Restaurant of the Week: Creme Bakery

Creme Bakery, 116 Harvard Ave. (at 1st), Claremont; open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday

Claremont’s had a good bakery going back decades: Hodges, Jensen’s and then Some Crust, perhaps the quintessential Claremont Village business, where you can get not only very good pastries, breakfast sliders and coffee but a sense of Claremont.

Now there’s a second bakery in the Village. Creme opened last September and has quickly established itself as a formidable presence one block east of Some Crust. A frequent customer of the latter, I’ve begun gravitating to Creme.

It’s the product of a retired Whole Foods executive and enthusiastic baker, Erica Hartig Dubreuil. You’ll know right away it’s a French bakery from the genteel atmosphere, the lovely displays and the emphasis on croissants, scones, tarts and baguettes.

The croissants are superb, the slight crust of the exterior yielding to a pliable interior.

The apple danish is lightly crunchy and chewy, with a generous amount of apple.

I’ve also had a cranberry orange scone, dense and sweet, the first item I tried, and a ginger scone. I wouldn’t mind working my way through all the offerings. The only item so far that I’ve been indifferent toward was the vegan blueberry muffin, which stuck to the paper. I do think Some Crust does vegan muffins better.

Morning buns, muffins, scones, cookies and more will face you when you enter. Creme has a few coffees, baguette sandwiches for lunch, a case of elegant tarts and more. Seating is at a long, L-shaped communal sofa with the occasional tiny table. You won’t stay for hours, or bring a group, but you can meet with or bring one or two people, or just sit and people watch or, as I do, read a newspaper.

Is the Claremont Village now popular enough for two bakeries? I hope so, because I love Some Crust, and I’m quickly coming to love Creme too.

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Restaurant of the Week: Menkoi-Ya Ramen

Menkoi-Ya Ramen, 333 W. Bonita Ave. (at Yale), Claremont; open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 11 p.m. daily except Wednesday, closed

Menkoi-Ya was the first ramen specialist in Claremont, opening in January 2018 in the former Full of Life Bakery storefront. Since then, Ramen Lounge has opened a block away. I liked Ramen Lounge fine, even if the skater decor and casual service would repel a ramen purist.

Having been there, it was time to try Menkoi-Ya, which I did during my recent staycation, walking in for lunch one early afternoon. (Note the hours above; they close between lunch and dinner.) It’s a much more traditional environment with paper lantern-like lampshades, forest green walls and a wall-length mural. The music was modern alternative pop, but not too loud, and service was noticeably calm and polite.

The menu has appetizers, rice bowls and nearly a dozen styles of ramen. Most have a pork broth, but there are a couple of vegetarian versions.

I got the house Menkoi Ramen, with pork broth, shoyu base, toro chashu (slices of housemade pork belly from a sort of loaf), takasuimen noodles, green onions, dried seaweed and bamboo shoots ($8.50), plus a soft-boiled egg ($1).

The broth was subtler than at Ramen Lounge, and the noodles, made fresh, are stretchy, chewy and crinkled. For all I know the chashu was excellent for its type, but I didn’t think the pork added much to the experience, and I’m a pork fan. Still, this was a tasty, filling bowl of ramen.

One advantage of sitting at the counter, as I did, is that you can’t be observed fumbling with your noodles or chopsticks. In fact you’re looking at a short wall, unlike at an American-style counter. I actually handled the noodles fairly well. Having been an occasional customer at Full of Life, I recognized that where I was sitting was essentially where I used to stand to place an order of breakfast granola. Ah, nostalgia.

I liked Menkoi Ya and would return, in part to try one of the rice bowls but perhaps for another bowl of ramen.

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Restaurant of the Week: Ramen Lounge

Ramen Lounge, 238 Yale Ave. (at Bonita), Claremont; open noon to midnight Tuesday to Sunday; closed Mondays

Six or seven years ago, two friends and I went looking for ramen locally and could only find a so-so version at a Japanese restaurant in Chino. My friends, newcomers to the area, were amazed ramen essentially was unavailable around here. Now, ramen may be the poke of 2019, what with the number of ramen parlors that opened last year and are still opening in the Inland Valley.

Claremont now has two, and they’re less than a block apart in the Village. There’s Menkoi Ya, a more traditional restaurant, and the less sedate Ramen Lounge. I hadn’t been to either when a friend suggested we get ramen.

It was a Sunday and Menkoi Ya was closed, so we went to Ramen Lounge. On such points does fate turn.

Ramen Lounge‘s interior is purposely a bit stark, with a bare floor, a few tables and banquettes, a J-shaped bar and art from famous old-school hip-hop record jackets by De La Soul, Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. One friend calls it skater decor. The restaurant took over last fall from Yiannis, a Greek restaurant that had occupied the space since the early 1960s, initially as the Yale Cafe.

The menu is short: ramen, rice bowls, small plates. We started with two pork belly steam buns ($8), which were garnished with pickled red onions and slaw. We liked them.

We each got a bowl of tonkatsu ramen ($13). It came with pork belly, pickled bamboo shoots, a soft-boiled egg, corn and baby bok choy. The broth was thick and milky. We both liked it. We weren’t impressed by the bacon-sized strip of pork belly, which we extracted and pulled apart into small pieces, and which my friend found too fatty.

There’s a party vibe at Ramen Lounge, not a Japanese vibe. Note the hours: noon to midnight. Servers were dressed casually (one was in a ballcap), matching the skater feel.

I haven’t had enough ramen to pass judgment, although the newfound plethora of ramen parlors will make forming opinions easier. A friend who prefers Menkoi Ya turns up her nose at Ramen Lounge. It’s probably not the best ramen. But it hit the spot on a cold, rainy day.

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Restaurant of the Week: Hi Family

Hi Family, 944 W. Foothill Blvd. (at Regis), Claremont; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily except Wednesday, closed; also 12732 Foothill Blvd. (at Etiwanda), Rancho Cucamonga

In the small plaza across from Stater Bros., Hayato (best Japanese restaurant in Claremont) and Mediterranean mainstay Darvish are firmly lodged, while Chinese restaurants have come and gone. Hi Family, though, has hung in there for four years, according to Yelp; after a foodie friend recommended it, we made plans to eat there.

Unfortunately, that was on a Wednesday, the one day it’s closed. A few weeks later, in Claremont at lunchtime on a Monday, I gave it a spin solo.

It’s small, just eight tables, with dark wood and cobalt walls. The menu has a few standard American Chinese dishes like orange chicken, but most of the menu is real Chinese.

The first thing they bring out is a tumbler of water with slices of cucumber inside, an unusual but welcome flourish.

My friend said he’d had dan dan noodles and rattan pepper beef. Noticing that hot pots seem to be a specialty, I got the chicken, small size ($19), after they were out of short rib, my first choice. But that’s just as well, as Los Chicken, as it’s known, appears to be the most popular dish. The name is evidently a Mandarin pun, a shorthand version of Los Angeles as well as chicken, if I understand what I read correctly.

They bring out a portable stove to keep the soup hot. The soup had chicken (with bones in some cases), cabbage, chile oil and no doubt more. I ordered it medium spicy, which in my case was too spicy. I was blowing my nose into my napkin and gulping that cucumber water.

But it was tasty, generous with the chicken and with searing oil. The soup stayed hot and there were leftovers enough for two more meals. I also had an order of rice ($1), spooning the soup into a small bowl and mixing in the rice.

Once outside I noticed the sandwich board special for “crawfish rice.” Had I seen that going in I might have ordered it.

Szechuan-style Hi Family is the most authentic of the (I believe) three Chinese restaurants in Claremont, with Upper House being a middle ground (with more seating too) and Mr. You Express, which I haven’t visited, a fast-food spot. It probably goes without saying that Hi Family is for the more adventurous diner — although you could always get orange chicken.

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Restaurant of the Week: Gus’s BBQ

Gus’s BBQ, 500 W. 1st St. (at Oberlin), Claremont; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. except until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 p.m. Sundays

The Claremont Packing House got a fresh jolt of excitement when ailing standby Casablanca was replaced by the South Pasadena barbecue outpost Gus’s BBQ. Gus’s has been around since 1946 on Fair Oaks Avenue but became more of a diner until new owners took over in 2007, re-emphasizing smoked meats and boosting business.

I’d seen Gus’s neon blade sign many times and had always meant to check them out, but my only taste of the food was when they catered a friend’s wedding a year ago (deliciously). It was neat to see them come to Claremont for their second location. We don’t often get that kind of attention.

The place has been busy since its late June opening. The interior is medium-sized, with a full bar specializing in whisky, and then there’s the wraparound patio, which also has inward-facing seating to the bar. The corrugated tin of the Packing House and the neon Gus’s sign make the fit seem natural.

They sell sandwiches, burgers, salads, barbecue entrees and Southern specialties. The barbecue is, literally, all over the map, as they have Memphis baby back ribs, St. Louis spare ribs, Texas beef brisket and Carolina pulled pork.

I’ve been there twice for solo lunches, both in the middle of a weekend afternoon, and both times the restaurant had a fair number of other off-hour customers.

The first time I had a pulled pork sandwich ($13) with sweet potato fries as my side. Served with cole slaw on top, and on a light ciabatta roll, the pork was full of flavor, assisted by a bit of mustardy Carolina BBQ sauce from the selection at the table. I couldn’t have asked for a tastier pulled pork sandwich.

A week later, I returned to try ribs. They were busy enough that they sat me at the bar, which was empty but which soon filled up. I had the half-rack of St. Louis ribs ($23), with braised southern greens and mac n’ cheese as my sides.

A half-rack amounted to seven bones, with tender pork that came off the bone easily. The greens were leafier than is usual, the mac lightly cheesed and with bread crumbs on top. While a full rack of ribs is $5 more, the half-rack was plenty for one person.

This is genteel barbecue in polite, hipsterish surroundings. We might prefer the downhome funk and friendliness of, say, J&J in Pomona or Bigg Dane and Beale’s in Fontana, but Gus’s food is excellent.

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Restaurant of the Week: Burger Bar

CLOSED

Burger Bar, 665 E. Foothill Blvd. (at Claremont Blvd.), Claremont; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday to Sunday; closed Monday

When the Meat Cellar moved a few blocks west to the old Wolfe’s Market, the former location was turned into Burger Bar under the same ownership. I wrote about Meat Cellar last week and may as well round things out by giving the same treatment to Burger Bar.

It’s been upgraded a bit, with a bar (obviously you need a bar at a place named Burger Bar) and local beers from No Clue, Last Name and nearby Claremont Craft Ales as well as red and white wines. The seating is a little better too, and there’s table service rather than ordering at the register.

The new Meat Cellar has an expanded menu. Burger Bar is more like the old Meat Cellar menu: sandwiches, burgers and a few entrees, like steak frites. Basically, my favorites are still served here in this quieter, more low-key (no valet parking, at least) restaurant. And there are some new items too.

On my first visit, I had one of those new items, the turkey burger ($15). This was not what I had expected, frankly, being more like the “chicken burger” you sometimes see on a menu; this was a tightly packed disk of turkey rather than ground turkey that would closely resemble a hamburger in looks and flavor. The crispy onion straws helped relieve its monotony, but I would recommend they drop it from the menu.

As that’s not how I wanted this Restaurant of the Week to go, I decided to return before writing something.

On my second visit I got a hamburger — in this case, splurging for the Wagyu ($18). This was more like it.

On the other hand, the guy at the table behind me complained about his burger being undercooked and said he had a Cordon Bleu degree. Compounding its evident flub, the kitchen made him the wrong burger for his replacement sandwich, for which management apologized and comped him. (I’ve had days like that too.)

I’m pretty sure I’ll return to Burger Bar, but a little less enthusiastically than expected. They may have a few kinks to work out yet.

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Restaurant of the Week: Meat Cellar

Meat Cellar, 160 W. Foothill Blvd. (at Harvard), Claremont; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Meat Cellar was already the subject of a Restaurant of the Week post, in 2016, only now it’s moved a few blocks west to the old Wolfe’s Market, and the old location has become a Meat Cellar-owned spinoff, Burger Bar. So it seems best to start over.

The new Meat Cellar is probably triple the size, a full-service restaurant with a full bar, an open kitchen and, as before, a meat case like a butcher. That in a way serves as a nod to the space’s century as a grocery until its demise in 2017 (although the back part of the building continues as Wolfe’s Kitchen and Deli). There are two dining areas, one near the bar and the other near the kitchen.

I went in for a weekday lunch recently on a day off. Here’s the new menu; click for a larger view. (I’m glad I took a photo, as Meat Cellar currently has no website and its Facebook page hasn’t been updated since July 2017.)

The menu is greatly expanded from the original location; it’s still got the sandwiches, steak frites and other items from before, but now there’s salads, appetizers, desserts, more small plates and far more seafood.

They brought out a piece of cornbread, which was tasty, and a dollop of butter almost the size of the cornbread, which went unused.

I ordered the farmers market salad, a new item, with chicken ($13 + $5).

It’s got strawberries, currants, romaine, feta and more, plus balsamic vinaigrette. I liked it: It felt like a meal, with chicken and strawberries in nearly every bite.

The interior is rustic, with exposed rafters and ductwork, a skylight and wooden slat tables. Service was low-key and professional.

The new Meat Cellar, which opened earlier this year, was a hit immediately; drive past any evening and you’ll see plenty of diners inside through the large windows. Due to the small parking lot, Meat Cellar has valet parking, possibly the only restaurant to offer this in the Inland Valley, and you’ll see cars parked on the streets around the neighborhood for two or three blocks. It’s a more intense use than Foothill or the primarily residential neighborhood is used to, for sure. But it’s a good use of the space and a great addition to the local dining scene. Congratulations to them.

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Restaurant of the Week: 85 Degrees C Bakery Cafe, Claremont

85 Degrees C Bakery Cafe, 428 Auto Center Drive (at Indian Hill), Claremont; open daily

I’ve been to the Chinese bakery chain 85 Degrees (Celsius) in Chino Hills a few times, which will tell you I like it. One opened up in Claremont last fall, in the Super King center.

Even though I live in Claremont, my lone visit so far was not on my way to work or on a weekend but rather for a workday meal. I was headed to an interview in Claremont at 4 p.m. one day from our Rancho Cucamonga office and needed a quick lunch. It occurred to me that 85 Degrees was right off the freeway and wouldn’t take long.

It’s in a space in the middle of the center that previously housed a couple of Mediterranean restaurants in succession. I was skeptical of how this would work, given that the Chino Hills space is probably four times larger, and with a patio. But the selection of serve-yourself items is about the same size as in Chino Hills. There’s no cake display and far less seating.

I grabbed a tray and tongs and picked up, in clockwise order below, a wheat mushroom roll ($1.65), apple danish ($1.80), pork sung bun ($1.80) and spinach danish ($2), plus a sea salt jasmine tea ($3, not pictured because it arrived after I started eating), paid and took the lone table available. I felt bad taking a table for four, but it was that or eat standing up, and besides, I wasn’t there long.

As always, I liked my items, with the wheat mushroom roll my favorite and the pork sung bun the least. If there were more seating, I would visit more often.

An 85 Degrees opened in December in Rancho Cucamonga. Suddenly, they’re everywhere!

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Restaurant of the Week: Elvira’s Mexican Grill, Claremont

Elvira’s Mexican Grill, 415 W. Foothill Blvd. (at Indian Hill), Claremont

Elvira’s, which has become a popular spot in Upland, opened a second location this year in Claremont in the Old School House complex. A friend and I checked it out recently for lunch. (It’s pronounced “El-veer-uh,” btw.)

I’m a fan of the one in Upland and had been to Claremont’s for a take-out order of flan for an office farewell party. That gave me a couple of minutes to admire the decor. It may be the most upscale Mexican restaurant in the area, with Gloria’s in downtown Ontario in the running. Except the food at Elvira’s is superior.

The main dining room has a soaring ceiling, exposed wood beams, two chandeliers, original paintings and niches to display pottery. Even the hallway to the restrooms has art. There’s a bar area and an expansive patio.

The Old School House is the former Claremont High School. The restaurant is the former library, sans enormous drapes, according to my friend, an alumnus. He says the first restaurant was Casa Ramon, followed by Don Salsa and Casa de Salsa, which vacated in 2014. As the space was renovated, some great exterior features such as statuary over the entrance and education-themed panels on the outside wall were revealed and incorporated.

Since I’ve talked up the food at the Upland location, I’m saying less about that here. It’s a nice sit-down spot. My friend got the enchiladas suizas and I had the chile verde burrito (each $13.50). “They were really excellent,” my friend said when done, also praising the guacamole. If you get an order of guacamole, they make it tableside.

I enjoyed my burrito. Now, I could have had a burrito of comparable quality for under half the price at a beat-up, quick-serve place and been perfectly happy, but you’re paying for service and ambience. Service was friendly and attentive, and the ambience couldn’t be beat. Also, the salsa was really good.

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Restaurant of the Week: Bert and Rocky’s Cream Co.

Bert and Rocky’s Cream Co., 242 Yale Ave. (at Bonita), Claremont; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Ice cream and candy shop Bert and Rocky’s started in Upland in 1989 and expanded to Claremont in 1998; the Upland location, by the high school, has closed, leaving the Claremont shop as the mainstay.

It’s a popular spot with a lot of foot traffic, great homemade ice cream and a community-oriented outlook with school fund-raisers and the like.

I’ve gone to Bert and Rocky’s since its Village location opened — not frequently, but probably once a year. It wasn’t until meeting a friend there during October’s heat wave that it occurred to me to make it a Restaurant of the Week.

They’ve got a couple dozen ice cream flavors, plus sorbet and other non-dairy permutations, at any given time, available as cones (their waffle cones are housemade), dishes, sundaes, banana splits, freezes and milkshakes.

I went for Butterfingers and cream in my go-to size, junior scoop ($3.45). Seems plenty big to me.

Bert and Rocky’s also has fudge, bark, caramel apples, chocolate-dipped items, scooped candy and nostalgic packaged candy like Necco wafers. There are a few tables, a bar, some outdoor chairs and, on most afternoons, a crush of customers — but also a friendly and patient staff.

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