Restaurant of the Week: Taco Man

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Taco Man, 9617 Central Ave. (at San Bernardino), Montclair

It’s a new restaurant — well, it opened in 2013 — but it’s in a vintage building, a Tastee Freez that dates to 1961, which in Montclair is practically the Paleolithic period. After a string of taquerias and other businesses in that spot, Taco Man spiffed it up and moved in. It was, and remains, a catering business that now has a brick and mortar location. (They produced a cute video prior to their opening.)

There’s no interior seating, but there is dining in the covered breezeway, where there are four picnic-style benches and a counter with seating for 10. And of course they have takeout.

I had lunch there on a hot day back in February and returned this week for a second meal and more photos.

The first time, I had three tacos ($1.49 each, bottom): carnitas, al pastor and cube, a mixture of chicken and chorizo. Really good street taco-style tacos, with the pineapple atop the al pastor a welcome touch. It didn’t surprise me to learn that owner Israel Miranda is a native of Mexico City as those are the type of tacos I had on my visit there in 2011.

This week I tried an al pastor burrito ($6.50, middle), which also has the pineapple, as well as finely shredded cabbage (the effect was like slaw) as well as onions, beans, cilantro, sour cream and salsa. A little different, but tasty, and also large and filling. They also have a double burrito named The Big Donk, plus quesadillas and a couple of healthier options, a protein bowl and low-carb tacos. They have vegetarian and vegan options too not reflected on the menu.

Its website has the restaurant’s menu, story and more. Alas, the former Tastee Freez doesn’t have ice cream cones.

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Restaurant of the Week: Dolce Cafe and Bakery

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Dolce Cafe and Bakery, 8821 Central Ave. (at Arrow), Montclair; closed Mondays

This is a new one for this blog, a completely new Restaurant of the Week post about a restaurant I’ve posted about before. In this case, Dolce remodeled, added a bar and sharpened its focus, going from French-American bistro food to American gastropub. Hence, even though the owner is the same, the old review scarcely applies anymore.

I liked the old Dolce, but I like the new Dolce better. It’s still too vast, seating 150, but a wedge-shaped area that was only lightly used is now a bar, a smart move. Under the glass bartop lie rows of pennies. The restaurant lighting is still too dim for me — it’s difficult to read anywhere but outdoors or in the cafe seating by the windows — but at least as a gastropub the atmospheric lighting is logical.

The menu is shorter and punchier. They do breakfast on weekends. A Florentine scrambler ($8) with bacon, English muffin and crisp potatoes was one of the finer Inland Valley breakfasts I’ve had. On another visit a yogurt parfait with fresh fruit ($5-ish) was okay, but I had expected more fruit and more than a thimbleful of granola.

At lunchtime, I’ve enjoyed a short rib Mac and Cheese grilled cheese ($12), with Korean short ribs and macaroni and cheese between sourdough, better than the Grilled Cheese Truck version.

On a visit with friends, we had two burgers, the not so classic ($10, bottom) and the classic ($7), the not-so having roasted tomato, red onion marmalade, fontina cheese and “bacon jam.” Both came on fresh-baked peppercorn buns. The burgers were a cut above, if a shade below Eureka’s level. The third got a decent ahi salad ($12). We did notice that vegetarian items are virtually nonexistent. Oh, and we shared an appetizer, cheesy tots ($6, below), a clear winner, as excellent as they look.

I’d say Dolce’s makeover was a good step. As before, items are prepared with an eye toward freshness, quality ingredients and creativity, but the menu and the setting seem to gel better this go-round. One of my new favorite restaurants. And they still have their bakery.

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Restaurant of the Week: Carlo’s Italian Bakery Pizza

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Carlo’s Italian Bakery Pizza, 9878 Central Ave. (at Benito), Montclair

I’ve noticed the relatively new Carlo’s while driving past on Central and, curious, arranged to meet a Montclair friend there for lunch. I had thought we’d be splitting a pizza, but Carlo’s sells pizza by the square, a good lunchtime size, so we did that.

Pizza is also sold by the tray, enough for a family ($15, with 16 squares), and they also have traditional thin crust and specialty pizzas. In addition, the menu has meatball and baked Italian hoagies, a couple of salads and cannoli.

Said to be Pittsburgh-style — and who knew Pittsburgh had its own pizza style? — the signature bakery pizza is similar to Sicilian pan pizza, but thinner. Carlo’s has $5 lunch specials: four squares, two squares and a side salad, two squares and a pizza roll,  or a roll and a side salad. We each got the two squares and a roll. A can of soda or bottle of water comes with, a welcome touch.

Preparation took about 10 minutes, as they’re making your pizza almost to order. With almost no seating, only a short counter with stools, you may want to take your food to go. The pizza was not my favorite, but not bad at all, and the roll, soft and layered with pepperoni, was tasty. It was a satisfying, and cheap, lunch, and it’s hard to eat anywhere for $5 these days. Worth a try.

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Restaurant of the Week: Golden China

Golden China, 8851 Central Ave. (at Arrow Highway), Montclair

The sign outside Golden China was glowing as were the paper lantern-shaped lamps outside when a friend and I met here for dinner on a Friday night. I’d never been here but we were drawn by the four-star Yelp rating.

Inside the place is very 1980s, with vinyl booths and mirrored walls. Charmingly old school. (The decor likely originated with Royal China, there from 1987 to 1996; for the record, it was followed by the shortlived Golden Buddha. Golden China opened in 1998. A future incarnation as Royal Buddha would round things out nicely.) There’s a well-stocked bar at which drinks are mixed. You can see the menu here.

We tried two of the specialties, black pepper chicken ($12.55, below) and sizzling rice shrimp ($16, bottom), both as dinners with soup, egg roll, paper-wrapped chicken and rice. The platter of white-meat chicken pieces came with onions and black pepper. My shrimp arrived on a sizzling platter. The dish had a welcome number of large shrimp in a sweet sauce with unusual crisp rice puffs.

My friend and I liked his dish more than we liked mine. When Yelp reviewers rave about the orange chicken, you know you’re not getting cutting-edge food. Ditto when you’re brought a cup of jello to end your meal, as well as the requisite fortune cookie. But the service was efficient and attentive. Not a four-star restaurant, and you can do better, but for Americanized Chinese food, it’s homey.

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Restaurant of the Week: Best Taco

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Best Taco, 5110 Holt Blvd. (at Central), Montclair

On Sunday evening, feeling like getting Mexican food, I realized I hadn’t written about a restaurant in Montclair for a while, so I went for a drive on Holt to look for a taqueria. That’s when I saw a sign for a business named Best Taco. What the heck, I pulled in.

The interior was not what I expected at all: deep and wide as a tennis court, with floor-to-ceiling murals of storefronts or market stalls. Hotel Hidalgo, one reads, complete with phony door and mirrored windows. La Tiendita, reads another, with a Coke bottle painted on the “exterior.” (Tiendita, I believe, would be a convenience store.) There are painted stalls representing a tortilleria and a pinata business, as well as a theater exterior mural for Cine El Rey, complete with marquee and two movie posters.

This might be the most art in one place in all of Montclair. Unique.

There was only one other customer in the cavernous interior. The natural light was fading and the further recesses were a bit dim, so after ordering at the counter I sat closer to the door to give me enough light to read my Heinlein paperback.

The menu has tacos, burritos, huaraches, tortas, sopes, gorditas and the like. I got a carne asada burrito ($4.90). It wasn’t as meat-intensive as many places but rather balanced out with rice, refried beans and chopped onions, plus plenty of cilantro. I liked it.

According to Yelp there’s another Best Taco at 10410 Ramona just above Holt, also in Montclair. This Best Taco appears to have opened late in 2011, replacing another taqueria, Mi Mexico. The murals look new.

They have a Taco Tuesday special, 70 cents each. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the tacos aren’t the absolute best, but the interior is certainly interesting.

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Restaurant of the Week: Korean BBQ

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Korean BBQ, 4232 Holt Blvd. (at Amherst), Montclair

In the Inland Valley, where Korean restaurants are rare, Korean BBQ is the venerable granddaddy of them all. It’s located in a strip mall next to a laundromat along Holt Boulevard. Yes, it’s an unpromising location, but Korean BBQ has been there since sometime around 1990, so it must work for them. It used to have a giant yellow pole sign out front until a makeover to the center required a more modest sign.

My friends Meg and K. (of the M-M-M-My Pomona blog) highly recommend the place, and since they used to live in L.A.’s Koreatown neighborhood, their advice was heeded. The three of us met for dinner there on a recent Sunday.

The interior is dated, especially the paneling, but it’s clean and pleasant enough, and Korean restaurants generally are utilitarian. The staff brought out the usual array appetizers in small dishes: kimchi, fish cake, bean sprouts, etc.

We ordered short ribs ($25) and beef ($18) off the barbecue menu, plus a bowl of bibimbap (forgot the price, sorry) to share. The barbecue items are cooked on a grill in the middle of your table. The staff fires up the grill, puts the meat on and returns to turn it or serve pieces that are done.

Korean barbecue is even rarer than Korean restaurants out here; I’ve tried two Korean places in Rancho Cucamonga and one in Chino Hills, and none of them had tabletop barbecue. The food in Montclair didn’t impress me as much as my one previous experience with Korean barbecue, at the highly regarded Park’s in L.A. — the meat wasn’t of as high a quality — but I liked the meal, the staff was nice and Montclair is a lot closer than Wilshire Boulevard.

The restaurant gets 4 stars on Yelp, where they have the name as Arirang. The menu and sign say Korean BBQ (as did the old sign), but the strip mall’s name is Arirang Plaza, and for all I know that’s the restaurant’s secret name.

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Restaurant of the Week: Fu-Lin

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Fu-Lin, 9645 Central Ave. (at San Bernardino Road), Montclair

The sign near the sidewalk for Fu-Lin always makes me chuckle, but I’d never gone in until this week. In honor of April Fool’s Day, it was time. (The sign reads “Fulin,” but all the references online are to “Fu-Lin,” the spelling I’ll go with here.)

From the outside Fu-Lin looks like a big box. In back there’s a large parking lot and an entrance. The interior, while dated, is nicer than I’d expected with Chinese prints, a relief mural and windows letting in a lot of natural light.

Fu-Lin, which opened in 1990, has the usual Mandarin and Szechuan dishes, as well as Chinese American standbys like chop suey and egg foo young. But according to a Korean American friend whose family loves the place, there’s a subtle Korean tinge to the menu. You can get a cold combination, ja jiang myun or ya kki mandoo. It was only after leaving that I noticed at least some of the lettering on the exterior is in Korean.

The lunch specials, available every day but Sunday, are all priced between $4.25 and $5.50. I had garlic chicken ($4.65), which turned out to be steaming hot and fairly spicy. This came with a dollop of rice, two wontons, an eggroll and a cup of hot and sour soup. For $6 with tax and tip, this was a filling lunch, and better than expected.

Yelp reviewers seem of two minds about the place, unable to agree on whether it’s great or terrible. Quality-wise I’d compare Fu-Lin to Rancho Cucamonga’s China Point or Upland’s China Gate, two other old-school Chinese American restaurants.

Fu-Lin was busy; even at 1:30 on a weekday, 12 tables or booths were occupied with some 30 diners, many Latino and some Asian. Fu-Lin must be doing something right. No foolin’.

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Restaurant of the Week: Dolce

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Dolce Cafe and Bakery, 8821 Central Ave. (at Arrow Highway), Montclair

Located in a retail center that includes Tokyo Kitchen and Bombay Bistro, Dolce opened in 2007 in the anchor spot. The interior space is cavernous, probably two or three times larger than strictly necessary, with high ceilings and a wooden floor. They ought to roll the furniture away at night and hold ballroom dance classes.

Dolce does breakfast, lunch and dinner in a bistro setting (a very large bistro), everything from muffins and shrimp crepes to panini sandwiches and salads to pizza, pasta and steak au poivre. Its website describes Dolce as a “Euro Asian inspired bakery” with “an eclectic Italian inspired menu.”

Ambitious. I haven’t tried the $10 to $16 dinner entrees, but I’ve been in for lunch a couple of times this summer.

The chicken canneberge (pictured) ($7.25) was chicken salad with cranberries and candied walnuts, apple slices and romaine in a garlic herb pocket. For $1, I upgraded from a salad to the tomato basil soup. I was pleasantly surprised.

On a later visit I had the chicken florentine panini (also $7.25), with grilled chicken, bacon, sundried tomatoes, provolone and spinach artichoke spread, accompanied by a side of slaw. Not bad.

The setup is slightly confusing, in part because the space is so large it’s hard to know what to do. (The website has a video that gives you a fair idea of the layout.) If you want a baked good, go to the case to your left. If you want to be waited on at a table, go to your right and take a seat. If you want to avoid paying a tip, go straight ahead to the U-shaped serving stations, where you can order, pay and have your food brought to you.

There weren’t more than a half-dozen customers on my two visits. I can only guess that Dolce got a sweet deal on the rent and that the catering side of the business brings in the dough.

The food is pretty good, and items like Bistecca alla Portal (“sirloin smothered in a red wine reduction and topped with tomato mango chutney”), Pork Chasseur (“tender center cut pork chop with a rich mushroom and tomato infused gravy”) or Fire Grilled Vegetables certainly sound delicious. This might vie with Cafe Montclair as the city’s most ambitious restaurant. Just know that you may have most of the dining room to yourself.

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Restaurant of the Week: Shakey’s Pizza, Montclair

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Photo: Marc Campos

Shakey’s Pizza, 5639 Holt Ave. (at Benson), Montclair.

A few weeks back I wrote about the new Shakey’s in Rancho Cucamonga and promised I’d revisit the one in Montclair. Pretty much the same food, obviously, but the Montclair Shakey’s holds a small place in my heart.

After all, it’s the oldest chain restaurant location in the Inland Valley still in operation. The Montclair location has been serving up pizza since 1961, nearly 50 years, without a break. Any other chains that arrived earlier have closed.

The enormous paddle-like sign out front is clearly original, as sign codes today would never allow a sign as large as a tennis court, and the exterior is basically unchanged too. The interior is revamped, however, other than a few lamps.

But I like this Shakey’s anyway. The food’s fine and they do the Bunch of Lunch all-you-can-eat special from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays ($7.50, drink extra). There may only be two pizzas out, not 10 as in Rancho Cucamonga, but this is a smaller operation.

Assistant manager Gina Amir is one of the friendliest restaurant employees you’ll meet and it’s her personal touch that keeps customers coming back. Frankly, this Shakey’s could use your business, so if you’re in the area and you like Shakey’s, check ‘em out.

I wrote a column about the place in 2006 that you can find by clicking below. In it I listed runnerups in the chain-restaurant longevity derby and at least two of them — Wienerschnitzel on Mountain in Ontario and Sizzler across Holt from Shakey’s, have folded since then.
Continue reading

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Restaurant of the Week: Three Anas

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Three Anas, 8980 Benson Ave. (at Arrow Highway), Montclair.

Located in a small, nondescript industrial park, Three Anas doesn’t promise much. But then you step inside, notice the two colorful murals and learn you order at your table, not the counter. There are other homey touches: a Wall of Fame by the door in which regular customers’ photos are posted and a stack of magazines for solo customers’ reading pleasure.

Our server cheerfully explained the origin of the Three Anas name: That’s what their father called Ana, Julianna and Joanna, the three sisters who own the restaurant. It will mark five years in business on Oct. 1.

Our table ordered steak picado ($7.50), which was pleasingly dry, not soupy; the special burrito ($4.50) with potatoes, carne asada, onions and peppers; and the chile relleno and chicken enchilada plate ($7), served wet with green sauce, plus rice and beans. They were all solid, satisfying versions. Three Anas “rivals Mi Pueblita,” one of our group said admiringly, referring to the popular Upland restaurant.

You have to like a restaurant run by three sisters, especially when the experience delivers so much more than the location promised. A hidden gem.

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