Restaurant of the Week: Samo’s Burgers

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Samo’s Burgers, 1701 S. Garey Ave. (at Franklin), Pomona

Samo’s is a burger shack in south Pomona next to Garey High, probably an optimal location to catch young people in search of cheap eats. I ate there once a few years ago and later discussed the place with a friend who goes there; she told me she informed the owner that someone from the Daily Bulletin had been there, and his reaction was astonishment, maybe pride.

I was reminded of Samo’s after “Mad Men” set a scene at a Burger Chef (restoring a vacant Burger Chef in Rialto for the shoot) and someone informed me Pomona has two of them: Golden Wok on north Garey and Samo’s on south Garey. Unlike the heavily remodeled, and popular, Golden Wok, Samo’s, I realized, still has the Burger Chef-era sign, even if the building has been stuccoed over.

So it had been on my mind to go back and feature Samo’s here, and when a friend wanted to meet for lunch in the Pomona area, I suggested Samo’s.

He was still parked in his vehicle when I pulled up. “Is this really where you want to eat?” he asked skeptically, giving me a chance to back out. I affirmed that it was. As I reminded him, I’d described it to him as “a beat-up burger joint,” so I hope he wasn’t under any illusions of white tablecloths.

The menu is broad, as it is in most Greek-owned burger emporiums, with Mexican food, a few random sandwiches and a couple of dinner plates. I got the burger combo with fries and soda ($4.90 with tax); he got a carne asada burrito (price unnoted). We sat in the lonely dining room with its yellow and blue-cushioned molded plastic booths.

The burger was a typical thin fast-food patty, but the bun was broad; the sandwich was dressed with tomato, lettuce, onion and thousand island. They were generous with the fries too. It was a filling meal and I ate only half the fries. My friend’s burrito fell apart — he’d opened the wrapper upside down and the burrito never recovered — but he used a fork and said it was pretty good, loaded with meat and beans.

Our only problem was that Samo’s has no air conditioning, or no working a/c at least. It was 95 degrees outside and maybe 105 inside. We hung out a while until the sauna conditions proved too much. I don’t envy the staff in the kitchen.

At least one commenter on Yelp says Samo’s has been there under the same owner for 30 years. Burger Chef faded out in the early 1980s after Hardee’s bought the chain. It’s likely that it’s been Samo’s longer than it was Burger Chef, maybe twice as long by this point. I can’t really sell you on Samo’s, and it may be years before I return, but as a Burger Chef fan, I liked being inside one again.

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Restaurant of the Week: Saigon Village Bistro

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Saigon Village, 1280 E. Holt (at East End), Pomona

One of a handful of Vietnamese businesses in Pomona’s far-eastern (where else?) stretch of Holt, Saigon Village opened in 2011, replacing Pho Express and the earlier Pho 54. Oldtimers will remember the location as Breakfast at Carl’s, a beloved breakfast spot that moved to Claremont and was renamed BC Cafe.

But that was then, this is now, as S.E. Hinton once said, and this spot has been a Vietnamese restaurant for maybe a couple of decades now. A friend and I met at Macho Pollo across the street for dinner but did so on the one day a week it’s closed. Saigon Village was an acceptable substitute.

The interior still looks a bit like a ’60s diner: crushed stones, big windows, comfortable booths, slinky hanging fixtures. The menu has a zillion items, lettered and numbered. One specialty is called 7 Courses Beef and apparently lives up to its billing (see photo below). An explanation is on the restaurant’s website.

My friend had CS5, special combination crispy egg noodles with chicken, shrimp, squid and vegetables ($9, pictured at bottom); I had the beef pho, another specialty ($7, below).

The noodle dish was constructed like a bird’s nest, very cool. “I liked it a lot,” my friend said.

I’ve had pho a few times, although I tend not to order it because I’m very poor with chopsticks and end up using a fork. The server, who may have thought I’d never had Vietnamese food before, pushed the pho, and when she brought it she explained what to do with the plate of condiments: strip the leaves from the mint and put them in the bowl, add the bean sprouts, mix Sriracha and hoisin sauce in a dish and swirl the meat in it, and add Sriracha to the broth. I have to say, nobody has ever offered instructions before.

Some on Yelp say the broth is bland, and I wouldn’t disagree — that may explain all the Sriracha — but I’m too inexpert to feel comfortable making much of a value judgment. Only large bowls of pho are served; I couldn’t quite finish mine, but I ate too much to bother taking the dregs home. I liked mine, although I feel like I’ve had better.

So, not a bad place, and if you like Vietnamese food, old diners or have fond memories of Breakfast at Carl’s, you might want to try it. Also, as my friend said of the cuisine: “It’s good hangover food.”

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Restaurant of the Week: The Brick Market and Deli

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The Brick Market and Deli, 105 E. Arrow Highway (at Garey), Pomona

Step inside the Brick, which opened in February, and you might not believe you’re in Pomona. It’s a convenience store stocked mostly with organic and specialty products. Quinoa, organic salt, wasabi peas, bottled root beer and Newman’s Own products fill the shelves. Paper and cleaning products are Seventh Generation brand. This might be the only place in Pomona where you can buy biscotti.

They also have beer, lottery tickets and candy bars. I mean, it is a convenience store. You can stray from the concept, but you have to have the basics. It’s also a deli, and a good one, with an array of hot and cold sandwiches, side salads, even cupcakes. (See the menu here.)

I’ve been in a couple of times. First time I had the roasted pork, which came on garlic rosemary sourdough with provolone, cole slaw and mayo, toasted, with a small Greek salad as my side ($9 as a combo with drink). Wow, what a sandwich. Delicious. The salad, recommended by the server, was basically marinated cucumbers with a little feta and didn’t do much for me. (They have a Coke Freestyle machine for those that love them.)

Next visit I got the sausage sandwich, which came on an Italian roll with monterey jalapeno cheese and grilled peppers and onions, this time with a fruit salad as my side ($8.50 as a combo with drink). Good, if not as satisfying as the pork, and the fruit cup had a nice variety.

The Brick has free wifi and they’re active on Twitter, Facebook and Yelp. They seem like a smart, sophisticated bunch, the kind of business you’d expect to find in Claremont and thus great to see in Pomona, even if the location, by fast food row, is a pleasant surprise. They seem to be making it work.

There is very limited seating inside, only one table on my first visit, with a second one added by my second. But there’s a cute patio out back, shaded by the building, with a view of the next-door drive-thru for Johnny’s Hamburgers. Nothing wrong with Johnny’s, but you’ll be glad you’re at the Brick.

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Restaurant of the Week: El Cantarito

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El Cantarito, 1190 E. Mission Blvd. (at Reservoir), Pomona

The folks behind Pomona’s Sabor Mexicano, about which I posted in 2011, have a second restaurant, El Cantarito. I’d been meaning to try it ever since the owners emailed to tell me about it, two years ago, but I kept forgetting the name and location. Recently, though, as I made dinner plans with a friend, this place came to mind while I was online, and I searched my email for the name and address. El Cantarito, here I come!

Sabor’s specialty is D.F. and Oaxacan food. El Cantarito focuses on seafood and goat. You might say, goat? But I’ve had it a time or two, a few years back, and had no compunction about ordering it again.

El Cantarito, across Mission from Golden Ox Burgers, is in an unassuming yellow building with two archways and a Spanish tile roof. And a nifty mural on the Reservoir side. Inside it looks like a former fast-food spot, with its fake brick walls, but you sit down to order. We got Mexican Cokes, birria seca and fajitas.

The fajitas, with beef, chicken and shrimp, plus peppers and onions ($14, below), were pronounced excellent by my friend, who said: “I think it’s one of the best things I’ve had in all our outings.” My birria seca ($8.50, bottom), or barbecued goat, was served dry, with lemons, cilantro and onions and a broth on the side. The rice and beans were blah, but the goat was great. The texture was like pulled pork, but the taste was deeper and smokier. As my friend put it, impressed, “It’s a lamb-ier version of lamb.”

Service was attentive and friendly. The menu had the usual Mexican staples and several shrimp dishes, although my initial plan of ordering a shrimp cocktail was foiled because they were out of shrimp that night. That was fine. I was happy to get my goat.

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Restaurant of the Week: Burger House

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The Burger House, 171 W. 2nd St. (at Thomas), Pomona; closed Sundays.

Burger House is the latest occupant of the onetime 2nd Street Bistro space in Pomona’s downtown Arts Colony, opening in late 2012. The interior is much the same as before, with wood flooring, exposed brick and a pressed tin ceiling. They’ve gone gourmet burgers with more than 40-plus beers and a few hand-crafted milkshakes. I had lunch there in January with a friend.

He had the Bistro Burger ($9), the standard burger; I had the Caprese Burger ($11), with mozzarella, mixed greens and tomatoes. Both very good, and accompanied by fresh-cut fries, good and crispy. I also got a Reese’s milkshake ($5), very chocolate-y.

Service was accommodating, and with the sun pouring in through the storefront windows, it was a pleasant experience. The menu is almost all burgers and sandwiches, with a few salads and starters.

It’s not Eureka or Back Abbey, with their exacting standards, but even with a somewhat slapdash feel, Burger House was better than expected. “I like this better than the Rookery,” my friend confided concerning the similar burgers-and-beer spot a block to the east.

* Update, February 2014: Friends and I ate here for dinner before a concert. The place was packed. They got a turkey burger and wings, I had a pulled pork sandwich. The wings were good, the burger okay, the pulled pork over-sauced and disappointing. Also, I saw a soft-serve ice cream machine in the kitchen, meaning the shakes they’re so proud of aren’t hand-scooped. In another demerit, the menus (these are not the menus I saw at lunchtime) were riddled with typos, the worst, but funniest, being a “pare and bree” salad, which does not inspire confidence. So, be wary of anything that’s not a burger (or wings).

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Restaurant of the Week: Valentino’s Pizzeria

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Valentino’s Pizzeria, 644 E. Arrow Highway (at Towne), Pomona

Pomona isn’t a pizza town; after the usual delivery suspects, and a Round Table, about as exotic as it gets is Pizza Loca. Valentino’s, a hole in the wall spot in a slightly sketchy shopping center at Towne and Arrow, is well-regarded among locals, so when some Pomona friends and I wanted a pizza delivery, I suggested Valentino’s. Anything for a blog post.

We got two customized extra-large pizzas ($15.50 for three toppings, $17 for four items), one with extra-thin crust, recommended by Yelp commenters. The chefs can’t really do extra-thin if you get more than two toppings, but they tried. Delivery took a while, but the driver was apologetic and blamed staffing issues on a busy Friday.

The pizzas had crisp crust, lots of cheese, chunks of sausage, fresh mushrooms. (One had jalapenos and olives, neither of which was my idea.) Our reactions ranged from mildly impressed (“This is pretty good”) to mildly unimpressed (“It’s not slaying me”).

The menu also has a few sandwiches, buffalo wings, salads and calzones. But it’s mostly pizza.

I returned for an early dinner last Sunday. They have a deal, two slices of pizza and a can of soda for $4.99 plus tax, which I’ll try another time. I got a meatball sandwich ($7, bottom), which arrived open-faced, covered in cheese and looking like a Stouffer’s french bread pizza — but better, and with meatballs. I ate the whole thing, later wishing I’d saved half for lunch the next day.

Valentino’s has only five small tables with folding metal chairs, but it has a downscale charm, and the food’s pretty good.

Oh, and they have another deal, written on a pizza box on display near the counter: “Try our Triple Bypass Monster Pizza, win $200, eat the whole pizza, 1 person, 1 1/2 hours. Cheese + 2 toppings.”

I’ll just get the two-slice special, thanks.

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Restaurant of the Week: O’Donovan’s Pub

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O’Donovan’s Pub, 101 E. Third St. (at Garey), Pomona

Located in the renovated Mayfair Hotel, cater-corner from the Fox Theater, O’Donovan’s has a great setting, a five-story brick hotel, with fire escapes yet, that dates to 1915. It’s now apartments for students at the nearby medical school. The Irish restaurant occupies the first floor, with the pub portion in the basement.

O’Donovan’s opened in September and the pub is said to be a big hit. Besides the bar, there’s pool tables and darts, a couple of cozy nooks to sit in and neat vintage-style beer signs.

The restaurant portion is quieter, but it’s received strong ratings on Yelp, where it currently has 4 1/2 stars. A friend and I met up for a late lunch/early dinner last month; at 4 p.m., it wasn’t a surprise we were the only diners. (By the time we left, another table was occupied.) The interior has a lot of brick, exposed pipes and hipster Edison bulbs. Our server was friendly and assured.

The menu has sandwiches and salads; entrees range from $12 to $32 and include fish and chips, corned beef and cabbage, bangers, salmon and a ribeye steak. They have 26 beers on tap and 30 in bottles.

I had fish and chips ($14), he had shepherds pie ($15, pictured below), and we shared beer-battered onion rings ($4). He had a pint of Black Butte ale ($6).

The rings were excellent. The shepherds pie, besides mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, has the traditional lamb. I’m not sure how a shepherd would feel about that, but my friend was impressed. My fish was okay but the batter tasted over-fried. I’ve had worse, but I’ve had better at the Heights in Upland.

Four friends dined there recently and had shrimp pasta, fish and chips, a quesadilla (!) and mac and cheese. None of them were dissatisfied, but none was enthusiastic either.

Well, it’s another option downtown, better than some, and it’s open until 2 a.m. daily, although food service stops earlier than that. They also have brunch on weekends. I expect I’ll go back when I’m downtown. It’s well-situated and pleasant, and they’re trying.

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Restaurant of the Week: Donahoo’s Golden Chicken, Pomona

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Donahoo’s Golden Chicken, 1074 N. Garey Ave. (at Columbia), Pomona

Donahoo’s used to be a modest chain, but now it’s down to three or four unconnected stands in Pomona, Ontario, Riverside and maybe up north somewhere. The one in Pomona may be the best known due to its prominent, freeway-close location and fiberglass rooster on the roof.

I’ve been getting food from the Pomona location for years, generally once or twice per year. The owners seem to have changed a few times, always Asian in recent years, but the food keeps roughly the same level of quality. I went in again recently with a Donahoo’s first-timer. The menu board is gone after many years, replaced by tacked-up notices of the most popular items. (Fans of gizzards, livers and the like will find those items on a menu on the counter.) It’s a sensible change.

The box lunch is the most popular: You get your choice of fried chicken or chicken strips, plus a tiny container of salad, a pile of steak fries and a giant roll, served in a white paperboard donut box, with a paper towel liner and a plastic fork wedged into the side. One innovation since my last visit is that the strips meal can be ordered with three pieces ($5.49) or six ($7.25). Before, it was six pieces only. As I always ate three and saved the other three as leftovers, the three-piece strips meal (pictured at bottom) was the obvious choice despite the the-more-you-eat-the-more-you-save pricing. My friend got a two-piece fried chicken box ($5.99, below).

Donahoo’s is takeout only. Orders are turned around quickly, thanks in part to a large staff in the open kitchen (two rows of fryers and some heat lamps) and a towering stack of pre-folded boxes, each no doubt with forks already tucked in. You have to grab napkins from a dispenser at the counter, which I never remember to do.

We took our boxes to Lincoln Park a few blocks east, sat at a picnic table, cut the boxes’ tape, opened the lids and dug in.

Mine was the quality I’ve come to expect, which means excellent. The shell is golden brown and speckled with black, crunchy and not greasy, the chicken white meat and flavorful. I was stuffed even without finishing my fries and didn’t eat dinner that night. My friend was pleasantly surprised by his meal. He took home one piece and some of his fries; he reports that he reheated them in the oven and that even the fries stayed crisp that way.

We saw others in the park toting the distinctive white boxes. Next time Pomona buries a time capsule, it ought to be in a Donahoo’s box, so Pomonans of the future can see how their forebears ate.

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Restaurant of the Week: Pancakes R Us

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Pancakes R Us, 2282 N. Garey Ave. (at Arrow), Pomona; open daily.

The first location is in Costa Mesa, the second in Pomona, an expansion model you don’t see very often. Pancakes R Us took over the closed Sizzler between a KFC and a shuttered classic Arby’s in north Pomona earlier this month.

It was moderately busy on a Sunday morning. We were immediately greeted and sat, and our beverage orders taken. Service was a little shaky, but attentive. What surprised me was how few pancakes a place named Pancakes R Us had on its menu: 10 varieties, by my count, including buttermilk. apple, blueberry, boysenberry, peach, strawberry, country nut and grain, chocolate chip, potato and pumpkin.

What, no banana? I thought banana and blueberry were as basic as you could get. I went for pumpkin ($8). They were acceptable, and with no syrup accompanying, I used the maple at the table. The second person got pigs in blankets ($7), four sausages in four buttermilk pancakes. He had no complaints.

That didn’t hold true for the third person, whose huevos rancheros ($8.29) were poor: scrambled rather than fried, with canned refried beans and clumpy rice on the side, and pickled jalapenos on top rather than the roasted whole jalapenos depicted on the menu (with fried eggs). She was told corn tortillas weren’t available for her side, only flour, but the eggs were served atop fried corn tortillas. “I’d give this one star,” she said, picking at her inedible rice.

So, it’s good to see a middle-of-the-road restaurant open in Pomona, one serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, but my first visit was not promising. In fact, it fell flat as a pancake. Well, there’s a Carrows a few blocks away on Foothill, and Flappy Jack’s in Glendora serves up a lot more pancakes.

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Restaurant of the Week: Taqueria De Anda

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Taqueria De Anda, 1690 S. Garey Ave. (at Franklin), Pomona

A friend recently ate at a taqueria on South Garey but couldn’t remember the name. The only one I knew of was Taqueria De Anda, which I recall enjoying once maybe six years ago, but never wrote about here. I went back to try it again.

The freestanding restaurant, which has a drive-thru, is neat and clean, with tiled floors, a muted color scheme and art on the walls. And they have tables and chairs. It’s relatively upscale for a 24-hour taqueria where you order at the counter directly from the cook.

Tuesday was my lucky day: That day’s special is 99-cent tacos, cheaper than the usual $1.37. I ordered three carne asadas and a jamaica drink, for a total of $4.71. The tacos were excellent, generous with the meat and cilantro and with a tasty salsa. They’re some of the better tacos I’ve had in Pomona.

They also have burritos and quesadillas, but that’s it. Basic menu, quality food. I emailed a photo of the restaurant to my friend, who replied, “Yes! That’s it! So good!”

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