Restaurant of the Week: JoJo’s Pizza Kitchen

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JoJo’s Pizza Kitchen, 2923 Chino Ave. (at Peyton), Chino Hills; open daily

JoJo’s has been in Chino Hills since the 1990s, practically the dawn of time by that city’s standards, operating from the Crossroads Marketplace shopping center in the north part of town. I’d had takeout pizza from there once with friends who lived nearby but visited for the first time recently for lunch with a fan of the place.

The menu has pizza, pasta, salads, calzones, sandwiches and entrees, some of which are unusual or unique: Italian mac and cheese, risotto bowls, shrimp diavolo.

I had a mini, 8-inch pizza with anchovies and mushrooms ($9.65) and my friend got angel hair pasta with marinara sauce ($9) plus a side salad ($3). Hearty pizza, generous with the anchovies; the pasta was proclaimed worthy, and some was taken home. Asked what else is good here, she recommended the stuffed artichoke, focaccia salad, caprese salad and cannoli.

JoJo’s is said to not be as quality conscious as when the original owners had it. People on Yelp are of two minds, with some saying it’s overpriced or the service is poor and others praising the food and service. Our service was acceptable, although a cup of coffee took 10 minutes to procure, and was delivered not on a saucer but on a plate. That was a little weird.

There are also locations in Brea and Mira Loma. But those are farther away.

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Restaurant of the Week: Happy Kitchen

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Happy Kitchen, 3233 Grand Ave. (at Peyton), Chino Hills

Chino Hills is the prime spot in the Inland Valley for authentic Chinese good, with numerous worthwhile spots, and new ones popping up or replacing existing eateries all the time. I was led to Happy Kitchen as a Yelp recommendation for another restaurant I was eyeing.

I met two friends at Happy Kitchen for lunch on a recent Saturday. It’s in the Albertsons center (nice to know there are still Albertsons around), and several of the other restaurants are Asian too, including the wonderfully named Korean tofu joint Youngdong.

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Happy Kitchen is small and at noon was bustling. We got about the only empty table and examined the multipage menu, which has about 200 items: appetizers, noodle dishes, rice dishes, chicken, pork, lamb, seafood, vegetarian, hot pot and more.

We got three entrees, pictured in order below: Happy Kitchen tofu ($10), tangerine chicken ($10) and cumin pork ($12). Also, two appetizers: fried bread roll and vegetable egg rolls ($5 each). This proved to be too much food, but that’s part of the fun of a shared meal.

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“Very tasty, I liked it,” one friend said. She said the fried bread reminded her favorably of something you’d get at the Fair and that the tofu entree was larger than in the menu photo.

“It didn’t exceed my expectations but it met them,” the other friend said. “It was very good for strip mall Chinese.”

That seemed a little unfair to me, as 1) almost every restaurant in Chino Hills is in a strip mall and 2) most San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants are in strip malls too. Din Tae Fung, anyone?

My view was that there were a lot more items on the menu that I’d like to try, especially the beef roll (it’s a dish I’ve had at 101 Noodle Express in Alhambra). I liked Happy Kitchen as much as Noodle House, my previous Chino Hills favorite.

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Restaurant of the Week: Lobster Grill

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Lobster Grill, 3210 Chino Ave. (at the 71), Chino Hills; closed Mondays

I’ve passed by Lobster Grill when seeing movies at the Harkins 18 but only visited recently after a positive comment on FB from reader David Saw about the lobster rolls. As a lobster roll fan, I figured I should give the place a try.

On my first visit, though, I went with something different. The menu is much like Pacific Fish Grill elsewhere in town, with seafood plates and sides, and the style is fast-casual, bringing the cost down. So I ordered grilled swordfish ($12) with garlic butter sauce, rice pilaf and steamed vegetables; it comes with a thin piece of garlic toast.

Pretty good, and on a third visit my order was very similar, only with mahi mahi ($12) instead. I didn’t like it as much and the vegetables are kind of boring.

Now, how about that lobster roll? That came on my second visit: the sandwich, New England style, with fries ($11). This is a cold roll with a kind of lobster salad, on a warm piece of folded bread that will remind you of Sizzler’s “Texas toast.” I prefer the Connecticut style of lobster roll, which is served warm, but this was a good New England roll, with a generous helping of lobster. The fries were tasty too.

The menu is slightly more seafood-intense than the local competitors, with clams, mussels and oysters on the half-shell, and with Cajun buckets ($28 to $35). That said, I’m a little wary of ordering oysters from a place that doesn’t really specialize in them, and for the same reason I’ve shied away from crab legs and such.

Overall, I prefer Pacific Fish Grill. But Lobster Grill is all right for the basics, and the parking is easier than at the Shoppes, where Pac Fish is. Candidly, I don’t remember much about Fish-O-Licious, so I’m not sure where it rates in the Chino Hills spectrum (as opposed to the Chino Spectrum Marketplace) of cheap-ish seafood joints.

The Lobster Grill interior is pleasant enough, orange plastic seats and paper-covered tables, although lately I’ve just been happy for the air conditioning.

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Restaurant of the Week: Rita’s Italian Ice

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Rita’s Italian Ice, 15870 Soquel Canyon Parkway (at Los Serranos), Chino Hills

Rita’s is a Pennsylvania-based chain of 600 locations that recently opened one in the south part of Chino Hills. There aren’t many places around here to get Italian ice or frozen custard, its two specialties. For a break from Sunday’s 107-degree heat, I headed to CHills for some chills.

Rita’s is in a small center off the 71 Freeway with a Wells Fargo, Rite Aid and a handful of other stores. Inside, I was greeted promptly, by the manager no less, who asked if I’d been to a Rita’s before. I hadn’t, so she gave me the spiel about the menu and product. They have a dozen flavors of Italian ice at any given time, made fresh daily. They have frozen custard usually, except due to bird flu, they have only one flavor (I think); the others are soft-serve ice cream.

You can see the daily menu of flavors on the website. That day the ice flavors included cotton candy, birthday cake, root beer, margarita and blue raspberry.

I ordered a Gelati, which is part ice, part custard (or ice cream), choosing blood orange ice with orange and vanilla twist ice cream (large: $4.79 with tax). The large size was more than I needed, as it turned out, but it was an excuse to stay there and enjoy the air conditioning. There was a layer of ice cream on the bottom, a middle layer of Italian ice and another layer of ice cream on top. The flavors paired well.

They have another combo, the Blendini, which is ice, custard and a mix-in, and a beverage called the Misto, which is the Gelati put through a blender.

On Yelp, some people prefer Frostbites, a similar shop in Chino that has Italian ice, custard, sorbet, ice cream and more. Well, I’ll have to give that a try too. On a brutally hot day, though, Rita’s hit the spot.

* Update: I returned the next week for a Misto ($4, bottom) at reader Eric’s suggestion. Among the ice flavors this time: green apple, horchata, mango and iced coffee. I combined a root beer ice with vanilla ice cream for a sort of root beer float slushy — and what part of “root beer float slushy” doesn’t sound good? On another blazing day, it hit the spot.

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Restaurant of the Week: RA Sushi

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RA Sushi, 13925 City Center Drive (at the Shoppes), Chino Hills

Some people rave about the RA happy hour (3 to 7 p.m.); I went with friends a few years ago and wondered what the fuss was about. I suppose I’m kind of a purist about these things, and RA seemed too much like a party place, not a Japanese restaurant.

But a friend wanted to meet there recently for dinner, and so five of us converged on the Shoppes one Saturday night. It was warm enough that we got a table on the patio, which wraps around two sides of the wing-like exterior.

Gazing into the distance, the green hills of Boys Republic across the way were visible, giving the sense that the mall was nestled in a rural area. Not entirely true, but not entirely false either. I do like the Shoppes, and there’s a Barnes and Noble a few paces from RA.

We got a bunch of rolls, photographs of which I believe are in descending order below: lobster salmon ($13.45), with lobster, mango, avocado, cucumber, topped with salmon, lobster and lobster cream sauce; crazy monkey ($10.25), with smoked salmon, mango and cream cheese; Viva Las Vegas ($13.60) with crab, cream cheese, tempura batter, topped with spicy tuna, crab and piece of fried lotus root; and rainbow ($12), a California roll with tuna, yellowtail, shrimp, salmon and avocado arrayed “to look like a rainbow,” the menu explains.

These were all pretty good, actually. Viva Las Vegas with its crunchy and smooth textures was described by one person as the best specialty roll she’d had. I don’t know if I had a favorite, but maybe the lobster salmon. I also had a scallop nigiri ($5), fine.

There’s alcohol too. Somebody ordered the Umami punch ($18), 60 ounces (!) in a giant glass, meant for two; everybody had some. Even I took a couple of sips.

RA is still kind of a party place, by which I mean it comes off as the Yard House of sushi, but it proved a convivial spot to hang out with friends. The interior is snazzy. There’s better sushi in Chino Hills, which is to Asian food what Pomona is to Mexican food, but RA is OK.

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Restaurant of the Week: Afters Ice Cream

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Afters Ice Cream, 13920 City Center Drive (the Shoppes at Chino Hills), Chino Hills

There aren’t many food items the Inland Valley is willing to line up for. Ice cream at Handel’s, especially on $1 cone days (Wednesdays in Upland, Thursdays in Rancho Cucamonga). Menudo on weekends, various locations. Maybe turkey legs at the Fair.

But there’s almost always a line out the door at Afters, a start-up ice cream parlor at the Shoppes. (The first Afters is in Fountain Valley; a third one is coming.) Part of that is demand, part is cleverness. There may always be 20 people in line, give or take, and that’s impressive. But the staff isn’t in a hurry to move them along, which means the line usually stretches outdoors. A well-connected friend says: “The strategy I’ve heard is, they have two cash registers, but they only open one. They know that a line creates buzz. It connotes popularity.”

I’ve been there three times since its opening in January. (Somehow Afters was able to locate across from Pinkberry, which makes me wonder if Pinkberry failed to get a non-compete clause in its lease.)

Afters makes its own ice cream, in creative flavors such as Vietnamese coffee, acai blueberry, milk and cereal, and cookie monster, and it offers some mix-ins. The thing to get is the milky bun. It’s a doughnut-like bun about the size of a hamburger bun, which they’ll cut open and put your ice cream in, then heat briefly. The bun is warm, the ice cream stays cold. A milky bun with one flavor and one mix-in is $5.

I’ve had jasmine milk tea (with mochi, below), mint monster (with Oreos, up top) and churro (with Cinnamon Crunch ice cream). Once I had the unglazed milky bun and switched back to glazed the next time. I ask the staff what mix-in they recommend with my flavor choice and go with that. They do this for a living, after all.

The result is like a soft ice cream sandwich. You can get ice cream sandwiches at Dripp, elsewhere in the Shoppes, and those are excellent, with homemade cookies and ice cream. The milky bun is unique, though, and while it’s not pie, it’s awfully good. If your attitude is, “Isn’t that just a doughnut with ice cream in it?”, my answer would be, “Basically, yes. And it tastes amazing.”

If the milky bun is too much for you, they sell their ice cream by the scoop.

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Their spelling could use some work, I regret to say. Let’s hope no one is using this hashtag. *

* It turns out “No Ragrets” is a sly joke that began in the comedy “We’re the Millers.” See comments below.

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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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