different opinion on the space. After hearing their plans and goals for the space, she cheerfully concluded that Agnes was “just enough space for everything they planned to do.” The Tilaka Kalbs were stunned.

And so, everything started to fall into place, like puzzle pieces finding their homes. In June 2021, Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery opened its doors, after persevering through the many roadblocks that came their way as they completed its construction through the first fraught year of the pandemic.

While Pasadena wasn’t the first place the pair thought of for Agnes, they have a lot of love and respect for the community. When they initially came to view the space, Vanessa remembers thinking, “‘Hasn’t Gyu-Kaku been here since I was a teenager visiting Old Pasadena with my friends? And Buca di Beppo?’ And now, we’re just down the street from them.” They hope to cement themselves into the community—indeed, they have already been actively involved with local events and charity fundraising in their first year here—and become a Pasadena institution in their own right, alongside the many cherished and beloved institutions that still remain in Old Town.

Agnes encourages staff to learn, grow, and adapt alongside the co-owners as they build their business. The menu reflects the food that they want to eat, and the skills they want to cultivate. Thomas notes that while it would be much easier and cheaper to simply buy bread and pasta, these skills are ones he wishes to learn and develop; and so, all the bread and pasta for Agnes’s dishes are made from scratch—and, thanks to the open layout, it’s all made right in front of their customers. Guests can see right into the kitchen and bakery as chefs make bread and pasta, butcher fresh cuts of meat, and craft delicious meals. And conversely, the chefs can see the guests enjoying those delicious meals and see the smiles on people’s faces.

I can’t wait to see how Agnes grows and changes over the years.

Review: Elegant Comfort Food at Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery

Tantalizing and tangy cheese curds. | Photo by Brianna Chu / Hey SoCal

We couldn’t resist trying the crispy California cheese curds—the kind of combination that I would have dreamed of as a kid but then would have assumed adults would dismiss. This appetizer is fun and playful: a perfect marriage between distinctly buttermilk batter; the bounce and slight pull of the cheese curds; the crisp, refreshing acid and crunch from the pickle; the occasional pop of fragrance from the dill; the classic, delicious tang from the buffalo sauce. It’s an elevated take on non-pretentious food, and it’s as good as my inner child could have hoped for. 

Three soft cheeses chosen by an Agnes cheesemonger, accompanied by crackers, an assortment of fresh and dried fruits, fig jam, and—surprisingly—some corn nuts! | Photo by Brianna Chu / Hey SoCal

We couldn’t possibly visit Agnes without trying a cheese board, so we chose the option that included three soft cheeses, delivered to us by a cheesemonger who introduced each one to us. The Bosina was incredibly buttery—it tastes the way you always think eating butter would taste: rich, creamy, a little grassy, incredibly soft. The Kunik was a stronger, more pungent (In that good cheese way, if that makes sense?) cheese made from cow and goats’ milk sourced from New York. The Italian Carboncino combined the best elements of the previous two cheeses: the buttery, creamy texture with a hit of that mushroomy funk. The latter was hands-down my favorite of the bunch, and I hope they still have some the next time we visit so we can pick up a wheel on our way out.

Look at that cross section! A hefty and hearty fried green tomato BLT. | Photo by Brianna Chu / Hey SoCal

For our main course, we decided to mix it up and try both a sandwich and a pasta. For our sandwich, we tried the fried green tomatoes BLT: a solid, hearty, and well-balanced sandwich. The homemade bread and aioli laid an excellent foundation for the main stars of the show: the crispy bacon and thick fried tomatoes. And of course, when in SoCal, a little avocado is pretty much a requirement. Every bite was perfectly balanced in flavor.

Coming in for a close-up: the beef stroganoff. | Photo by Brianna Chu / Hey SoCal

The stroganoff was mouthwatering as soon as it reached the table just from the aroma wafting up from it. The handmade pappardelle was tender, but not as tender and melt-in-your-mouth as the smoky, rich beef cheeks. Every bite was rich and luxurious, and demanded to be savored. 

In all of the food, but perhaps most obviously in these main courses, we found ourselves noticing that every dish made us appreciate the quality of every component. Every single element and ingredient shined in their own ways. The menu is seasonal, and what’s offered on a given day isn’t necessarily what you see on the online menu—you have to come in to see the full selection. 

Tart cherries and buttery, flaky pastry—a delightful, classic dessert in a covenient shape and size. | Photo by Brianna Chu / Hey SoCal

However, we couldn’t leave without dessert! Our waitress, Nikki, suggested we try the rye brownie, but also let us know that there were some lemon scones and cherry hand pies available, too. We chose to indulge in a hand pie and the brownie, because the size of the lemon scone was deeply intimidating at the end of such a substantial meal. Neither dessert was served heated up. The seriously buttery and flaky pastry captivated me, and the cherry filling didn’t have too much added sugar in it, remaining bright and tart. The brownie, even cold, remained decadently moist in the center. The flakes of sea salt sprinkled on top cut the sweetness of the rich chocolate (which tasted like dark chocolate to me, but I’m not entirely certain). 

You can never go wrong with chocolate! A delightfully indulgent brownie caps off a fantastic meal. | Photo by Brianna Chu / Hey SoCal

Come in for yourself to enjoy a meal, some cheese, something sweet, or just to peruse! You can visit Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery in person at 40 W. Green St., Pasadena, CA 91105. They don’t take reservations for lunch or weekend brunch, but they do encourage you to reserve a table for dinner. Lunch is served from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, while on the weekends they offer brunch from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. They serve dinner from 5-9 p.m. from Tuesday-Saturday, and the cheesery and bar are open from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. from Tuesday-Saturday.

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