Peter Dills

I couldn’t wait to meet Dennis Constanzo. I had already pictured him as a Harley-riding, bandanawearing, tattoo-loving man. But I didn’t discover the likeness of the “Big Daddy” my mind had imaginatively painted. Rather than those fanciful machinations, an eyeglasswearing apostle of Bill Gates greeted me.
If you are like me, then you have fallen under the spell of those sultry summer nights in Pasadena where a popular dance and dining club ruled the city. You will know the genius of Dennis, for he was the architect responsible for the energy that emanated from Twin Palms. Long before that grand adventure, he worked on an equally charming and eminently known castle, helping to resurrect that old king hailing years earlier by the name The Huntington Sheraton. That was being called when he lent his hand to reconstruction, The Ritz-Carlton. With a team of Pasadena’s historical preservationists looking over Dennis’s shoulder and signing off on his every stroke of the paintbrush, the job of reconstruction on a historical monument was riddled with complications but he was successful in remaking the magic of the building.
Following the complexities of revitalizing a western landmark, the creation of a hamburger joint seemed as easy as a squirt of mustard.
My daughter Lauren and I blazed a trail to Big Daddy’s Fire Grill under the cover of darkness. The first thing that caught my eye is that the menu has numerous selections: dawgs, grilled sandwiches, salads and hamburgers. I was a little surprised to see a dawg barking on this menu but Pasadena is going into competition mode in the hot dog and burger arena.
Can Big Daddy be a contender? Can a man that transformed a great hotel and partnered with Kevin Costner, wedge a luscious piece of magic between two buns? I’m shouting it from the rooftops — Yes he can! Each burger at Big Daddy’s is ground fresh daily and I decided to give the “The Daddy Burger” ($5.95) a spin. It happened so fast — a completely unchallenged knockout. I looked at my fingers and it was gone. I decided I wanted another burger. It wasn’t that the burger hadn’t filled me up, but my stomach was demanding more. With the smoke of In-N-Out billowing a few paces from Big Daddy’s, I began to think that two heavyweight fighters were going to be going toe-totoe for many years to come and this fight was going the distance.
As I ate my second burger and finally slowed myself from my feverish delight, I noticed the strong notes of a freshness burger that simmered in the clear flavors of a backyard barbecue. Where else in the world would your appetite demand an encore I thought? My daughter Lauren lingered in the sweet refuge of a Lamb Burger ($8.95) and promised to tell every high school student she knew about her newest discovery. So I returned to get to the bottom of this burger and sit down with Dennis; he was eager to show me around and watch how he makes the onion rings fresh daily and uses special pankow bread.
“Hold on, Dennis,” I said, “This burger reminds me of one that you’d have in a neighbor’s backyard.” Dennis rose from his chair as if the Red Sea had parted before him.
“How did you know?” he said. Dennis sat back down and began to tell me the story of his restaurant. Relating to me that his wife and friends weren’t sold on the burger idea, they had been urging him to open a Mexican Restaurant instead. Dennis clung to his conviction and went out and bought a great quality of meat, a sturdy grill and oak wood to test his belief at a friend’s yard sale. After a very happy set of friends tasted his passion, Dennis had his first converts.
When I returned a few days later to take a photograph to accompany this article, Dennis insisted that I try his Filet of Salmon Sandwich ($8.95), cooked on the same oak wood that perfumes his burgers. I ate with such reckless abandon that Dennis laughed and thought I hadn’t eaten in two days. I was in a war with myself about ordering another. Something about my pants and having to buy new clothes.
Prices are set to place people in the seats and compete with any restaurant in Pasadena. The flavors and experience are the makings of a legend.
The Big Daddy’s offers numerous beers on tap and wine is sold by the glass or by the bottle.
What is in the name, you ask? We envision a hearty image of a man when we think of great barbecue, but a diminutive apron has created a restaurant with a southern faith in flavor that surrenders to hospitality of tastes.
Big Daddy’s Fire Grill is located at 2122 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena. The telephone is (626) 796-1266.
More information can be
found at or
listen to “Dining with Dills” on
KABC Talk Radio on Sunday