Former Southern California coffee sales manager Haris Car had a life-changing moment in Peru. “People there were so happy and fulfilled with less,” he says. He also stumbled upon a small artisanal chocolate factory, and that’s when he started plotting, experimenting, and designing packaging for his new Pasadena chocolate shop, Car Artisan Chocolate on Colorado Blvd., where he specializes in bean-to-bar confections.
The shop has an atmosphere of a corner coffee shop where you want to hang out all day on your laptop with a cup of drinking chocolate (the original way chocolate was served), while the chocolate bars are created on site in the open-air kitchen. The process of roasting coffee beans and cacao has similarities. “You use the same drum roaster for both types of beans,” says Car, “but you crush cocoa nibs that turn into chocolate.”
Car sources high-quality cacao beans from remote regions around the world where farmers take care of their workers and pay higher wages. Unlike most commercial bars, Car’s are not mostly milk and sugar, and he uses beans that aren’t bitter. “You are creating a profile and need to develop fruit sugars in the roast, so the chocolate is not too acidic or has a bitter aftertaste,” he says.
The best-selling bars are lavender (with 60% dark milk,) Tanzania, Mexico, Peru, and Nicaragua. And, since cacao beans are technically a fruit, and there are reported health benefits from antioxidants when a high percentage (about 70%) is used in single-origin dark chocolate, you don’t need to feel too guilty—plus, the bars make perfect Valentine’s gifts.
If you want to take a deeper dive into the world of chocolate, take a class from chocolate expert Ruth Kennison of The Chocolate Project (who consulted on Car’s shop) and allow her to lead you through a private or group tasting with unique and exotic finds from Brazil to Vietnam.
For a more traditional box of chocolates, Mignon, in Pasadena and Glendale, carries a best-selling dark chocolate shell filled with dark chocolate ganache as well as ginger with lime sea salt and chili pepper chocolate confections. For something exotic, at Royce Chocolate in Arcadia you can find white-chocolate-dipped potato chips infused with fromage blanc cheese that pair well with a bottle of Merlot.
Mole, a beloved confection and a key ingredient in some centuries-old Mexican dishes, uses chocolate as the base of the sauce.
Mijares is the oldest Mexican restaurant in Pasadena, going back 101 years. The eponymous family carries on their grandmother’s traditional poblano mole recipe that uses two kinds of chiles, Mexican chocolate, nuts, and bananas—and takes a whole day to prepare. Currently, chef Antonio Campos, who has worked there an impressive 35 years, infuses a bit of his Zacatecas, Mexico, hometown spin on the dish served over shredded chicken breast. It’s a perfectly balanced rendition that will leave you craving a return visit to the ample patio dining area. Just be warned: It’s not on the menu and only made on special occasions or by request in advance.
Other standout mole includes Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza in Koreatown, famous for its family recipe using over 25 ingredients. Moles la Tía in East L.A. features 16 types of mole, including mango, tamarind, hibiscus flower, and pistachio. La Casita Mexicana in Bell serves entomatadas, similar to enchiladas, smothered in mole, cotija cheese, and red onions. At CaCao Mexicatessen in Eagle Rock, you can add mole poblano to chicken street tacos or chicken burrito. There is even a mole cheeseburger and mole fries, and a Mission fig mole over a chicken thigh.