Dining on a budget:
By Richard Irwin
Here’s the rub: I felt like something exotic for lunch. I’m thinking Wildebeast or gazelle, you know a lean meat to keep the cholesterol down.
But it’s hard enough to find venison or buffalo on local menus, what chance did I have for game from the dark continent.
Fortunately, the answer came in the form of a $5 off coupon from the Elephant Bar Restaurant in West Covina. Surely, they would have something unusual for lunch.
And if pachyderms drank there then it couldn’t be all that bad. After all, everyone knows elephants never forget anything, let alone a bad meal.
So I called my trusty gun bearer, Marlene, and we set out to find this African restaurant. Unless, of course, it was an Indian elephant in which case I guess I would have to settle for curry.
I never travel alone into territory known to harbor large predators, you know places like Hollywood, Compton or biker bars. By taking a friend, I know I don’t have to run faster than an angry lion, cheetah or Harley rider. I just have to run faster than my friend.
Survival of the fittest, I always say.
The parking lot was full as we drove up to the large restaurant on Vincent Avenue, just off the San Bernardino Freeway.
A group of hospital workers looked like a herd of gazelles heading for their favorite watering hole. Their bright lime green scrubs seemed like bad camouflage, but a lady in zebra pants seemed out of place too.
The place was packed, but fortunately, there was a booth open in the large bar area. I guess it has to be that large for the elephants.
“Jambo,” I said to our smiling waitress. While the smile remained, the blank eyes indicated that she didn’t understand Swahili. Which was just as well as “hello” is all I know how to say in that language.
“How is the Wildebeast today? Was the gazelle fresh?” I inquired as we perused the colorful menu.
Our bewildered waitress suggested that I read the menu more carefully. That’s when it dawned on me that this wasn’t an African restaurant, but rather an eatery with an elephant motif.
Which explained the gorgeous metal elephant heads hanging over the round bar.
Fortunately, the menu offered many interesting dishes. I was especially intrigued by the Pacific Rim specialities and the regional favorites.
There was the MisoYaki pork loin steaks firegrilled and served with garlic mashed potatoes, wok-fired luau vegetables and sweet cinnamon apples for $10.95.
Or the Shanghai cashew chicken, a tasty combination of chicken, Chinese pea pods, pineapple and roasted cashews wok-fired in a sweet and spicy sauce served over steamed, white rice for $10.95.
The braised lamb shanks looked promising, served in a roasted garlic, tomato and rosemary sauce. Served with garlic mashed and sauteed vegetables, it was $7.95 for one shank and $12.95 for two.
Marlene was impressed with the salads. There was the JamaicaMojo grilled shrimp salad – two firegrilled skewers of basted shrimp served over fresh baby greens with sweet dried cranberries and carmelized walnuts tossed with a zesty JamaicaMojo dressing for $9.95.
She opted for the Oriental chicken salad – grilled teriyaki chicken strips on shredded lettuce with roasted peanuts, mangos, mandarin oranges, sweet peppers, cucumbers, scallions and cilantro. This came with fried wontons and was toped with crispy fried rice noodles for $8.95.
I was torn but decided to go with the fresh catfish. Dorothy said I could have it prepared several different ways: fresh tropical fruit salsa, teriyaki sauce, blackened, basted in lemon herb or with macadamia nut beurre blanc.
The last is a Pacific Rim variation of the classic French beurre blanc sauce, so I had to try that.
While we watched the cooks working in the open kitchen, one of the tribal chiefs approached bearing gifts. Assistant Manager Eric Silva handed us both Safari VIP cards.
“They’re good for 15 percent off lunches, and we’ll give you a free lunch if you give us your email address,” he Silva said.
Silva said they were giving the cards to everyone from local businesses who dined at the Elephant Bar.
“We’re also adding a canopy to the outdoor patio and enclosing the open kitchen behind glass to cut down onthe noise,” Silva added.
There’s also a Senior Explorer VIP card that entitles anyone over 60 to a 20 percent discount.
Our entrees arrived much faster than expected with such a busy kitchen.
The dishes were piled so high they could have fed a whole pygmy tribe. Instead, it appeared they were going to make a pig of me.
The macadamia nut beurre blanc was delicious, much lighter than I had expected. And the sauteed vegetables were excellent.
Still there was so much steamed white rice and fish that I knew what I would be having for dinner.
Marlene declared her salad “light and tasty, though they might have lightened up on the sesame teriyaki dressing.” She too asked for a large to-go box.
With our $5 coupons, the sumptuous meal came to $14 when you added two iced teas at $2.50 apiece.
We ended our grand safari laden with food for the long trek home.
While we might not have found the big game that we had been searching for, we had found a lunch place that we wouldn’t soon forget. Maybe that’s why they call it the Elephant Bar.
The Elephant Bar is at 200 S. Vincent Ave. in West Covina.
Written by Richard Irwin.
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