Restaurant of the Week: Owen’s Bistro

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Owen’s Bistro, 5210 D St. (at 7th), Chino; 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; closed Sundays and Mondays

Considered among the Inland Valley’s finest restaurants since its opening in 2003, Owen’s Bistro is located across from the Chino Civic Center in a brick building that dates to the early 20th Century, and practically the only part of downtown that actually seems like a downtown.

I’d been to Owen’s only once, years ago, for a lunch; it’s a little out of my normal price range and I hadn’t had a reason to return until a friend suggested meeting there, which I was all for.

The restaurant is in a picturesque block in an otherwise-drab area of ’70s and later buildings; from the rear, the exposed brick and original painted advertising signs seem surprisingly urban.

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The dining area has a concrete floor, brick walls, iron gates at each end and no roof, merely a curtained roof that retracts. It’s a unique space, with ceiling fans and space heaters to even out the temperature. An indoor lounge seats 20.

The menu is short, with seasonal items and local produce. Eight entrees range from $22 to $42, and there are appetizers, salads and a soup. We ordered bleu cheese toasts ($8), she got a frisee and walnut salad ($7) and I got the camping trip (!) ($23), salmon on a hot stone with potatoes and greens.

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The toasts were the size of bruschetta but with bleu cheese and pears, delicious. The salad had feta, green apples and dried cherries and was enjoyed. The salmon came out sizzling in a bowl with greens and, thanks to lavender placed under the stone, was meant to have a “forest aroma.” I didn’t notice, but I did notice how good the salmon tasted. An unusual but tasty dish.

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Two singers performed jazz to recorded backing, and it was so pleasant, and unobtrusive, not to mention taking place on the other side of the room, that I didn’t even notice the music was live for quite some time. A nice touch.

The service left a little to be desired, although at least it was well-meaning. The salad was requested to come out at the same time as my entree but came later, after a quizzical look from my friend when my food came out solo, and itself a bit late. Despite being told we could get to our 7 p.m. event with plenty of time, we didn’t have time for dessert.

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Coincidentally, a work colleague ate at Owen’s not long before I did. He said he and his wife were told they would be seated soon by someone who disappeared, twice; a daughter and elderly mother got the same treatment. Once seated, his wife ordered the angus ribeye, which took so long to cook, someone came out to apologize for the delay. What arrived was so large it might have weighed two pounds. Most was taken home and provided three more meals.

It was perfectly prepared, and for $39, quite a deal, and he felt the same about his medallions of filet mignon, at $32, but the service, which included getting someone else’s bill, was more comical than desired for a nice evening out. “It was like nobody there had ever worked in a restaurant before,” he said.

There are those who say scoffingly that Owen’s is the Inland Empire’s idea of fine dining. The food in these twin experiences was very good, and we had nothing to complain about, really, on that score. The staff, though, seems a little disorganized. I recommend Owen’s anyway, but be prepared for things to go wrong.

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Restaurant of the Week: The Flinderstreet Cafe

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The Flinderstreet Cafe, 5483 Philadelphia St. (at Central), Chino; open weekdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturdays 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Apparently named for a street in Melbourne, Flinderstreet Cafe is located within Chino Town Square shopping center just above the 60 Freeway. It has a Target, Burlington, laser tag and more, but also some empty storefronts.

It’s not where you would expect to find a cute, locally owned cafe, but there it is, open since November 2015. I wouldn’t have known Flinderstreet existed except for a friend. I invited her to meet me for lunch since she’s a regular.

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Inside, there are high-top and standard tables, plus a sofa under a sign reading “Relax.” The menu has sandwiches (grinders, paninis, wraps), pasta, salads and, reflecting the cafe’s Down Under inspiration, an Australian meat pie. They make coffees and teas, and a few bakery items, including macarons ($2). The pricing is simple: all pastas are $7.50, grinders $8.50, paninis $8.90, for instance.

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I got a chicken pesto panini. Side choices were housemade chips, salad or, with a small upgrade, soup; I went with the soup. (With iced tea, the tab was $14.47.) My sandwich was okay, my soup, Toscana, better. My friend got a vegetable panini with salad and liked both, and an iced latte ($3.50).

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You order at the counter, but after we sat down, an employee came by with a basket of cookies, for us to pick one each. I took ginger snap. “They always greet you with cookies,” my friend confided.

Now who wouldn’t like a place like that? It’s tough enough to get greeted in a restaurant, much less with cookies.

At this writing, the cafe has just more than 300 reviews on Yelp and a five-star rating, not an easy feat to pull off. Flinderstreet is worth the effort to find it.

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Restaurant of the Week: Blue Fire Grill

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Blue Fire Grill, 5670 Schaefer Ave. (at Benson), Chino

A colleague had recommended Blue Fire Grill to me a few years ago, but I had never seen it and, my knowledge of Chino still tentative, couldn’t picture where it was. The fact that I hadn’t been there nagged at me, though.

Then one evening last month, I was downtown, and hungry, after the end of an early council meeting and thought, Where is Blue Fire Grill? I mapped it and realized it was only a few blocks away. So off I drove.

It’s in an unusual location, an office park, and my eyes weren’t looking high enough to see the sign, as I figured out the location by the address only. The blank exterior is enlivened by the potted landscaping. (On my way out, I asked the server why there wasn’t a sign, she said there is and finally I saw it.)

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Inside, the main dining room wasn’t being used (it was early on a Wednesday). The half-dozen customers were all enjoying the wine bar. Yes, the wine bar. I sat at a table and requested a menu.

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Blue Fire’s menu is mostly barbecue, with a couple of salads and seafood items, plus pizza. (Yes, pizza. And a wine bar.) They do catering, which might be a big part of their business and made me more confident about ordering. I got the Texas brisket ($18.50), which comes with a salad and two sides; my choices were cornbread and mac and cheese.

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The salad was above average and had a flower as a garnish. It might have been edible but just as I was finishing, the entree arrived and I relinquished my plate.

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As for the main event, this was a lot of food, and pretty good: tender brisket, tasty and piping hot mac, with blueberry cornbread in mini-muffin form and a container of apple butter. The barbecue sauce was sweeter than I’d prefer, though. I ate all the mac, half of everything else and took the rest home where I got a second meal out of it.

Blue Fire wasn’t my favorite barbecue, and being the only diner was disconcerting. But the experience was fair. Plus, maybe you’re interested in a wine bar…?

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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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