Restaurant of the Week: Norms

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Norms, 807 S. Indian Hill Blvd. (at Auto Center), Claremont

Norms, which opened in Claremont next to the 10 Freeway in August, was the most-anticipated Inland Valley restaurant arrival since Five Guys Burgers in Rancho Cucamonga.

All this fuss for a sort of upscale Dennys? This says a lot about the essential working-class character of the valley, as well as the numbers of repatriated Angelenos in our midst, as Norms’ 18 locations are scarce in our part of L.A. County.

The 24-hour diner, heralded by a very un-Claremont sign that looms over the freeway, is still busy a month after its opening, so timing your visit carefully is advised.

I had breakfast there with a friend recently. At 8 a.m., the restaurant, which has an occupancy of 221 seats, had plenty of empty booths, but by the time we left at 9, every seat was full and there was a line to get one. Ditto with a lunchtime visit a few days later; at 11:45 a.m., 25 people were waiting to be seated and there was a line at the cashier to pay. By 1 p.m., when we left, the crowd was thinning out and the pace slowing.

It’s a comfortable, coffee shop vibe, with browns and oranges in the color scheme, plush booths, counter seating and tiled walls. One friend said the interior, with its high ceilings, hanging orange lamps and expanse of windows, reminded him of the old Henry’s drive-in. There’s a surprising amount of outdoor seating as well, wrapping halfway around the building.

At breakfast, I had the Jump Start ($4.99), with eggs, bacon and toast. It was what you’d expect. For an extra buck I could’ve had the Bigger Better Breakfast, which comes with eggs, pancakes, ham, bacon and (not or) sausage. That’s a lotta meat.

My friend had the Country Cookin’ ($8.79, pictured below) with chicken fried steak, his baseline meal, and two eggs and hash browns. On a 1-to-10 scale, he gave the steak “a good 8.” The steak was processed rather than made on the premises, but the gravy was pronounced “excellent.”

Coffee, at $2, was a little steep, my friend said, but Norms is making a fuss about the quality of its coffee, and refills were offered every few minutes.

On my lunch visit, I had a tuna melt ($7.69), my own baseline sandwich by which to judge a diner. It was a decent version and the fruit on the side, thin-sliced crescents of melon, provided a nice balance. My friend had the Avo Gobble ($8.29, pictured at bottom), a turkey and avocado sandwich. (At Nancy’s in Rancho Cucamonga they call something similar the Turkado.)

That friend’s verdict: “The food’s pretty good. Everybody’s nice and friendly. They come by and ask how you’re doing.” Of the crowd, he said: “You wouldn’t know there was a problem with the economy.” He also observed that the diners didn’t look like Claremont people, being working-class types and retirees.

I’m looking forward to dinner there sometime, and maybe to a middle-of-the-night visit too, if only I could stop sleeping soundly and induce insomnia.

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Restaurant of the Week: Loving Hut

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Loving Hut, 175 N. Indian Hill Blvd. (at 2nd), Claremont

Loving Hut is a chain of vegan restaurants. There’s one in Upland (903 W. Foothill) and one opened this month in Claremont’s Village West. Each Loving Hut is united by its name and concept but each, interestingly enough, has its own menu.

Claremont’s location is next to Le Pain Quotidien and the Laemmle Theater facing the public plaza. I’m a proud meat eater but one open to vegetarian or vegan cooking. For a better test, though, I brought along a vegetarian friend.

The menu has veggie lasagna, penne pasta, fajitas, tacos, salads, pizza, sandwiches and smoothies. (For comparison’s sake, here’s Upland’s menu, which is indeed quite different: some fried items, a heavier Asian influence, cheaper beverages and more desserts.)

I had the Gardein burger ($12; photo at upper right), which puts a chicken-flavored soy patty on a wheat bun with tomato, lettuce, avocado, onion, pesto and spicy mayo, with a small salad on the side. My friend had the tacos diego ($12; photo at lower right), with beef-flavored soy strips in corn tortillas with lettuce and flour-based Daiya cheese, with beans, salsa and avocado on the side.

My sandwich wasn’t as dense as chicken but did taste similarly. (Of course, doesn’t everything taste like chicken?) My friend thought his tacos were fine if bland, and his beans were dry.

Because most of the beverages are $7 or $8, we stuck to water.

So, eating here is a bit more expensive, and whether it’s worth it is an individual decision. My friend’s opinion is that vegetarian options are fairly easy to come by anymore, usually for less than Loving Hut was charging. Still, Loving Hut is a nice alternative to almost every other restaurant in the Inland Valley.

Tableside service was pleasant and helpful and the dining room is mod-ish and comfortable in a fast-casual way. Surprisingly, days after its opening, a B grade from the Health Department appeared in the window. *(By Aug. 5 it was an A.)

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Restaurant of the Week: Eureka Burger

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Eureka Burger, 580 W. 1st St. (at Cornell), Claremont

When it was announced that Eureka Burger would take over the Claremont Packing House space formerly occupied by the high-end steakhouse Three Forks, I was skeptical. Sure, the economy had crashed, but going from steaks to hamburgers seemed like quite a comedown, even if Eureka has only two other locations, in Redlands and Fresno.

A peek at the online menu near the restaurant’s opening, however, showed off some mouth-watering burgers. And a recent visit with a group of friends proved Eureka to be a winner.

The wood-intensive interior still seems high end, there’s a bar with craft beer and there’s service at the tables, about half of which are outside on the deck.

Burgers range from $8.75 to $10.50. I had the Pearl Street Blues ($10), which is premium Angus ground chuck topped with melted bleu cheese, wild mushrooms, grilled onions and chipotle ketchup. It’s served on a sesame bun and was large enough to use a knife to cut it in half. The burger was, in a word, outstanding, among the best I can remember.

Everyone else liked their burgers as well. One got hers rare and remarked, “There’s not many places you can get a rare burger.” We also enjoyed a couple of orders of the enormous onion rings ($4.25), which use panko bread crumbs for a light batter. The menu also has salads and other sandwiches.

Eureka would seem to be in direct competition with the Back Abbey, another fancy burger and craft beer place two blocks away. Back Abbey is usually jam-packed, which I hope means both places can thrive because they both deserve to do so.

Eureka’s service was friendly. Servers all wore black T-shirts with varied slogans. One: “Respect Beer.”

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Restaurant of the Week: King Kong Sushi

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King Kong Sushi, 300 N. Indian Hill Blvd. (at Bonita), Claremont

King Kong Sushi opened last fall in the Village, in the expansive corner slot with the tower-like roof that formerly housed Kinya, another Japanese restaurant. (When it was built in the 1990s, the original tenant was Koo Koo Roo; later came a Chinese restaurant.)

The name King Kong Sushi was not promising, making me think of low-end party sushi. And in truth, the food was merely okay. We had the Super Albacore Roll ($9), which was too spicy, overwhelming the taste of the fish, and acceptable fatty yellowtail ($5) and salmon sushi ($3.50).

The menu does have some creative-sounding items, such as rolls with rice paper or without rice. But it also has Korean food.

Service was friendly and the interior has been freshened up with white paint and tile. The food is less expensive than Kazama Sushi two blocks away and King Kong may become a favorite of the college crowd. (Although a Claremont McKenna review only recommends the alcohol.)

I may go back, but personally, for sushi in Claremont I prefer Kazama and Hayato.

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Restaurant of the Week: Aruffo’s

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Aruffo’s Italian Cuisine, 126 Yale Ave. (at 2nd), Claremont

Sometimes restaurants become so familiar we sort of forget they’re there. I see Aruffo’s all the time and yet don’t see it. Aruffo’s opened in 1986 and it’s near my house, but I’d only eaten there once, maybe 10 years ago, and my memory was of a solid but unspectacular lunch. Recently a friend who loves the place suggested it for lunch and I was happy for the excuse to renew my acquaintance.

And yet I couldn’t pinpoint which street in the Village it’s on, guessing Harvard but finding it one block over, on Yale. Oh, yeah, across from Some Crust. Aruffo’s is quite pleasant inside, with lovely murals and vintage posters and an upscale feel. A delicious round loaf of herbed bread was delivered to our table. I had the salmon Caesar ($14.99, I think), which was topped with ocean-caught, not farm-raised, salmon. It was delicious too. My friend was likewise impressed by her arugula salad.

In other words, Aruffo’s made a strong second impression.

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Restaurant of the Week: Casa Moreno

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Casa Moreno, 101 N. Indian Hill Blvd. (at 1st), Claremont

Casa Moreno, which opened in July, fills a prime slot in Claremont’s Village Expansion, facing the public square and cater-corner to the movie theater. It’s a family owned place with one other location, in Covina. The Claremont location has a large dining room with high ceilings, a pleasant color scheme and a neat nook as a waiting area, plus outdoor seating with fire pits for cool evenings.

The restaurant is moderately busy on weeknights and busy on weekends. I had dinner there with a friend on Tuesday before seeing “Inception,” which turned out to be great. The restaurant, however, inspired mixed feelings. The service was friendly but the food didn’t live up to our expectations.

The salsa with the chips was very good. Her margarita ($8) was made from a mix. The chicken mole ($15, pictured), a specialty, was, dare I say it, complex (albeit not as complex as “Inception”), but the chicken was dry. The ceviche ($10) didn’t taste especially fresh. The chiles relleno ($15) were okay. They put cheddar cheese on the refried beans and the tortillas were storebought.

Even small taquerias like Juanita’s or Patty’s make their own tortillas, and a meal there will set you back five bucks. It wouldn’t take much effort to make a margarita from scratch, according to my friend. Seemed to us if you’re going to charge three times more than a taqueria, the food should be better than a taqueria, not the same or worse.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be too tough on Casa Moreno. The place just opened, and it’s still in the shakeout period. They’re operating with only a limited menu before rolling out the whole thing. Reviews on Yelp are also mostly underwhelmed. Perhaps management will get the message and can inspire the kitchen and bar staff to kick it up a notch. It’s such a great location, especially for diners wanting a meal or drink before or after a movie, that I would go back regardless — although at this point it wouldn’t be my first choice.

(A lot of Daily Bulletin readers were there Tuesday. I ran into several people I know, and reader Barry Miller, at the next table, introduced himself to us. He was so excited to meet real live newspaper people, he bought our dinner. Thanks, Barry.)

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Restaurant of the Week: Kazama

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Kazama Sushi, 101 N. Indian Hill Blvd. (at 2nd), Claremont

Sometimes these writeups are based on a single meal. Kazama, however, is a place I’ve eaten at a half-dozen times since it relocated to Claremont’s Village expansion in 2007 after a couple of years in Rancho Cucamonga. I like it. It’s easy to get to for me, it’s near the Laemmle theater complex, the food’s good and the experience is quiet and professional.

A friend took me to lunch there Saturday for a belated birthday get-together. I got the tekka don ($16.50), a bowl of tuna sashimi on sushi rice. Check out the presentation! That’s a piece of sashimi curled into the shape of a rose. Very nice. And yes, the dish tasted good too.

My friend had the weekend lunch special ($12.50) which had a little of everything: tuna and salmon sushi, California rolls, shrimp and vegetable tempura, chicken teriyaki, salad, miso soup and fruit. She liked it. We also split an order of gyoza ($4.95).

Kazama is small, about six tables, plus a long, curving sushi bar with 20 seats. Decor is understated. Some grumble that the prices are too high, and they may be, although an extra couple of bucks for a nice experience in the high-rent district doesn’t bother me.

There’s a second Japanese restaurant less than two blocks north and there’s nothing wrong with it either, but I give the edge to Kazama.

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Restaurant of the Week: Hayato

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Hayato Sushi & Grill, 950 W. Foothill Blvd. (at Regis), Claremont

For years, Nogi was the only sushi bar in Claremont, and it wasn’t even in the Village, instead standing on Foothill in a center set back from the street and roughly across from Stater Bros. and near the restaurant that looks like a tugboat. Now there are by my count five Japanese restaurants in town, including one that took over the tugboat, and Nogi, which closed a few months ago when its owner retired, has been replaced by Hayato.

And Hayato is pretty good. The interior has been simplified and classed up with smooth, dark tabletops, a color palette of wasabi green and tasteful art. It’s a restful place.

I’ve had two meals there. First time, at dinner, I had a sushi plate (price forgotten; around $20) with a chef’s choice of nigiri sushi and rolls, plus miso soup; all were above average. Second time, at lunch, I got udon (about $6), a soup of long chewy noodles in a dark broth, plus a few pieces of tempura ($2). The latter meal is pictured above. It was surprisingly filling, not to mention tasty.

(Thankfully no one else was in the dining room at the time to observe my clumsy attempts to pick up the noodles with chopsticks. The spirit is willing but the dexterity is weak.)

I’m looking forward to returning to try more items. Something about the place appealed to me. The atmosphere was serene and the food a cut above. We all have our favorites, and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who prefers Kazama or Kinya, but Hayato just might offer the best Japanese food in Claremont.

Meg at M-M-M-My Pomona had positive things to say recently about Hayato as well.

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Restaurant of the Week: McConnell Hall, Pitzer College

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Photo above by Stephanie Guerra

McConnell Hall, Pitzer College, East 9th St. (at Mills), Claremont

The best dining bargain in the Inland Valley may be the Claremont Colleges dining halls. Sure, they’re for students and faculty, but the general public is allowed in. They have breakfast, lunch and dinner on weekdays, brunch and dinner on weekends. It’s buffet style, all you can eat, and the cost is a mere $7, beverage and tax included. (You might be able to bluff your way in for the $6 student-faculty fee.)

Regulars can tell you the idiosyncracies of each college dining hall. I’ve had lunch at most of them and have yet to be disappointed. The offerings change daily. Here’s a link to the Pitzer site; note the limited hours.

At Pitzer one recent day, they had a couple of soups, salad and dessert bars, stations for hot or cold sandwiches, chicken teriyaki breast, a gourmet pizza (with pear as the topping) and a pasta. There was fresh fruit, breakfast cereal dispensers, frozen yogurt and undoubtedly more that I’ve forgotten.

The made-to-order chicken sandwich, pictured above, had Swiss, mushrooms, grilled onions, lettuce and tomato. Good stuff, as was the pizza and the soup. As you can see in the second photo, there was no shortage of cookies, brownies, pastries and other sweets for an indecisive blogger to choose from.

The only downside is finding legal parking. Especially with construction going on, spaces are hard to come by and most of them are marked for students and faculty only. To be safe, park on Claremont Boulevard or College Avenue and hoof it a few blocks. Here’s a link to a Pitzer map; McConnell Hall is No. 9, on 9th Street.

* The New Diner blog has posted a detailed review of McConnell with a clutch of photos.

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Restaurant of the Week: Viva Madrid

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Viva Madrid, 225 Yale Ave. (at 2nd), Claremont

One of the 909’s most unique restaurants, Viva Madrid is the only Spanish tapas bar in this corner of the Empire. It’s been operating since the late 1990s in a small arcade of shops near a bagel shop and Rhino Records.

A bunch of us went there to celebrate a birthday last week. The restaurant is cozy, seating under 50, all squeezed in, plus another dozen at the bar. Even on a Thursday night the place is full, with a half-hour to 45-minute wait, a testament to its popularity. It’s a prime place for dates and celebrations. The close quarters add to the room’s energy level.

The single room is heavy on ambiance with rustic wooden tables and chairs, Spanish tchothkes on the walls, a large chandelier and dim lighting. A flamenco guitarist played on a small platform near the ceiling. Three friends toasted a 60th birthday at the bar. The restaurant attracts a wide age range, from college students to seniors.

The heart of the menu is the tapas, 40 small plates from $1 to $9. Each has a few bites, good for sharing, but not with many people. While they could be considered appetizers, most diners make a meal of them.

The six of us shared 11 tapas: yellowfin tuna on toast, an empanada, salmon-wrapped asparagus, chicken croquettes, chorizo-stuffed mushrooms, bacon-wrapped dates, barbacoa chicken, cheese and olives, beef with garlic and white wine, mussels and a basket of bread. We also had a seafood paella, which is a rice dish (double portion $32), and a creme brulee for dessert. Some had sangria ($15 per liter). The bill worked out to $27 per person, with the birthday honoree’s money not accepted.

There were some mild complaints: The size of the tapas varies too much (why are some two pieces and others five?), the bread didn’t taste fresh, the asparagus tasted canned, none of the dishes were especially complex or inventive.

Those cavils out of the way, most of the food was delicious. We all enjoyed our meal quite a bit, for the food, atmosphere and conviviality. Most of us are irregular but repeat customers, hitting the place for special occasions. There’s no place in the region quite like Viva Madrid.

I say, viva Viva Madrid!

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