Restaurant of the Week: Spike’s Cake Shop

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Spike’s Cake Shop, 660 Fairplex Drive (at Holt), Pomona; open daily

I had never noticed Spike’s, which turns out to be within a minimall I pass all the time, and had I seen it I wouldn’t have thought to go in. But the chef and co-owner of Pappas Artisanal Sandwiches in La Verne advised me that he gets his rolls from Spike’s and that they make excellent burritos there. I made a point of going.

The sign, hard to see due to foliage, appears to be repurposed from a Spike’s Teriyaki. As one Spike’s observer put it, the name might sound inauthentic, but “you don’t get more authentic than saving some coin and using the previous sign.” Point made. Neon signs at the entry tout tacos, burritos, bionicos, licuados, tamales, champurrados and “sanwiches.” No hours are posted, but they seem to be open seven days, and well into the evening.

The doors are perpetually open, with plastic hanging strips to keep out flies. The interior is confusing on a first visit, not to mention subsequent visits: Your clockwise view is of refrigerated cases with pan dulce and bottled beverages; a small open kitchen with a grill and a stove with a couple of pots; a line at a counter to order; and a cake counter. I wondered if I had stepped into the wrong place.

If you want pan dulce, then you take a tray and tongs at the pickup counter. You probably won’t get a tray liner. Otherwise, you get a beverage and get in line, even though virtually everyone in front of you will have a tray of bakery items, and at the register, where there is no menu posted, you’ll attempt to order a torta or a burrito, the ease of which will depend on your facility with Spanish or the employee’s facility with English. You’ll pay and get a receipt, you’ll listen for your number to be called out in Spanish, and probably won’t hear it.

But once you get your burrito ($5.50), you’ll find it long and slim, wrapped in a springy, light and fresh tortilla. A carne asada burrito will contain a kind of stew with rice, beans and bits of meat, a style closer to what I believe is the Mexican version of a burrito than I’ve ever had. An al pastor burrito was meatier. Both were surprising and intensely satisfying, among the best I’ve had, although fans of Chipotle-like stuffed burritos may find them baffling.

The second time, I also got a puffy sweetbread (50 cents). I liked it but have very little experience with pan dulce. A Pomonan whose office has been sampling panaderias hadn’t heard of Spike’s either but, after a couple of visits, was impressed enough to rate it second best in town after Panaderia La Mexicana. And the tri-color cookies at Spike’s were rated No. 1.

Seating consists of a few small uncomfortable tables with swivel seats and a counter for four by the door, which is where I’ve sat. There’s usually a few carts with stacked trays of pan dulce, perhaps cooling, out on the floor as well.

Spike’s is one of the more visually confusing places I’ve eaten, up there with the chaotic Porto’s in Glendale. For the adventurous, the food is good enough to be worth the hassle. You’ll probably want to take it to go, though.

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Restaurant of the Week: Tacos Jalisco

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Tacos Jalisco, 595 W. Mission Blvd. (at Parcels), Pomona

Appearances can be deceiving. For years I’ve driven past Tacos Jalisco, housed in a dull-looking restaurant that might well have begun as a Spires, and assumed it was a sit-down restaurant of dubious quality. Although the reference to a particular state in Mexico (Guadalajara is its capital) should have tipped me off that this wasn’t going to be a downscale El Torito.

A taco-loving source at City Hall, which is nearby, surprised me by telling me Tacos Jalisco might have the best tacos in Pomona, up there with De Anda. As I’d say De Anda and Tijuana’s Tacos are my favorites, this was credible information. (We would hope for no less from City Hall.) We walked there for lunch so I could judge for myself.

The entry from Mission was as disappointing as it looked from the street — although one is conflicted about knocking gentility.

“From the street,” my source agreed, “this place looks a little too nice to have the real thing.”

Inside, though, it turns out you order at the counter and sit in molded-plastic booths. This was more like it. For whatever reason, I had expected waitresses in costumes. It’s relatively nice inside, and clean. The menu has tacos, burritos, quesadillas, sopes and, on weekends, menudo and birria, and beverages include champurrado and aguas frescas.

My source got a chorizo taco and al pastor burrito (below); I got four tacos ($1.24 each): al pastor, asada, carnitas and chicharron, plus a horchata ($1.40), meaning my entire lunch was $6.92. These were excellent tacos, and four made a good meal. A standout was the carnitas, which was redolent of porkiness. If they’d slaughtered the pig out back a half-hour before, it wouldn’t have surprised me (except code enforcement works close enough to have put a stop to that).

I returned a month later for an al pastor burrito (around $6; final food photo) and a Mexican Coke. An excellent cheap meal.

Best tacos in Pomona? Fistfights have started and friendships ended on lesser questions. Tacos Jalisco at this point is in my triumvirate alongside De Anda and Tijuana’s. But wait, what about Lily’s? Oh. What comes after a triumvirate?

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Restaurant of the Week: The Rookery

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The Rookery Alehouse and Grill, 117 W. 2nd St. (at Garey), Pomona; closed Mondays

The Rookery, which opened in 2013, replaced the long-lived Joey’s BBQ at the entrance to the downtown Pomona arts district. It’s been a good change, even if Joey’s was something of a tradition for some of my friends for birthdays and pre-concert eats. The food is arguably better now, and business is up.

The menu is mostly burgers and beer, with a couple of salads and other sandwiches, and a grilled cheese and tomato soup pairing. I’ve eaten here a half-dozen times and generally find the experience on the tipping point between good and okay.

On a recent visit, I got the soup and sandwich ($8), which are about what you would expect, but a decent alternative to a burger. I was back a month later and tried the roasted red burger ($10), which comes with roasted red peppers and goat cheese. Pretty good, and for the first time I got fries as my side rather than the mixed green salad. The fries are thick and blocky, with skin on, a little different than any I’ve had before, and very good.

As for beers, they currently have 16 on draft and 17 in bottles, from all over, including Belgium, but mostly the West Coast. It’s obviously a well-curated beer list.

The previously little-used entry room from Second is now the bar and main dining room at lunchtime, with high and low tables, and a patio toward Garey is a popular spot on warm evenings. The decor includes art of birds and bird-keeping, a rookery being a nesting place for birds, but there’s also a poster with the pilot’s alphabet (bottom).

Service has been a weak spot. On my first visit, with two friends, the server looked at one of the sandwiches on the tray and asked good-humoredly, “Which burger is this?,” a question that involved us as customers on a level that was disconcerting. A friend on a separate visit asked a server if she could sit outside and then was never waited on.

I don’t know if all the kinks have been worked out, but even if it’s not a tight ship, you’ll probably be waited on, and you’ll probably find it was worth the trouble.

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Restaurant of the Week: Stein Haus

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Stein Haus Brau and Brats, 540 E. Foothill Blvd. (at Towne), Pomona; food service from 2 to 9 p.m. daily

One of the valley’s few examples of roadside architecture, this business built to resemble a castle lies on Route 66 just over the border from Claremont’s restaurant shaped like a tugboat, both of them ’60s holdovers. Pomona’s began life in 1968 as Magic Towers, a King Arthur-themed burger palace for the kiddies, and later became Friar Tuck’s, a dive bar that might appeal to the dissolute grownups those kiddies became.

I never ventured inside. But now it’s been repainted, remodeled and rebranded as Stein Haus, a German-themed bar and restaurant with the aid of the reality-TV show “Bar Rescue.” German? Hey, there’s only so many things you can do with a castle. So for the first time, I went inside one recent afternoon. The dark brown paint outside may be an improvement over the faded gray from the English days.

Inside there’s more brown and dim lighting, with a full bar, a counter and a few tables, plus a small stage, pool tables in the back and a smoker’s patio. The bartender told me the place had been cleaned up considerably, with new carpet replacing “three kinds of tile.”

The menu is small and focused. They still have burgers, jalapeno poppers and other bar food, but they now have a handful of German items: pork schnitzel and bratwurst sandwiches, crispy spaetzle and pretzel bites, as well as a few specialty cocktails. I sat at the bar, ordered a bratwurst ($10, pictured below) — after all, it’s in the restaurant’s sub-name — and hoped for the best.

It took a while, but my brat arrived on a chewy pretzel bun, with spicy mustard (brown, I think, to match the prevailing color scheme) and grilled onions. A side of slaw was vinegary, with cabbage, green pepper and carrots. The whole thing was a pleasant surprise.

Another day, I returned for dinner. It was early and the bar was quiet. I got the other sandwich, the pork schnitzel (also $10; pictured at bottom), which came with crispy spaetzle. I liked the sandwich, which came on rye bread; the spaetzle was like doughy fries, without much taste. That said, I found myself eating it anyway.

I wonder how long the reinvention will last or if the place will backslide, but the adventurous, and people who remember the old days, might get a kick out of stepping inside.

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Restaurant of the Week: Taqueria Guadalupana

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Taqueria Guadalupana, 820 E. Mission Blvd. (at Towne), Pomona

I was on foot at Towne and Second one recent evening looking for a place to eat. This proved more difficult than expected, as Los Jarritos was closed and Nancy’s Tortilleria, also on that corner, was closing. I’d left my car in the garage at Western U figuring I could find grub nearby. But I pressed on on foot, knowing Mission Boulevard three blocks south would have a few options.

And it did. I opted for a place on the southeast corner: Taqueria Guadalupana. The broad windows and brightly lighted interior were friendly and welcoming. It’s a small place with a limited menu of tacos, burritos and tortas with seven meat choices: cabeza, al pastor, asada, lengua, buche, chorizo and pollo. I suppose I should try tongue, brains or cheek someday, but not yet: I went for al pastor (marinated pork) in burrito form ($5.50). With a medium jamaica drink ($1.25), dinner was $7.36 with tax.

Decor is limited and so is the seating, although it feels expansive compared to Tijuana’s Tacos. I sat at a communal booth, in view of the open kitchen, a telenovela playing on the TV and a Virgin of Guadalupe mural on one wall. The burrito was very good, warming the stomach and the soul.

The menu is slightly broader than I indicated: They have menudo on weekends and something called carne en su jugo, which turns out to be a beef and tomato stew. Might be good on a cold night.

On my way out, I noticed another Mexican spot on the northeast corner. The sign was dim but the name was Taqueria la Oaxaquena. A sign out front touted 60-cent tacos on Tuesdays, which this day was. Oh well. I can always go back. For tonight, I was glad to have found Taqueria Guadalupana.

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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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