‘Pomona A to Z’: J is for Juanita’s

[Pomona has plenty of outstanding Mexican restaurants. One local favorite is Juanita's, where you can always find people lined up on the sidewalk. Interviewing the owner proved impossible despite several attempts, as she was running not only the restaurant but a Juanita's booth at the fair, but I got enough of the story, and customers gave the piece its flavor.

The downtown jazz concerts mentioned toward the beginning are now history, and Juanita's II in Ontario, noted toward the end, became Juanita's III after a family dispute. Yes, there is no longer a Juanita's II, just as the Traveling Wilburys went directly from Vol. 1 to Vol. 3. Oh, and the wacky Juanita's menu board remains exactly as it was when I wrote about it. But the restaurant has an A grade now.

The stand continues to thrive, it seems, although it's a major annoyance that the Carl's Jr. next door has added a Green Burrito. Anyone who eats there with the real stuff next door must be nuts.

This column was originally published Sept. 19, 2004.]

Not to spill the refried beans, but J is for Juanita’s

“Pomona A to Z,” my alphabetical look at the city’s jewels, now jumps to the letter J. Forgive me for jabbering, but Pomona is so jam-packed with J candidates, it’s like a jamboree.

Among them:

* Jelly Donut, named the region’s No. 1 doughnut shop by Inland Empire Magazine and a Pomona favorite.

* Jazz concerts downtown the fourth Saturday of each month.

* St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style and one of Pomona’s largest and loveliest buildings.

* Hilltop Jamaican market and restaurant, mon.

* Jon Provost, a Kingsley Elementary student who played Timmy on TV’s “Lassie” from 1957 to 1964. “What’s that, Lassie? Somebody’s trapped in the old well again?”

Quite a jackpot. But our jury-rigged J is none of the above, as you no doubt expected. (You’re so jaded.)

Our J is Juanita’s.

A taco stand on South Indian Hill Boulevard, Juanita’s Drive-In has provided cheap, tasty eats for a quarter-century.

Customers swear by the place.

“The food’s phenomenal with a capital F,” said Steve Hammitt, 54, an insurance agent from Claremont waiting for his pork burrito last week.

Tucked between a Carl’s Jr. and a 7-Eleven, Juanita’s doesn’t look like much. The small building with no indoor seating began as a Tastee Freez around 1956.

The food is takeout only, with two outdoor tables for dining. You place your order at the window, pay, get a slip with your number and wait. Service is speedy, but there’s almost always a few people fanned out on the sidewalk.

Naturally, Juanita’s has its quirks. Like a student trying to pad a book report, the menu details every conceivable variation on its burritos and tacos, sending the combinations sprawling across three
menu boards.

Say you want a pork burrito. Here are the head-spinning possibilities:

* Meat bean rice cheese $3.25

* Meat $3.25

* Meat bean cheese $3

* Meat bean rice $3

* Meat rice cheese $3

* Meat bean $3

* Meat rice $3

Can we get an organizational coach in on this? (And yes, somebody forgot “meat cheese.”)

Eccentricities of the menu aside, the food is top-notch. Several diners raved about the pork. I go for the chicken-and-rice burrito myself. Some of my newsroom colleagues like the chile relleno burrito, in which a chile relleno is tucked inside a tortilla.

Juanita’s is one of the great social levelers. At lunch last Tuesday, I saw all walks of humanity, from twentysomethings to senior citizens, the well-to-do to those with no visible means of support, drivers of SUVs to delivery trucks, all lined up for a five-buck lunch.

Car dealer Hal Assael, a 52-year-old who pulled up in a BMW, traveled 15 miles from Glendora, no doubt passing hundreds of other Mexican restaurants along the way, just for a chicken-and-rice burrito.

“It’s the best food in town,” Assael said. “I’ve been coming here almost 20 years.”

Finn Englyng, a 27-year-old cabinet maker from Claremont, was there with three buddies.

“I think it’s absolutely spectacular,” said Englyng, who was waiting on an order of tacos. “I like hole in the wall places. You come to a place like this, you know you’re going to get real Mexican food, not some Taco Bell or Del Taco crap.”

Well said.

Of course, there is the matter of the B grade from the Health Department. As one diner told me: “I don’t care about the B. If it got to a C, I’d be concerned.”

Juanita’s took over the spot about 1976. The first owner, Maria Tucker, had the restaurant only briefly and, in a poignant touch, named it after an adopted daughter who died at age 5.

Tucker sold the business in 1977 to her niece, Theresa Cerna, who expanded the menu and has owned the restaurant ever since.

It’s a family operation. Cerna and her husband, Jess, are often found there, as is her daughter, Marina. (A son, Ray, manages a second outlet in Ontario, Juanita’s II, owned by Cerna’s ex-husband.)

Theresa Cerna has had a Juanita’s stand at the county fair since 2002, so she’s pulling double duty right now.

Carne asada and the green chile pork are the best sellers, she told me. Tortillas are made on-site, as is the hot sauce, which comes in lidded plastic cups the size of lip balm.

Juanita’s has lasted longer than any other business in that location, including the Tastee Freez, Jess Cerna told me.

“The couple that used to have the Tastee Freez,” he said, “even they come here.”

(David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, tres columns.)

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  • Mark McC

    Juanita’s is GREAT! I moved to Oregon in 1992 and still return to Juanita’s every chance I get. I have taken a cab from Ontario airport to Juanita’s so I can take a giant stash back with me. I’m not sure how the pork burritos get past security but thankfully they do.

    [Thanks for the GREAT note! -- DA]

  • Mark McC

    Juanita’s is GREAT! I moved to Oregon in 1992 and still return to Juanita’s every chance I get. I have taken a cab from Ontario airport to Juanita’s so I can take a giant stash back with me. I’m not sure how the pork burritos get past security but thankfully they do.

    [Thanks for the GREAT note! -- DA]

  • John Clifford

    Unfortunately, Juanita’s hasn’t been at the fair for several years. They changed the name of the old Juanita’s space to Jalapeno’s.

    Now I have to stop at Pink’s Hot Dogs . . . sigh.

    [C'mon, you can have Juanita's any day. How often can you have Pink's? -- DA]

  • wyl

    Your co-workers are right! You should try the chile relleno, which actually has cheese tucked inside a chile, tucked inside egg batter, tucked inside a tortilla which quickly gets tucked inside my stomach.

  • Tina N

    It appears that Juanita’s will be opening another location (a new Juanita’s II? or IV?) at the northwest corner of Foothill and San Antonio in Upland. We’ve lived in the area for many years and family members have raved about them but I’ve yet to try their food. I look forward to it.

    [That's a sequel we can look forward to. -- DA]

  • Marina Moody

    There’s a Juanita’s that is opening in Upland on Foothill & San Antonio… I’m hoping it’s the same chain!!!

    Nothing beats the Bean, Rice, Chicken & Cheese burrito! And the salsa is the best!!! I talked with Theresa’s daughter Marina a couple of weeks ago — we think they should jar it and sell it! The best around!

  • Hal Linker

    I agree wholeheartedly with the others. Juanita’s is THE BOMB! Been going there since the 1970s. Used to go to the adjacent Circle K and get some cerveza, then take my girlfriend / wife and eats to Memorial Park in Claremont for some shady comfort.

    These days I find myself going to the 4th and Grove location more than Indian Hill. The Ontario shop was closed for a while, due to some family hassles I’m told, but has re-opened. Viva Juanita’s!!! (Sung to the tune of Viva Las Vegas / Viagra).

    As for Pink’s, I never got the memo on that place. Does nothing for me. I see the long lines in Hollywood, but I just don’t dig the food myself. I still remember the first time I ate there. I thought it was awful. I had a chili dog and it was, in my opinion, the most over-rated dog I had ever been hyped about. Oh well, to each their own I guess, different strokes and all that ….