Restaurant of the Week: Joey’s BBQ

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Joey’s BBQ, 3689 Riverside Drive (at East End), Chino; closed Mondays

Joey’s, established in 1978 by a couple of transplanted Texans, had a mini-empire at one point in the ’00s, with locations in Rancho Cucamonga, Pomona and Upland, but those have closed, in that order, leaving only the original in Chino.

I enjoyed many a meal at the Pomona Joey’s but had never been to the original, and didn’t even know where it was. When a friend suggested eating there, I was all for it.

It’s off the beaten path on the western end of the city, an area I’d never seen and which feels somewhat country. It was strangely thrilling, as if I’d driven through a wormhole into an alternate Inland Valley. This visit was after dark, increasing the mystery factor. I’m interested in returning during daylight hours for a better look, although I wonder if the sun will reveal a much more prosaic view. (I drove home up East End, itself alternately rural and old industrial.)

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Joey’s occupies a corner and it’s a neat old wooden building, a kind of roadhouse, said to date to 1929, with a giant smoker out back. The interior has a Texas mural and several dining rooms. (I didn’t get a good look at the mural due to tables of diners in the way, but it wasn’t bad.)

They smoke their meat over mesquite charcoal here. The menu has salads, a range of barbecue (beef and pork ribs, brisket, ham, tri-tip steak, turkey and chicken), steaks and sandwiches, with a range of sides and, for dessert, peach cobbler and bread pudding.

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I got a half-order of St. Louis-style pork ribs, a dinner that came with two sides, from which I chose a baked potato and red cabbage slaw ($23.50). This was good, tender barbecue, and the sides were tasty too. I ate it all and could barely breathe.

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My friend had an 8-ounce tri-tip with baked potato and potato chips ($19); she loves the tri-tip but the highly touted chips were a letdown.

The place has a lot of character, and a walk around afterward showed a fenced-in patio with picnic tables, strings of lights and a small stage for performers, with cowboy music taking place on weekends in warmer weather, I’m told. Looks like a fun place and I’ll be back.

(Joey’s might want to update its cash registers: My receipt still lists phone numbers for Upland and Pomona.)

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Restaurant of the Week: John’s Hamburgers

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John’s Hamburgers, 13511 Central Ave. (at Schaefer), Chino; open 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily

“Since 1976,” the monument sign outside reads, enticing this history lover whenever I drive past this spot near Chino City Hall. The fact that the 3 p.m. close doesn’t work for an evening council meeting made a visit more of a challenge — one I accepted.

There’s a spacious dining room that must seat more than 100. John’s reminds me of a few other burger spots around the valley, like Terry’s in Rancho Cucamonga, where there’s a wide-ranging menu and a seasoned staff of actual grownups. Even though you order at the counter, the place fulfills a Denny’s-like function, with the veteran staff reminding you of diner waitresses.

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At John’s, you can get cinnamon roll french toast, omelets and scrambles, for instance, at breakfast, and eight salads, ribeye and New York steaks “from the broiler,” cheesecake and “homemade bread pudding.”

As it’s John’s Hamburgers, I got a cheeseburger with fries and soda ($7.28 with tax). It was your standard fast food meal, alas, not one to encourage a second visit from the distant land of Rancho Cucamonga.

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A closer look at the menu, though, showed more ambitious burgers, such as a hand-pressed 10-ounce Super Burger ($6), a meatloaf sandwich and more. Feeling a little foolish, but wanting to give John’s a fair shake, I once again ventured deep into the heart of Chino for a second lunch, this time ordering an albacore tuna melt ($6), which careful readers will recall as my baseline sandwich. Served on grilled sourdough, this was a pretty good sandwich and redeemed the place.

On the other hand, I substituted “fresh fruit” for fries and was confronted with (sigh) an entire bowl of nothing but cantaloupe, which was dispiriting. If they’re going to go to that little effort, why not just hand customers a banana?

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I’d like to go back for the meatloaf, but I decided to cut off my research here rather than make a project out of the place. John’s is okay, if unexciting. But maybe soon to become peppier: A sign on my last visit read “Beer and wine coming soon” — how about that? Congratulations to them on 40 years in an ever-changing world.

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Restaurant of the Week: Shi-Foo Chinese Food, Chino

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Shi-Foo Chinese Food, 12198 Central Ave. (at Philadelphia), Chino; also 15942 Los Serranos Country Club Drive, Chino Hills

Hungry before a council meeting in Chino, I figured I could find something along Central Avenue, vaguely recalling the location of a pho restaurant. I pulled into a center just above the 60 Freeway with Goodwill and 99 Cents Only stores as its main tenants and realized I’d been here once before, trying a Japanese restaurant, Bento Box. This wasn’t the center with Pho Express.

But a couple of doors down from Bento Box was something named Shi-Foo, with this motto: “Chinese Food Remastered.”

Remastered? Would there be bonus tracks? It was just unusual-sounding enough to entice this music fan to enter.

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It looks like a typical quick-service Chinese restaurant, and in fact was a Happy Wok previously. They have steam table stuff if you’re in a hurry, chow mein and beef broccoli and orange chicken, all of which I bypassed — which is not to dismiss it. The menu says they use non-GMO cooking oil and that the orange chicken is made with real oranges, with no corn syrup.

I went with the create-your-own-entree option, where you choose a protein, sauce and side. I went with shrimp with garlic sauce and brown rice ($10.50). In a bonus, there was a 5 percent discount for cash customers. As a guy who pays with cash, this was the first time I’d saved money by doing so, which put a spring in my step as I walked to my table.

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My food was made fresh and was ready in a few minutes. My goodness, it smelled good, very garlicky, and there were — I counted — 14 shrimp. They did not skimp on the shrimp. It tasted as good as it looked and smelled.

Shi Foo was a pleasant surprise, one of those places you enter on a whim, knowing nothing, and walk out thinking you’ve made a find, in part because you had no expectations. But I think I would like it on a second visit even with my expectations raised.

My fortune, reproduced below, was slightly mysterious, as a Chinese fortune should be, due primarily to what might (or might not!) be a superfluous comma. Exactly how much time will this decision require, anyway? I’d better get started.

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Restaurant of the Week: Pizzita Circle

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Pizzita Circle, 4047 Grand Ave. (at Pipeline), Chino; open daily

Actually, I was looking for Al’s Italian Beef, which I’d been meaning to find since its opening in 2014, but it wasn’t where I thought it was. An Internet search in the parking lot revealed that it had been elsewhere in that center, but had closed over the summer. Too bad. It was the Chicago-based chain’s only local location.

I was parked on the southwest corner in front of Tamarind, previously featured here, and Phillys Best, a chain at which I’ve eaten elsewhere. But the curiously named Pizzita Circle, located between the two, was a new one.

Well, what the heck. I was in search of lunch and might as well try it.

They serve 1) pizza and 2) Mediterranean food, an unusual combination, in a fast-casual setting. The latter included pita sandwiches, salads and plates ($8 to $11), while some of the pizzas were traditional and others had Mediterranean-type toppings. As the website puts it: “With our main specialty being our outstanding pizza and pita, we arrived at our present name, Pizzita Circle.”

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Splitting the difference, I got a Mediterranean pizza: lamb, beef, onion, tomato and peppers ($9). All pizzas are 10 inches. And you know, it was pretty good. I wouldn’t call it New York pizza, as they do, but it was tasty, the crust airy and crispy on the bottom, and I ate the whole thing. The restaurant also has beer and wine as well as a selection of bottled sodas, unusual for an eatery of this type. And they deliver.

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The woman behind the counter, probably the owner, was personable and told me there are two locations in NYC, family-owned. She moved west, missed the food and opened one here in mid-2014. There’s a photo mural of the Manhattan skyline focused on the Empire State Building.

Pizzita Circle probably won’t put you in a New York state of mind, but I enjoyed my meal. And the website includes a poem about their food, in six stanzas.

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Restaurant of the Week: Los Portales, Chino

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Los Portales Mexican Grill, 12542 Central Ave. (at Walnut), Chino

I’ve been to, and liked, the Montclair location of this two-location operation, which is farther up Central Avenue. A Chino friend told me the Chino restaurant is better, although she might be biased. It’s in a busy, working-class shopping center south of the 60 Freeway with a Big Lots and a Dollar General.

Los Portales might be the most upscale business in the center, with an etched glass entry, a greeter station, a full bar, capacious seating for 149 and live piano music some evenings. On my two visits, it was bustling.

The lunch menu is all pictures because the pricing is “any item $8.25,” including a drink. There’s quite a list: burritos, enchiladas, tamales, shredded beef salad and more. I got a shrimp quesadilla, which was satisfying, and not oily or greasy. It came with so-so rice, beans and little salad. For the price, a good meal. The salsa is thick, tomato-y and uninteresting, the chips might be bagged, but they’re free.

The dinner menu has dinner plates, grilled items and seafood, including oysters, and that made me want to return. I did so and ordered grilled halibut ($16), with diced onions and cilantro, filling but nothing special, with the so-so sides.

Service was slow, which based on Yelp reviews may be common. I ate half my bowl of chips before anyone took my drink order, and had finished them before my iced tea arrived. They might want to snap it up.

The place was busy and a piano player and vocalist near the bar on the opposite side of the restaurant was performing Van Morrison, Beatles and other classics, an unexpected touch, especially mid-week. I ran into an old source at the bar and he visits frequently from Pomona.

Los Portales has a pleasant atmosphere and many swear by it. I wasn’t wowed, but it’s possible I’ll go back, at least for an $8.25 lunch.

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Restaurant of the Week: El Fortin No. 3

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El Fortin No. 3, 5368 Riverside Drive (at Ninth), Chino

A specialist in food from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, El Fortin occupies an unassuming aqua-and-white building a little east of busy Central Avenue below the 60 Freeway. I’d been meaning to go for some time. When an interview took me to that part of Chino, I went in afterward for a late lunch. (The first El Fortin (“The Fort”) is in Fullerton, the second in Stanton, according to its website. Yelp commenters appear to prefer Chino’s.)

It’s not fancy inside, with worn booths, tables, Oaxaca posters on the walls and TVs at either end of the dining room showing soccer. But it was comfortable and clean. The server brought me some very good chips with salsa and cheese.

I pored over the menu and ordered the plato especial: marinated pork and beef, plantains, guacamole, refried beans, fried cheese and, substituting for a chile relleno, a cactus salad ($8.50). I upgraded to handmade tortillas for $1 more and ordered a Jarritos soda.

The food took a little while but was well worth the wait. Delicioso! I cleaned my plate. Also, the handmade tortillas, crisped in a pan, were excellent, and they were served in a basket wrapped in a kind of doily.

The table service was friendly and the place had a nice vibe to it. And with my bill came four tiny pieces of gum, in various flavors. Back at the office, I showed them to a Latina colleague who lit up, saying she hadn’t seen Canel’s gum since she was a girl. I shared them.

Thank you, El Fortin No. 3.

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Restaurant of the Week: Tahoe Joe’s

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Tahoe Joe’s, 3968 Grand Ave. (at Spectrum East), Chino; open daily

Tahoe Joe’s, a Fresno-based steakhouse chain, opened its first Southern California location on Chino’s restaurant row in July, where it replaced La Creperie, perhaps the steakhouse’s spiritual opposite. Based on the lunchtime crowd Sunday when I visited, it’s a success, compared to my quiet lunch at La Creperie with friends a couple of years ago.

The look reminds me of Lazy Dog Cafe, which is meant to resemble a Wyoming ski lodge; Tahoe Joe’s, modeled on a Tahoe ski lodge, has an expansive covered patio, and the interior has a lot of pine, a stone fireplace near the entry, a bar and, overall, a kind of upscale-rustic feel. Both restaurants are stylish. It might also remind you of Wood Ranch BBQ.

Incidentally, the Yelp page currently says Joe’s is open for lunch only on weekends, hence my Sunday visit, but a sign out front says it’s open from 11 a.m. daily.

The menu has steaks, seafood, salads and sandwiches with entrees ranging from $14 to $31. As you can imagine, Joe’s isn’t vegetarian-friendly, with only one item, a pasta, without meat. I went with the signature Joe’s Steak, a tri-tip slow-roasted for 19 hours and rolled in black pepper; this came with green beans and a choice of potato or rice (lunch price $14 for the 6-ounce portion).

It took a while to arrive — maybe it had only roasted for 18 1/2 hours when I placed my order — and the server volunteered a couple of apologies. Not that I minded, as I brought plenty to read. The steak was pretty good, thick-cut and with a smoky taste, and 6 ounces was a good portion (there was a 10-ounce option for a few dollars more). I got rice pilaf as my choice, and I even ate most of my green beans, which I never do. But I passed on their signature cheesecake.

For those interested, the bar has 18 beers, a selection of martinis and 20 wines by the glass, and there’s a happy hour.

It was a comfortable experience even for a solo diner, and there’s nothing pretentious about the place. Worth checking out, at least if you like meat.

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Restaurant of the Week: Cannataro’s

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Cannataro’s, 12345 Mountain Ave. (at 60), Chino

Cannataro’s is a family owned Italian restaurant and one of the better-known eateries in Chino. That’s why, when friends and I were brainstorming a Chino place to meet at, Cannataro’s came up immediately as one we were curious about.

Located in a small shopping center on Mountain Avenue just below the 60 Freeway, Cannataro’s isn’t exactly in a Tuscan glade, but on the other hand it’s easy enough to find. The interior is casual and unpretentious. Apparently it was updated not long ago. The menu has pasta, seafood, chicken, veal and steak, sandwiches, calzones and pizzas. Entrees range from $7 to $17 and pizzas from $7 to $22.

We got our own entrees: pasta primavera ($12), pasta Cannataro’s ($12), a small Hawaiian pizza ($12, below) and an antipasto salad ($9, bottom). Two got Italian sodas ($3), vanilla and coconut, which they liked.

Reactions from those who ordered the dishes: The pasta primavera “needed salt.” (Luckily, this unusual seasoning could be found inches away.) The ham and pineapple pizza, whose right to exist was vigorously debated at our table, was nevertheless said to be “delicious.” The salad was “fantastic.” My pasta Cannataro’s (chicken breast in olive oil with basil and sundried tomatoes in penna pasta) was okay, but bland. I wouldn’t order it again.

Overall, we were satisfied, but unexcited. It’s worth mentioning too that the service was a little friendlier and more personal than the norm. Reviews on Yelp are all over the place: Cannataro’s gets 4 stars out of 5, but a lot of people are at one end or the other.

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Restaurant of the Week: Tamarind

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Tamarind, 4047 Grand Ave. (at Pipeline), Chino; open daily

In honor of Boxing Day, let’s visit a restaurant serving the cuisine of a former British colony. Tamarind is in the Chino Spectrum shopping mecca, a little hidden beyond a Starbucks and Jollibee and next to a Philly’s Best, facing Pipeline on the south side of Grand. It serves Indian and Pakistani food.

Two of my friends are crazy about it. I joined them one lunchtime for the buffet, which it seems every Indian restaurant is required by law to serve. It was $9 and we liked it, even yours truly, an Indian buffet-avoider. But they said dinner is better, and as I prefer ordering what I want instead of taking what I get, I joined them one evening.

We had the saag shrimp ($14.75), lamb shahi korma ($13.25), paneer tikka masala ($10.75), vegetable samosas ($3.75) and two orders of garlic naan ($3 each). Well, this was more like it, some of the best Indian food I’ve had in these parts. I would order any of those items again, and maybe one or two of the tandoori items.

“You’re missing out if you only go to the buffet,” one friend advised, because the kitchen doesn’t put out pricier lamb or shrimp dishes at lunch. The two of them always order three items to end up with leftovers, which they said are just as good the next day.

The restaurant is small, seating maybe 30 or 40. There’s a banquette running the length of one wall and a few tables. Hanging globe fixtures and mirrors add some panache. Service was attentive, although when I asked what items were specifically Pakistani, the answer was vague.

At lunchtime, Tamarind is busy, but there’s no wait for a table at night. “I don’t understand why there’s not more people here,” one of my friends said, mystified. We were the only diners. Everyone else was missing out.

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Restaurant of the Week: Great Grinders and Burgers

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Great Grinders and Burgers, 12423 Central Ave. (at the 60), Chino

Grinders, for the uninitiated, are submarine sandwiches rather than suggestive dances at the Video Music Awards. This Chino shop gets decent ratings on Yelp, so I sought it out for lunch. It’s in the Superior Market center just below the 60 Freeway, east side, across from the Post Office.

They have hot grinders (the comment above still applies), cold sandwiches, burgers, salads and teriyaki. I asked the best items and was told the pastrami sandwiches, char-broiled burgers and grilled chicken salad are the most popular. I went for the pastrami, as a combo with chips (or fries) and soda ($8.63 with tax).

The sandwich, with mustard, pickles and provolone, came on an 8-inch roll, the pastrami flavorful, the roll crusty. Tasty. Great Grinders’ decor is standard sandwich shop, although the Seattle Mariners poster was an unexpected touch. The TV played “People’s Court,” where a plaintiff won a judgment of $1,250 against his lying ex-roommate. Justice prevailed.

A divider between two rows of tables is topped with a long row of ceramic figures of chefs, more than 50 in all. It’s a personal and unusual touch. Not a bad lunch spot.

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