Restaurant of the Week: Jinza

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Jinza Teriyaki, 3425 Pomona Blvd. (at Temple), Pomona

I called a Cal Poly Pomona friend for lunch and suggested Curry Up, a campus-adjacent fast-food restaurant I’ve wanted to visit based on the name alone. She said Curry Up is nothing special and countered with Jinza. Deferring to the local expert, I met her at Jinza.

Housed in a business center, Jinza’s storefront isn’t much to look at. If you step inside during a lunch hour, as I did, the first thing you notice is lots of people. There was a line to order at the counter and most of the tables were filled.

The restaurant has a kind of food-hall ambience, with plain wooden tables and chairs, cement-block walls, Japanese screens and paper lanterns. Jinza is so popular it expanded into the space next door.

Jinza is beloved by Cal Poly students and Lanterman employees. On Yelp, one student says Jinza is as close to a a college-town gathering spot as Cal Poly has. It’s only open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The specialty is teriyaki bowls and plates, although they also have udon, tempura, yakisoba and a few sushi rolls. I had the vegetable pork bowl with brown rice ($7, pictured); my friend had the spicy chicken bowl.

My humble bowl was actually pretty tasty, my friend loved her spicy chicken, and the portions were large. I wouldn’t drive across the valley to eat here, but it was a good experience.

In a nice touch, Jinza offers free green tea and prominently displays glasses for serve-yourself water, both no doubt aimed at the penny-conscious college crowd (although this journalist appreciated it too).

The New Diner blogger likes Jinza. I don’t know if he’s ever been to Curry Up.

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Restaurant of the Week: Table to Farm

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Table to Farm Dinners, Fairplex, Pomona

This will be a little different. For one thing, it’s fine dining; for another, my meal was comped, i.e., free. I always pay for these Restaurant of the Week meals out of my own pocket, but $75 was a bit much to absorb, so I took the Fair up on the meal (on their third invitation) rather than not go and not write about it. Take this writeup with all that in mind.

McKinley’s Grille, the Sheraton’s restaurant at Pomona’s Fairplex, has been growing produce on an acre in the FairView Farms area of the fairgrounds for its own use and last year began hosting outdoor dinners there on roughly a monthly basis — bringing, as the name suggests, the dining tables into the farm area.

I attended Aug. 19. So did a lot of people. After a writeup in the Bulletin’s Home & Garden section, attendance was 102, more than double the usual number.

After taking a tram from the Sheraton, you walk past the garden plots, where hors d’oeuvres and wine are offered, and then are seated at communal tables. Food is prepared on a grill a few feet away and in an enclosed kitchen. The effect is pleasingly rustic and yet it’s also fine dining, which this night included wine pairings, as a jazz duo played.

Dishes, to quote from the menu card, were Santa Barbara spot prawn with chili-fermented tomatillo; farm tomato with dill pollen, extra virgin olive oil, tomato tarragon jam and crisp pappadam; Hoja Santa steamed king salmon with Thai basil fig compote (pictured); Duroc pork belly with farm muscat grapes (pictured); Colorado lamb loin, farm eggplant and toasted sesame; and, for dessert, a cheese plate, farm strawberry creme fraiche tart and creme fraiche ice cream with ginger mint syrup (the syrup was missing, by the way).

Most of this was good to very good, the tomato appetizer, pork belly and tart being the standouts; the bread assortment was also excellent. The salmon was unseasoned and boring, the shrimp soggy. Two people who had the clam fritter hors d’oeuvre said it was rubbery and unpleasant. In another demerit, the plates given to two of us were dusty and we had to wipe them off with our napkins.

As a non-drinker, the wine pairings weren’t of interest to me. My friend was of two minds: Because the wines all came from the same winery in Paso Robles, there wasn’t a wide range; on the other hand, everyone received the equivalent of a half-bottle or more, which made the $75 price fair. Service was attentive and friendly, although most of the food was presented family style, and the wine kept flowing.

A couple from Chino Hills sitting next to us were there for the first time and were enthusiastic about the food (except the salmon) and the uniqueness of the setting. “It was absolutely worth it,” the man said.

A dissenting view was heard from a man who’d been to previous dinners, saying the usual $50 price was a great deal but that $75 that night was too much, especially without the usual individual service.

It’s a lovely setting, a novelty night out and a rare chance for fine dining in the Inland Valley, but the experience wasn’t without problems. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s worth your $75. The last dinners for the year are planned for Oct. 7 (details are here) and Nov. 4. Contact McKinley’s Grill at 909-868-5915 for reservations.

Next week in this space we’ll be back to regular-folks food, where we’ll all feel more comfortable.

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Restaurant of the Week: Senor Baja

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Senor Baja, 405 E. Mission Blvd. (at Elm), Pomona; also in Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Upland, Chino, Chino Hills, San Dimas and elsewhere

Senor Baja, which took over several El Taco Nazo locations a couple of years ago, specializes in fish tacos. On Wednesdays, its fish tacos, normally $1.65, are only 99 cents. I went to the downtown Pomona location recently with a friend who raves about the tacos and the price.

This Senor Baja is in a converted Taco Bell, constituting a distinct improvement. I got three fish tacos and a horchata for precisely $5, a cheap dinner.

The tacos arrived fresh and hot. The fish was crisp, not soggy, and there was plenty of it. One taco had two pieces of fish stacked up. As my friend put it, “Sometimes when they feel like they’re not giving you enough they give you a second piece of fish.” There was probably more fish on that taco than on any three combined from Rubio’s. Even better, the tacos were delicious, perhaps the best fish tacos I’ve had.

This was my first Senor Baja visit. My friend has been to most of them in the area and says the Pomona location may be the most consistent. The seating is on 13 stools inside and at tables outside.

The menu has tacos, burritos, sopes and tortas, most of them fish-based. A shrimp cocktail, at $9, is the most expensive item. Here’s a link to a list of locations.

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Restaurant of the Week: Cassie’s

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Photo above: Jeff Malet

Cassie’s Soul Food Kitchen, 200 E. 1st St. (at Locust), Pomona

Cassie’s opened in April in downtown Pomona, in the Antique Row space off 2nd Street vacated by Pomona Baking Co. There’s no indoor seating but you can eat at a table out on the plaza, as I did last week for lunch. It’s open daily except Sunday.

I had the smothered pork chop ($11), which came with a corn muffin and two sides; I chose mac and cheese and collard greens. The food arrived in a foam tray about five minutes later. Soul food isn’t one of my specialties, but the pork chop was tender and the sides were comparable to other versions I’ve had. I would go back.

Cassie’s also has baked and barbecued chicken, a few sandwiches and homemade desserts including banana pudding, 7-Up cake and lemon cake.

The New Diner got to Cassie’s before I did and filed this ambivalent report.

Jeff Malet, who contributed two of the photos here, says owner Cassie Edwards, below, is a native of Mississippi and that her son owns Groom City barbershop next door. Bet I know where he eats lunch.

Photo: Jeff Malet

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Restaurant of the Week: Aladdin Jr.

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There’s a sequel to this restaurant in downtown Pomona named Aladdin Jr. 2, but this is the original, up on North Garey below Foothill Boulevard. It’s in a slightly blah shopping center that nevertheless boasts a couple of very good restaurants, notably Los Jarritos.

Aladdin Jr. has a big, landscaped patio for eating or hookah smoking. Inside, there are booths and tables in the dining room, which is decorated by murals that highlight the Disney version of a romanticized Middle East. Kitschy but cute. If memory serves, the staff used to wear vests and fezzes, but they no longer do.

Aladdin has a lunch buffet that’s popular, but on a recent mid-afternoon visit, two friends and I opted to order off the menu for fresher fare. A lamb shawarma sandwich ($6.50) was tender, flavorful and practically as big as a football. The lamb kabob ($14) and chicken kabob ($12, pictured) had generous portions of meat, plus rice and a small salad. Good stuff. The lamb guy took half of his order home.

Aladdin is priced between, say, Saca’s on the lower end and Casablanca or Mes Amis on the higher end. You get a good amount of food for the money.

Service, by a man I believe was the manager, was friendly and joshing. He kidded the ones in our party who arrived late (who deserved it, which I can say because it wasn’t me). Our only complaint were the persistent flies in the window. Maybe they liked the look of the sand in the murals.

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Restaurant of the Week: Fox Sports Bar and Grill

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Fox Sports Bar and Grill, 333 S. Garey Ave. (at 3rd), Pomona

This bar and grill opened in August in the former El Merendero space on the corner of Third and Garey, right outside the Fox Theater. The bar has 25 TVs, plenty of natural light through the expansive windows, seating at the bar or at bar tables and female servers in striped referee uniforms. Not really my scene, so before a recent City Council meeting, a friend and I had dinner at one of the quieter outdoor tables along Garey.

I was dubious about the menu, which has burgers, a few salads, the usual appetizers and a couple of Mexican items, including something called fish and chip tacos. My recollection is that cheese was an ingredient on a couple of items that don’t typically have cheese.

Skeptical about the expertise of the kitchen, I opted for a burger ($8), figuring that was a safe choice, and my friend had the sliders ($10). The burgers are Angus beef and mine was above average, dense and satisfying. The fries that came with it were fine.

I don’t think I’d risk ordering a salad here, but you’re probably safe with the sandwiches. It’s good there’s a moderately upscale sports bar downtown, and in a great location. I hope they do well.

Walking back to my car a couple of hours later, I saw about two dozen people inside watching football, plus another two or three on the sidewalk watching through the windows.

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Restaurant of the Week: Sanamluang Cafe

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Sanamluang Cafe, 1648 Indian Hill Blvd. (at San Bernardino), Pomona

The only Pomona restaurant with a twin in North Hollywood, Sanamluang is located on Indian Hill Boulevard a few blocks south of the 10 Freeway, coincidentally enough in the same block as Mix Bowl Cafe, another well-regarded authentic Thai restaurant.

Sanamluang’s interior is pretty funky, done in avocado, orange and brown, with an open feeling and odd angles. A friend and I got a booth and ordered three items: the Thai salad ($5.95), basically an American salad but with peanut sauce; seafood soup ($9.50), with shrimp, squid and mussels; and General’s Noodle, the dried version ($6.50), with noodles, shrimp, beef and pork.

The food was fine, but we weren’t wowed, not even by the well-reviewed noodle dish. Sanamluang is certainly popular. It was a Friday night and the place was packed, with several large parties and a line out the door by the time we left. But service was poor. The restaurant was understaffed and no one even refilled our water glasses.

I used to be a regular at Sanamluang, a streak that ended a few years ago when a roach crawled across our table, a server casually killed it and no one apologized or gave us a break on the bill. A friend enticed me to Mix Bowl and I came to love the place.

I wouldn’t argue anyone out of liking Sanamluang. (Yelpers are evenly split, giving Sanamlaung and Mix Bowl identical 3.5-star ratings.) The interior is a step up from the neon garishness of Mix Bowl and some would prefer the food. I think Mix Bowl has better food and it inarguably has better service. Also, as my (female) friend put it after a close observation of Sanamluang, “The waitresses are prettier at Mix Bowl.” The importance of these things can’t be discounted.

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Restaurant of the Week: Sakura Ichi

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Sakura Ichi, 101 W. Mission Blvd., Suite 101 (at Garey), Pomona

Pomona is not exactly a hotbed for Japanese food, but Sakura Ichi has occupied a spot in the Mission Promenade center downtown since 2006.

The interior is a large, high-style place, full of modern design touches, making for one of the more impressive restaurant interiors in the Inland Valley. There’s a long, gleaming sushi bar, a lounge that is especially impressive in the evening when the lights behind the bar glow and a series of private tatami rooms for larger groups.

The tatami rooms are great fun. You take off your shoes, put on paper slippers and sit on the floor, dangling your legs into a well below your table. A group of us has done this a couple of times for a birthday or before a concert. There’s no extra charge for the rooms.

The food is pretty good too. This recent visit I had the Sakura sashimi ($18), which came with a small salad, a bowl of rice and 12 pieces of sashimi, three each of tuna, whitefish, salmon and yellowtail, served on a bed of ice. Nice presentation, and tasty too. I’ve been here another half-dozen times over the years and enjoyed my meals.

The main knock that you hear is that service, while friendly, can be spotty. Our previous visit, our group of 10 got our food at various times, with me receiving mine last, maybe 45 minutes later. And I got one of the specials, salmon carapaccio. (On the other hand, I have to admit it was excellent.) This recent visit, we had no problems with the service at all.

Sakura Ichi (the name means “Cherry Blossom No. 1″) is not the best sushi, but it’s good enough, it’s arguably the best restaurant downtown and for groups especially, it offers a fun experience. Sakura Ichi wouldn’t be out of place in Little Tokyo, where a reservation for a tatami room would probably be hard to come by, but here it’s one of the better-kept secrets.

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Restaurant of the Week: Jicamex

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Jicamex, 604 E. Mission Blvd. (at Linden), Pomona

Jicamex may or may not qualify as home cooking, but it operates from a house, a big old yellow one, a holdover on a busy commercial street. I’d heard good things about this place, which opened in 2009, and checked it out for lunch this week.

Most of the seating is outside on a giant shaded patio; there are a few tables inside. You order from a window outside. Tacos are a mere dollar, burritos $4. A big spender, I got an asada torta for $5 and a jamaica drink for $1.

The sandwich was large, on soft bread, stuffed with meat, beans, onions, lettuce, cheese, tomato, onion and mayo. One of the better tortas I’ve had. The menu also has quesadillas and sopes. After reading the reviews on Yelp, I’ll have to try the costillas, described as a pork sparerib in a taco.

This’ll be a nice place to go for lunch or on a warm summer evening. In another plus, Jicamex is open until midnight. I’d rate Jicamex as one of the best Mexican restaurants downtown.

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Restaurant of the Week: El Merendero, Pomona

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El Merendero, 242 S. Garey Ave. (at 2nd), Pomona

El Merendero, which already had (and still has) a La Verne location, was a pioneer in downtown Pomona, arriving in 1980 and occupying the corner of the Fox Theater building until moving a block away in 2008 to much nicer quarters. Check the lovely mural. The new location has table service too. Alas, two years in, service remains shaky. I’m not sure the expanded menu has adjusted to the new surroundings either.

Five of us ate there prior to a concert at the Fox. Chips and salsa arrived. We liked both but the salsa’s presentation in a plastic to-go container, with a lid, hints at the awkward transition to a full-service restaurant.

Our table had two enchiladas ($5.95), a chile relleno and carne asada ($8.50) (pictured), camarones rancheros ($9.25), a chile relleno ($5.95) and a milanesa steak torta ($4.95) (also pictured). The first three plates were enjoyed by their diners; the camarones customer was impressed by the number of shrimp. My torta was acceptable, although I’ve had better. The solo relleno diner, who’s more exacting, said it wasn’t cooked through and had a crunchy rather than soft exterior. She doesn’t intend to go back.

The service was friendly, when we got it; nobody came to the table for the first 10 minutes (the first-timers began to wonder if they were supposed to order from the cashier) and at the end, the credit card transaction took at least five minutes.

I like El Merendero but have to say it’s not my first choice for downtown dining. Somehow I liked it better when it was basically a taqueria and burrito joint in the then-dumpy Fox and you ordered at the counter. The new location raises expectations but can’t quite meet them. That mural sure is pretty, though.

Next door is El Merendero’s popular panaderia, which moved along with the restaurant and seems to have made a more successful transition.

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