Restaurant of the Week: Smashburger

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Smashburger, 13855 City Center Drive (the Shoppes at Chino Hills), Chino Hills

Chino Hills gets interesting restaurants these days. In this case, the city got the Smashburger chain’s first Inland Empire location — yes, even before Victoria Gardens. I met a local friend there for lunch to try it out.

I’d heard of Smashburger, which is based in Colorado and operates in 32 states, but I hadn’t had a chance to eat at one. It’s one of the wave of better-burger restaurants. They use fresh, not frozen Angus, egg buns and fresh produce. You can get fries with rosemary, olive oil and garlic. And their shakes are made with Haagen-Dazs.

The one at the Shoppes is in a walkway across from Panera and a few yards from Dripp. It’s bigger inside than it looks. The menu has eight burgers, with create-your-own options (including six kinds of cheese), plus chicken sandwiches and salads. It’s unusual to find a Cobb salad at a place like this, but they have one. They also have a black bean vegetarian sandwich and veggie frites, which appear to be carrots and string beans served in a basket like fries.

I had the classic Smashburger ($5.39, below) with Smash fries (the ones with rosemary, olive oil and garlic, $2.29) and a Butterfinger shake ($4.59).

It was a very good burger, very close to the two I’ve had on the East Coast at Shake Shack; it was heartening, in a weird way, to know I can find their local equivalent. The fries didn’t do much for me and I left half of them. Good shake. (Trivia note: I’m a sucker for Butterfingers in ice cream, such as at Foster’s Freeze.) Did I want it as a malt? Sure. How about with whipped cream? What the heck. No extra charge for either. And you get the old-school metal cup with a little extra shake left.

My friend had the buffalo and blue cheese burger with sweet potato fries (next photo). He liked both and was especially taken by the fries. At least someone at our table finished his fries.

You order at the counter and they bring the food to your table. They also check on you and take your trays, at least when it’s only moderately busy, like when we were there. I liked it.

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Restaurant of the Week: Zendejas, Chino Hills

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Zendejas Mexican Restaurant, 14670 Pipeline Ave. (at Chino Hills Parkway), Chino Hills

Zendejas has multiple restaurants around the Inland Valley, all connected by the family name but run by various members of the family. In other words, the experience and menu isn’t standard from one to the next. Some are as much sports bars as restaurants.

I’m not sure I’d ever been to a Zendejas, even though there are locations in Ontario, Chino, San Dimas and two in Rancho Cucamonga. A Chino Hills friend whose turn it was to choose a lunch spot picked the new Zendejas that opened in February in what was previously a different Mexican restaurant, Sandra’s.

The ambience is pleasant enough, in a somewhat generic-Mexican way, and there’s a dancefloor (!) for weekend evenings. We took a booth, dug into the chips and salsa and perused the menus.

The four of us got veggie fajitas ($15), shrimp tacos ($13), a Tony’s Special burrito, which is chicken with chile verde sauce and cheese ($13) and, for me, chile verde ($14). Reactions were, respectively, “blah,” “very average,” “It was your basic El Torito burrito especial, at which I’m an expert,” and, in my case, “ehh.”

The service was haphazard: We were asked for our drink orders within seconds of the fourth member of our party joining us (he hadn’t finished saying hello), and then later, he couldn’t get a drink refill. The puny, brownish lemon on one water cup was unappetizing. (On Yelp, this Zendejas as of the end of March had a two-star rating.)

But there’s a full bar, and Zendejas may be an improvement over Sandra’s. The burrito eater, the one who chose the restaurant, said cheerfully that his meal “was tasty enough to make me consider coming back.” I suspect the rest of us won’t be joining him. It wasn’t terrible, but there’s better Mexican food a block away at Las Cascadas.

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Restaurant of the Week: Noodle House

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Noodle House, 2935 Chino Ave. (at Peyton), Chino Hills

Chino Hills is home to numerous Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley style, and if perhaps not to that level, they’re often very good. I tried another one recently pretty much at random: Noodle House.

It’s in a Mediterranean-looking shopping plaza maybe a half-mile west of the 71 Freeway and near the Harkins 18. At least one other Chinese eatery is in the center, Home Cooking. Haven’t tried that one. Noodle House is small and bustling. I was there for a late lunch and the place was almost full. Someone had just left, thankfully, and I was given their table once it was cleaned.

The menu had appetizers, soups, dry noodle dishes and specialties. I got a seaweed salad ($3) and shredded pork with dry noodles ($5).

The cold salad was light and lightly chewy; the bowl was hot. I really liked both dishes and took half of each home, where they were also delicious in the coming days.

The staff’s English was pretty good, and service was brisk but not unfriendly. People on Yelp talk about the fried fish filet with seaweed and the beef soup with handcut noodles, so I may not have ordered anything extraordinary. But I recommend the place.

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Restaurant of the Week: Guppy House

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Guppy House, 13065 Peyton Drive (at Rock Springs), Chino Hills

Guppy House is a cute name for a restaurant, reminding me of Cap’n Crunch’s ship, the SS Guppy. Guppy House is an Asian fusion eatery with outlets in Hacienda Heights, Cerritos, Anaheim and Irvine, plus Chino Hills. They were founded by David Li, a Cal Poly Pomona alumnus. He’s Taiwanese and his parents owned a French-Italian restaurant in Taiwan, so he knows a little about cross-cultural cuisine.

Chino Hills’ Guppy House is in a sprawling shopping center just paces from two other Asian eateries, Boiling Point and Green Banana Leaf, and not far from 85 Degrees. Guppy House’s menu melds Filipino, Korean and Taiwanese food and has such items as hot pots, kimchi, noodle and rice dishes, and boba drinks.

A friend and I met there for lunch recently. We had a signature item, popcorn chicken, with strawberry and mango salad ($10). The chicken, reminiscent of popcorn shrimp at Red Lobster, didn’t live up to the hype; the salad was colorful and well-made. We also had a dish named superb meatballs ($10), two enormous meatballs in a hot pot with cabbage and noodles, which was flavorful.

For dessert we shared the brick toast, another signature item, with coconut and pineapple ($6). Thick toast drizzled with chocolate, it was a knife and fork dessert and surprisingly delicious and filling.

The restaurant has a glassed-in patio with comfortable chairs, probably good on a warm evening but not so good on a hot day as there’s no shade. The interior is modern and stylish with lots of glass and natural light, plants, fake parrots and a high ceiling. A mezzanine has a TV and living room-like comfy chairs and coffee tables; it seems to be more for drinks or parties.

Guppy House has unusually late hours: It’s open 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday to Thursday and until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Like the name, the hours are adorable too.

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Restaurant of the Week: Green Banana Leaf

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Green Banana Leaf, 13089 Peyton Drive (at Beverly Glen), Chino Hills

One of the valley’s few Filipino restaurants, Green Banana Leaf is located in a sprawling shopping center with a Costco, Sport Chalet and vacant Best Buy. Several Asian eateries are in an L-shaped wing by Peyton Drive, including Guppy House and The Boiling Point, with The Crabby Crab coming soon.

I met a friend at GBL for lunch. It’s an inviting spot, with a row of private-seeming booths, a red and black color scheme and hanging fixtures. Snazzy.

We ordered off the lunch menu: pork BBQ skewer and chicken BBQ ($6.50 each, below and bottom). First came cups of mushroom soup in a clear broth. The plates had lumpa, which is akin to a small egg roll, and rice with dried garlic; I had noodles and my friend had a salad. The entrees themselves were mouth-watering. We liked the rice and lumpia. The noodles were nothing special, but neither was the salad, although it had romaine rather than iceberg.

These lunch plates were very filling as well as delicious, and for the price, even better. “It was like comfort food: wholesome, good food,” my friend remarked. We also tried traditional beverages ($2.50 each): sago at gulaman, a slushy cola with boba, and guyabano, which my friend said would be “perfect with rum and an umbrella.”

I don’t know how this stacks up with other Filipino restaurants, having only had that cuisine a time or two before, but this was one of the better meals I’ve had recently.

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Restaurant of the Week: Fish-O-Licious

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Fish-O-Licious, 4200 Chino Hills Parkway (at Pipeline), Chino Hills; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

Chino Hills has Pacific Fish Grill at the Shoppes, an informal seafood spot about which I posted in 2009. One wishes there were more such places in the Inland Valley. Well, since December there’s been a second, and it’s also in Chino Hills: Fish-O-Licious. It’s a wannabe chain with one other location, in Commerce.

Some of the menu offerings are fried, others are grilled. And before you wonder if this is a gussied-up H. Salt, the motto is “Fresh Seafood Daily.” I had lunch there with a friend recently.

I had the special No. 3 ($10, bottom), a plate of sole with a slightly sweet sauce with pineapple and peppers, as well as an above-average slaw, a roll and, in a pleasant surprise, a soda. Not a bad price, and the food was very good. My friend had the three fish taco plate ($8, below), which came with fries. She liked the tacos but thought tortilla chips would be a better side than fries.

They have sole, salmon, catfish, halibut, shrimp and scallops, as well as chicken (for those who hate fish, I guess) and chowder.

My friend’s comment was that it’s good to have another healthy option but that it’s pretty similar to Pacific Fish Grill. My comment is, I like it, but why can’t it be in a different city? Chino Hills has all the fun.

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Restaurant of the Week: Roscoe’s Famous Deli

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Roscoe’s Famous Deli, 14700 Pipeline Ave. (at Chino Hills Parkway), Chino Hills

You can’t get chicken and waffles at this Roscoe’s, a sandwich shop and bar in suburban Chino Hills that seems to share DNA with Claremont’s Heroes, at least its original incarnation, and Beer Belly Deli: sports on TV, peanuts on the table, peanut shells on the floor and giant portions of food. It’s one of those places of which people say, “You won’t leave hungry.”

I met three friends there for lunch on a recent Saturday. Mugs of water 8 inches tall were placed before us. “You won’t leave thirsty,” one friend quipped.

I got the meatloaf sandwich ($12, below) with curly fries. It was turkey meatloaf and provolone on a French roll, really good. The others liked their sandwiches too: the Martini ($12), which was chicken and mozzarella on parmesan bread; Your Godfather ($11, bottom), capicolla, prosciutto, salami and pepperoni (“the spiciness was a delicious surprise,” he said) on a French roll; and the veggie ($9), avocado, provolone and more on squaw bread. The latter two diners took home half their meal for later. I could have, and maybe should have. But I didn’t eat dinner, so it all worked out.

“My wife says the portions and prices are too much, but I like it,” declared the Martini orderer. He did not follow up with a belch.

The menu has many more sandwiches, plus burgers, hot dogs, salads and a few dinner entrees.

The walls have funky signs and there’s an attic-like feel to the decor reminiscent of Beer Belly Deli. The restaurant was busy, but our modest needs for service were met. Like Heroes (now Heroes and Legends), the atmosphere is a little amped-up for my taste, but the food’s good and it’s a fun spot to meet friends.

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Restaurant of the Week: 85 Degrees

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85 Degrees C Bakery, 12959 Peyton Drive (at Beverly Glen), Chino Hills

Sometimes called the Starbucks of Taiwan, 85 Degrees Celsius has been sprouting in Southern California’s Asian enclaves, with locations to date in Irvine, Hacienda Heights and West Covina. A Chino Hills outpost opened in July. It’s the largest at 5,000 square feet and took over the defunct City Broiler.

It’s been radically transformed, with lots of windows and lots of seating, as well as a shady, pleasant rear patio. I met a friend for lunch who had previously shown me the one in West Covina, so I knew what to expect.

Breads and pastries, both savory and sweet, are displayed in clear plastic cases, from which you pluck whatever you want with tongs and place them on a cafeteria tray. If you’ve been to a panaderia, you’ll recognize the concept. When you pay, each item is put into a clear bag. They also sell coffees, smoothies and other beverages.

So it’s basically a bread buffet, a carbohydrate cafeteria. Three pieces will generally fill you up. We had a pork sung bun, wheat germ mushroom, garlic cheese, and ham and onion roll, with red bean bread and mocha bread for dessert. Each was from $1.10 to $2. I also had a taro slush drink ($3.75). So, two of us had a satisfying lunch for $13, and I saved the mocha bread for breakfast the next morning. It was too bready for me, and the pork sung bun, essentially a bun dusted with powdery pork, was too dry for my taste. The rest were delicious, and I liked my drink too.

Definitely worth a visit: The items are different and really good (people rave about the sea salt coffee too), and as there will be more 85 Degrees locations, you may as well try one now so you can brag to your friends when one pops up in, say, Rancho Cucamonga that you already know all about it.

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Restaurant of the Week: Oh Queso

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Oh Queso, 14270 Chino Hills Parkway (at Grand), Chino Hills; open daily.

Chino Hills isn’t really a burger town, so I was doubly surprised when a foodie friend advised me that an excellent burger could be had in town at a Mexican restaurant. I ventured into the far western reaches of Chino Hills to find Oh Queso, located in the Stater Bros. center, around the point where the town peters out into scrubby hills.

Oh Queso looks like a chain but isn’t. It calls itself California Mexican Cuisine and has the usual array of tacos and burritos. They also have “gourmet burgers,” described on the menu as being made with “6 ounces of fresh ground chuck and brisket beef.”

I got the cheeseburger ($5.25) but with a fried egg ($1 extra) and as a combo with fries and soda, a total of $9.14 with tax. I’d never had an egg on my burger but my friend said it helps, and another friend swears by eggs too.

The fries were of the crunchy, double-fried variety, very good. A basket of house-made tortilla chips, also good. The burger? It was served on an egg bun, sturdy enough to hold up under the burger, cheese, egg, tomato, onion and sauce. The patty was thick, fresh and loosely packed. In sum, this burger was a magnificent thing, beefy and drippy.

They also sell pastrami burgers, bacon cheeseburgers and a green chili cheeseburger, or you can add sauteed mushrooms, an extra patty or extra cheese. The egg didn’t do much for me, but maybe I’ll acquire the taste. The guy at the next table got a pastrami burger, seemed impressed and took a menu home.

The restaurant interior is nothing to get excited about, although it’s pleasant enough, with tables and actual chairs, as well as a communal table with padded benches. You order at the counter and your food is brought to you. The service was friendly.

Oh Queso’s cheeseburger is certainly a contender for best Inland Valley fast-food burger, possibly beating out the Habit, Five Guys, Fatburger and Rounds, and for the money it’s a better deal than sit-down burger champions Back Abbey and Eureka. I haven’t made a comprehensive survey, and note I said “contender,” but if there’s a better burger locally, somebody tell me where it is.

I don’t know when I’ll be driving that far out into western Chino Hills again, but if I do I now know a good place to eat there.

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Restaurant of the Week: Las Cascadas

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Las Cascadas Mexican Cuisine and Cantina, 4200 Chino Hills Parkway (at Pipeline), Chino Hills

In the busy Chino Hills Marketplace, the sitdown Mexican restaurant Las Cascadas opened in December 2010 in the space previously occupied by the mediocre Salsitas, followed by Sandra’s and El Tepeyac. I had dinner there with a couple of friends the other night.

Once you’ve fought your way through the ill-designed parking lot, the restaurant is kind of snazzy: a broad bank of windows, solid tables, high-backed wooden chairs and a continuous, sofa-like bench along the window frontage. The decor is simple and tasteful.

It was Taco Tuesday and, as long as you get a bar drink (basically, anything but a soda), you can order off that menu. I got three $1.50 tacos (pictured above) and a horchata ($2.50); one friend had a chimichanga, hardshell beef taco and bean and cheese sope ($1.50 each, pictured below), the other the fish ceviche ($9, dinner portion, pictured at bottom).

Now, let’s be clear. You could get better Mexican food at many taquerias in the region. There is a reason you don’t automatically think of Chino Hills and Mexican food together. (Asian food is the thing to get.) That said, the atmosphere was really comfortable, the interior well designed, one of the more impressive Mexican restaurant interiors in these parts, and the food pretty good for a white person’s Mexican food experience. It’s like a hip El Torito.

And if it’s good enough for Gov. Jerry Brown, who dropped in unexpectedly for dinner in April, then you might like it too.

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