Restaurant of the Week: Panda Inn

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Panda Inn, 3223 E. Centrelake Drive (at Guasti), Ontario

Panda Inn, an outpost of the small Pasadena-based chain that also owns Panda Express, opened in 1992 in Ontario in what was then the hinterlands. But we had an airport. The location, only yards from the 10 Freeway, was renovated in 2013, the subject of one of my columns. I’ve dined at this Panda several times over the years with groups of friends. I had dinner there last month with a friend and figured I might as well memorialize it here.

Panda is a little more modern inside now. They knocked down a wall to the bar, making it more accessible, and it has more TVs. And the dining rooms are more stylish and colorful with elements like decorative bird cages.

The menus are updated too, although I don’t remember enough about the old menus to gauge how much it’s changed. Panda is still Americanized, as perhaps you must be to fill an enormous restaurant in Ontario, and orange chicken, sweet and sour pork, and fried egg rolls remain on the menu.

But they do a good job. My friend got kon pao chicken ($14), pork fried rice ($10) and braised string beans ($7.75). A creature of habit, she orders those same dishes at any Chinese restaurant she visits. She likes Panda’s versions best, though. I got steamed pork dumplings ($6.25) and wok-fried scallops on a bed of spinach ($19.25). Pretty good.

All the food came out quickly, except my dumplings, which arrived 10 minutes after everything else.

The waiter was exceptionally friendly. Celebrating mutual March birthdays, we got birthday ice cream and a song from three servers. And of course, Panda’s signature foil-wrapped fortune cookies dipped in white chocolate.

Overall, it was a pleasant meal in nice surroundings. Leaving our dining room for the men’s room, my way was momentarily blocked by a party of four taking a selfie. “The arches,” one explained apologetically. Ah, yes, the arches: The long hallway got five arches as part of the renovation, and it does make for a neat, almost science fictional sight.

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Restaurant of the Week: 5 Star Pizza

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5 Star Pizza, 951 N. Haven Ave. (at Concours), Ontario

A friend alerted me to the existence of 5 Star Pizza, which bills itself as the “best pizza in Ontario” and whose name pretty much promises the same thing. Their Yelp rating as of Feb. 9 is five stars.

Well, it’s near our office, and I was hungry, so I dropped in for a late lunch. It’s in the Concours Center on Haven just below Fourth, where it replaced Pizza Factory late in 2014. I’d been there once and hadn’t been impressed by the food, only by the comical dining room that reminds me of a high school gym with picnic tables: It’s got sports posters and pennants, a tile floor, giant TVs and one of those arcade games where you shoot baskets, all of which appear unchanged.

5 Star has an accommodating attitude. I’d missed the buffet, which had ended an hour before, but they still had a few slices out by the salad bar. The manager volunteered the buffet anyway and said they’d put out a fresh pizza. At $8, including soda, that was a good deal. (Officially it runs 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays.) They started a pizza with pepperoni on half and asked what I’d like on the other half; I said sausage and mushrooms. Done.

The salad bar was standard, except with dressing in squeeze bottles, which is actually a decent idea. For one thing, unlike open containers, you won’t find croutons floating inside. I sat near the entrance rather than occupy a lonely mid-afternoon spot in the sports room.

The pizza had chewy crust, plenty of sauce and a decent amount of toppings. Not five stars by my book, but a solid three.

The menu has $1.50 slices all day, every day (see, they ARE accommodating), plus wings, fried chicken, submarine sandwiches and three pastas, plus Hangar 24 beer. Among their specialty pizzas, priced $13 for small to $20 for extra large: all meat, mucho pepperoni (double portion), Philly cheese steak, Latino (pepperoni, carne asada, onion, green peppers and mushrooms), burger (hamburger, pickle, onion, tomato, green pepper and mushrooms) and, most unusually, Indian (all veggie with ginger, garlic and cilantro). I think 5 Star is Indian-run; there are brochures on the counter for Koyla, an Indian restaurant up the street.

The owner was in and out making deliveries. Seems like a scrappy place that will bend its own rules to accommodate customers.

Is it the best pizza in Ontario? It’s not a big pizza town — if you know of a popular place, let me know — and the only pizza I can remember having here is a slice at Sbarro before a movie and a slice or two at Joey’s on Archibald a few years ago. 5 Star may very well be the best pizza in town, even though it was average to me. But they get an extra star for trying.

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Restaurant of the Week: Benihana

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Benihana, 3760 E. Inland Empire Blvd. (at Haven), Ontario

Benihana, the Japanese chain with an Ontario location, may be the Inland Valley’s best “experience” restaurant. If you go for the teppanyaki, where you sit around the grill, the chef puts on a show involving fast action with the utensils, some sleight of hand and a few jokes. He’ll flip a few shrimp tails or egg shells into his hat or shirt pocket and maybe do some juggling.

I shot a short video of the chef’s final flourishes.

I’ve eaten there a few times over the years, including once on Christmas Day with my visiting parents, and returned recently with a friend to celebrate publication of my book. (Many more times I’ve been to the sushi bar.) It was as much fun as I remembered.

I went for the Land ‘n Sea ($34), steak and scallops, and my friend had the teriyaki chicken ($19), both of which come with a small salad, soup, rice, grilled vegetables, hot tea and ice cream. The menu can be seen here.

I didn’t go with the intention of writing a blog post, so I didn’t take many pictures. But it’s difficult to photograph your entree anyway because everything arrives in stages. The chef gives you the vegetables and a few pieces of grilled shrimp, and then, if you have a combo entree like I did, one part of them and then the other part, as he’s cooking everything at once.

(As regular readers know, we frown on chains here at the David Allen Blog, but we’re not militant about it. If a chain has only one or two local outlets, that makes it fair game. There’s only one local Benihana and I belatedly decided I might as well post about it.)

It’s not the greatest food or anything, but it’s fine, and the show is pretty good. Who can tire of watching an onion stacked in layers like a volcano shoot steam skyward? This time, though, the wait for the entree seemed long, and the chef encouraged us all (the tables seat eight) to get to work on our vegetables even though the bowls were still arrayed around the grill waiting for him to finish. I practiced a long reach to snag my mushrooms and onions. In a way, then, dinner was not entirely satisfying. Still, it’s an enjoyable special occasion restaurant.

And it’s large! There are more than 20 grills, and most of them were in use on our weeknight visit.

Did you know Benihana is 50 this year? I didn’t. According to the corporate history, the first, in 1964, was in New York City; there are now 70 around the world. I don’t know when Ontario’s opened, but probably the early or mid 1990s; Daily Bulletin types were going there on occasion when I started here in 1997.

Oh, and at the end of your meal, they still give each group a Polaroid of themselves in a little paper frame, as if you were boarding a cruise ship, except here it’s free.

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Restaurant of the Week: Yugen Sushi

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Yugen Sushi, 2250 S. Archibald (at the 60), Ontario; closed Sundays

A reader recommended I try Yugen, which is in south Ontario, just below the 60 Freeway. So I went in for lunch after a long, circuitous drive to get there. (From south Ontario, it’s no big deal; from north Ontario, getting there involves maneuvering around the airport.)

Yugen is in a lackluster shopping center whose main tenants are a 24 Hour Fitness and a church. It’s also immediately south of the Ontario Police Department, which uses a defunct Fedco, behind acres of parking, as its headquarters.

I didn’t see any cops inside Yugen, but surely some of them eat there (the ones not eating at Alina’s). The Yugen interior is simple and unpromising. A small aquarium is about the only item of interest amid the tiled floor and ceiling. I took a seat at the sushi bar and perused the menu. They have cheap sushi at lunchtime, $2 to $4 per order.

I opted for a combination plate with three pieces of sushi (pepper salmon, ono and albacore) and nine pieces of sashimi (yellowtail, tuna and salmon, three each), for $14; lunch included miso soup. Not realizing I was getting soup, I ordered a cucumber salad ($3.75).

The salad was larger than expected and tasty. The soup was okay but had no seaweed. The lunch plate was impressive: the sashimi was cut thick, about one-third inch per piece. I liked it and the sushi too, especially the pepper salmon. The sushi chef was low-key and helpful.

Yugen was a pleasant outing, one of those nice finds in an otherwise dismal area where the main restaurants are Taco Bell and McDonald’s. You can find better sushi — but maybe not in Ontario.

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Restaurant of the Week: Salpicon

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Salpicon Salvadoran Cuisine, 2252 S. Euclid (at Philadelphia), Ontario; open daily

There aren’t many places around here to get the food of El Salvador, where pupusas (thick, stuffed tortillas) are the most common export. Pomona’s Guasalmex is probably the best known local spot.

But I was advised to try Salpicon, which is just above the 60 Freeway in a shopping center with a Food 4 Less and not one but two restaurants specializing in food from the Mexican state of Sinaloa. (A Chipotle is also muscling its way in.) I went in for dinner on a recent World Cup soccer night.

Salpicon is clean, well-lighted and pleasant, with high-backed booths, a dozen colorful paintings of Salvadoran scenes, two TVs and sitdown service. I went for the salpicon dinner ($12), a sort of salad of finely chopped beef mixed with onion, mint, lemon and radish, served at room temperature. The dinner came with rice, beans, small lettuce salad and plantains, seven of ‘em, plus handmade tortillas.

This was enough food for two, on a plate like a serving platter. I liked it all. The beans were especially interesting, pureed into a texture like a spread. I took half my dinner home and got a second meal out of it.

To drink, I had an ensalada, an agua fresca described as pineapple water with diced pineapple and apple ($3.75); tasty and healthful.

Salpicon — see the menu here — has breakfast, soups and salads, eight entrees, a variety of pupusas and a few desserts, which looked tempting. I guess I could have eaten one-third of my dinner and had dessert…

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Restaurant of the Week: At Home Thai Fusion Bistro

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At Home Thai Fusion Bistro, 4275 Concours Drive (at Milliken), Ontario; closed Sundays.

At Home (the spelling is actually @ Home) opened in fall 2012 in an Ontario Mills-adjacent shopping center with a Kohl’s and Applebee’s. The space was, I believe, previously occupied by Iron Chef Kitchen, which always seemed a lawyer-letter away from having to change its name.

I stopped in for lunch recently. The interior is spare but stylish, especially the wall treatments and mushroom-like ceiling fixtures. The menu is mostly Thai with some pan-Asian touches. For example, tom yum and tom kha soups, which are Thai, have udon noodles, which are Japanese.

Ordering off the lunch menu, I got swimming rama with shrimp ($9.45; $7.45 with chicken, pork or beef), which is steamed shrimp atop sauteed spinach leaves with sesame oil and topped with peanut sauce. Steamed jasmine rice was on the side and a cup of hot and sour soup came with. The entree was tasty, the half-dozen shrimp an acceptable portion, and the spinach making for a good and healthy pairing with the shrimp and peanut sauce.

Untraditional but pretty good Thai food, and more interesting than many of the restaurants around the mall. At Home’s Facebook page has more photos and the menu.

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Restaurant of the Week: The Bowl

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The Bowl Thai Cuisine, 1105 N. Mountain Ave. (at 4th), Ontario

After a decade as Super Bowl Thai, this restaurant was bought by the people who own Mix Bowl, a Thai restaurant in Pomona. They renamed the Ontario location simply The Bowl and gave it a similarly cutesy mascot. (This one’s a woman. The Pomona mascot is vaguely boy-like.) Don’t ask me where “bowl” comes from: Other than a few soups, everything is on a plate.

A friend and I went there for dinner recently. Weird coincidence: Based on the design and roofline, both The Bowl and Mix Bowl appear to be in former Wendy’s locations. Interesting business model.

The interior is clean and bright, like Mix Bowl, with tiled floor and neon accents. Booths have purple cushions. I liked it, and there’s more elbow room than Mix Bowl, which is busy and a little cramped. The menu isn’t quite as expansive as Mix Bowl’s, where there are now upwards of 150 items. The Bowl has about 80. (Confusingly, the menu starts with No. 11.)

The server recommended the curries. We split a yellow curry with chicken ($8, bottom), which incidentally was in a bowl, and one of the specialty items, Bowl Noodles with chicken, spaghetti noodles, onions and tomatoes ($9, below), which arrived on a plate.¬†We liked both items, neither one of which is on the Mix Bowl menu. As with Mix Bowl, this is what you might call the diner version of Thai food: It’s not fancy, and it comes out of the kitchen fast. Service was friendly and attentive and nobody chased us out when we were lingering.

You might prefer Lucky Elephant, which is exactly two blocks north on Mountain, both for its food and elaborate decor. I do. But The Bowl is a pleasant surprise, and I’ll return there too. It’s a little more casual and a little more fun.

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Restaurant of the Week: Burger Zone

Burger Zone, 1520 N. Mountain Ave. (at 6th), Ontario

In the Gateway Center off the 10 Freeway, Burger Zone is a locally owned fast food restaurant. I’ve driven past it frequently for two years, generally after stops at the comic shop in the same center, without ever going in. Needing lunch the other day after a comics run, I thought I’d give the place a try.

A banner over the entrance touts a $3.99 combo with a 1/4-pound burger, fries and soda, so I went for that. The result was what I expected, which was a decent meal but nothing special, but for $4.31 with tax, it was a cheap lunch.

Burger Zone has breakfast (eggs, pancakes, burritos, french toast), lunch (other burgers, other sandwiches such as pastrami, club and chicken fried steak on a bun, tacos and burritos) and dinner (shrimp plate, fried chicken and more). No salads.

Burger Zone’s next-door neighbor is a health clinic and two scrubs-clad employees were having lunch when I was there. Conversely, maybe too many burgers will send you over to the health clinic for treatment. Could be a win-win.

Kidding aside, there’s no need for you to drive across town, much less across the valley, to go here, but if you’re in the neighborhood, the restaurant is clean, the food is okay and better to support a local restaurant than a chain.

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Restaurant of the Week: Stone Oven

 

Stone Oven Gourmet Sandwiches and Salads, Ontario Mills Food Court

Unless you were unnaturally attached to Kenny Rogers Roasters or Brueggers Bagels, we can probably stipulate that Ontario Mills’ food court has always been lame, especially for a mall of its size, its offerings being embarrassingly airport-quality. The food court has been renovated in recent months with a brighter look and some different stands. Needing a fast meal before a movie, I saw the mostly completed food court recently and tried one of the new eateries.

Stone Oven (www.enjoystoneoven.com) was giving out samples of its focaccia bread, which is baked in an oven with a wood stone. Watching the guy put the bread in the oven with a paddle, flames rising deep inside, brings rare entertainment to the food court. So a friend and I gave it a chance. The chain also has locations in the Beverly Center and Westside Pavilion, among others, so it would seem to be a step up in class for Ontario.

I had a tuna salad sandwich with a side of potato salad ($8) and the result was okay but unimpressive. My friend got a garlic and pesto chicken sandwich. Portions were large — he took half of his home — and he liked his. I was lukewarm on mine, although even under the best circumstances it’s hard to get excited about cold tuna salad.

I returned a few days later for lunch at a time when I didn’t have to wolf down my meal. This time I ordered a hot sandwich, BBQ chicken, which comes with bacon and cheddar, and got basil pasta salad as my side ($8; pictured below). Better, but nothing special. (My sides on both visits, by the way, weren’t bad.) The salads, such as goat cheese chicken and walnut and green apple, sound good.

My friend and I had agreed the sample of hot bread was more enticing than our sandwiches. The focaccia is thin and insubstantial, not dense enough for my tastes and more like a pita than a loaf. You could do worse in the food court, one reckons, but you might be better off taking a sample from the woman with the tray as you walk on toward another stand.

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Restaurant of the Week: Dragon Loco

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Dragon Loco, 2509 S. Euclid Ave. (at Walnut), Ontario

Dragon Loco bills itself as Chinese-Mexican fusion, its logo featuring a dragon wearing a sombrero. It’s right off the 60 Freeway in a semi-populated strip mall where you might expect Chinese or Mexican fast food (in fact, a Del Taco is at the edge of the parking lot), but it’s not where you would expect a concept as odd as a fusion of both.

The menu does feature standard Chinese fast food in one-, two- and three-item combos, besides the goofy fusion items. Visit the restaurant’s website here.

Owner Mario Luna had phoned me a couple of times and tweeted me once to invite me down, which almost never happens (for the sake of independence, I prefer that it doesn’t, actually); when I finally showed up unannounced for lunch, he recognized me right off, which also almost never happens. And so, anonymity gone, I could do little but let him bring me items, which I sampled.

I tried the chorizo wontons ($1), chicken teriyaki quesadilla ($6, pictured above), kung pao taco ($2), asada fried rice ($6, pictured below) and a horchata frappe ($3, pictured at right). Just typing those names makes me smile.

The asada fried rice was the best of the lot, to my taste buds, and the horchata frappe hit the spot on a steamy day. The rest was more like stunt food. The wontons and taco had two sauces laid over them in squiggles, which made them overdressed, not better.

People on Yelp seem to love the place, with the overall rating 4 stars out of 5. I enjoyed meeting Luna, who likes my work, but Americanized Chinese food inside tortillas didn’t appeal to me. Luna compares his fusion offerings to those of L.A. food trucks. As a concept, yes, but Dragon Loco doesn’t use the higher-end ingredients that the trucks do.

Luna has big dreams for the place, which is open until 3 a.m. on weekends. I applaud his ambition and wish him well.

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