Restaurant of the Week: Punch Bowl Social

Punch Bowl Social, 12635 N. Main St. (Victoria Gardens), Rancho Cucamonga; open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m. to midnight Sundays

The Denver-based Punch Bowl Social opened at Victoria Gardens in May in the vast former Toby Keith’s space with an entertainment zone and restaurant. There’s casual bowling (pins held in place by overhead strings), karaoke, arcade games and more. The dining, though, is of interest, with a menu by “Top Chef” judge Hugh Acheson, and the dining area evokes a ’50s diner. Is it any surprise I’ve tried it out?

The menu has breakfast, brunch, sandwiches, salads and Southern specialties including fried balogna sandwiches, pimiento cheese and chicken biscuits, but you’ll see “grass fed” and “hormone free” at various points, and these are obviously upscale takes on the food. There’s also a long beverage list, from beer and mixed drinks to “adult” milkshakes.

I was there for a late breakfast in May. First they give you a biscuit and housemade jam, maybe the strawberry ginger. I ordered the mushroom biscuit and gravy ($11), which came with a couple of eggs atop potatoes. I liked it..

In July, I returned with another friend for lunch. She got the A La Bama chicken sandwich ($13) and a grapefruit soda ($5), while I had the meatloaf ($13) and a black cherry soda ($3.50). She liked her sandwich. Checking my notes, I have this direct quote: “It was good.” OK, that’s not that helpful. But her sociopolitical message is a winner.

My meatloaf was a chef’s take on the humble dish, served atop mashed potatoes and with pickled radishes and carrots, all tasty and all probably better than your mom’s.

We should have tried the pie or another dessert, but after all that food, that wasn’t possible. The $40 lunch tab provided further discouragement.

Stunningly, perhaps, Punch Bowl Social instantly became one of Rancho Cucamonga’s better restaurants. It certainly beat the similar but generic Big Al’s in Ontario. Be prepared to pay a little extra, and consider working off some calories through bowling.

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Restaurant of the Week: El Patron

El Patron, 9269 Utica Ave. (at Sixth), Rancho Cucamonga; 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekends

El Patron has spawned a second location, El Patron II, in La Verne. I tried to eat there recently but unfortunately chose a Monday, the only day it’s closed. A few days later, I went to the older one in Rancho Cucamonga. Who can judge the sequel without having seen the original?

It was in a business park and hard to find, but the key is that El Patron faces 6th, not Utica. The facade is biz park bland, but open the door and you’re hit with bright colors, as the walls are painted mustard, maroon and orange. (Your color wheel may differ.)

I took a seat, examined the menu and was delivered chips and salsa. I asked the server about the specialties and he pointed to menu items 6 (chile relleno, taco or enchilada) and 7 (chile relleno, taco AND enchilada). I went for No. 6 ($10), with a hard shell shredded beef taco.

This proved to be a great choice. While I’m not a big fan of chile rellenos, this was a good one, smothered in green sauce, and the taco was freshly fried, something you don’t see all that often. It made me think of Ramon’s Cactus Patch and the Mitla Cafe.

I could see El Patron becoming an occasional lunch stop for me as it’s not that far from our office and the food is very good, with friendly but low-key service. Now I feel prepared for El Patron II. By the way, readers say the same family runs Los Jarritos in Pomona.

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Restaurant of the Week: Min’s Dumpling House, Rancho Cucamonga

Min’s Dumpling House, 9789 Baseline Road (at Archibald), Rancho Cucamonga; open daily

There are Min’s Dumpling House locations in Chino, Corona and Rancho Cucamonga, the latter of which I tried out recently at lunchtime with two librarian friends. It’s in the 99 Ranch center, home to another Chinese restaurant, a Korean restaurant and a boba shop.

Min’s is on the small side, but brightened by sunlight, art, carved screens and other decor, and the seating is spaced apart, giving everyone some elbow room. Its menu is on the large side, with 156 items: rice dishes, dim sum, soups, seafood, hot pot and more, including 15 vegetable-only dishes. The specialty is cuisine from the Hunan province. Many dishes are spicy, but they’re marked as such on the menu and we stayed away.

We ordered six items: pork dumplings (item 1, $7); BBQ pork buns (item 5, $6); shrimp and pork dumplings (item 19, $9); sweet and pungent spare ribs (item 59, $11); Chinese broccoli with garlic sauce (item 123, $8); and vegetable fried rice (item 150, $7).

I was a big fan of the dumplings — the pork were soup dumplings, the shrimp and pork were simply filled — and the pork buns. Nothing wrong with the broccoli either. The others liked the spare ribs and rice the best.

Min’s is among Rancho Cucamonga’s best Chinese restaurants, and given that the menu has a couple of my favorite items, cumin lamb and beef roll, I’m sure I’ll be back.

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Restaurant of the Week: China Republic

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China Republic, 12806 E. Foothill Blvd. (at Etiwanda), Rancho Cucamonga; open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

A shopping plaza in easternmost Rancho Cucamonga, on Foothill Boulevard east of the 15 Freeway, is a surprisingly happening spot. It’s got Combine Kitchen, Tilted Kilt, a Korean BBQ and an ambitious Chinese restaurant, China Republic. I’d been wanting to try the latter and jumped when a friend and his wife wanted dinner.

The parking lot was bustling early on a Friday evening and a couple of likely Kilt customers were arguing belligerently. Things were more sedate at China Republic.

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It’s got a beautiful interior, with high ceilings, wooden panels with carved cutouts, lovely lantern-like fixtures and a modernist bar. It might be the most impressive restaurant interior in Rancho Cucamonga.

To my knowledge, China Republic is one of the very, very few Inland Valley restaurants with dim sum, or small-plate luncheons, and I’m told the place is packed. But this was a weeknight dinner. We ordered, as presented below, black vinegar mushrooms ($6), braised pork belly ($15), garlic broccoli ($10), dry scallop fried rice ($14) and Singapore noodles soup ($10, not pictured).

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We enjoyed our items, although none of them knocked us out. In what must be a concession to local tastes, the menu includes orange peel chicken and cream cheese wontons, not the sort of dishes they serve in Hong Kong.

“An A for aesthetics but a B for execution,” one friend suggested.

China Republic is worth trying, especially to admire the place, and if you get the dim sum, report back, please.

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Restaurant of the Week: Cake Among Us Bakery & Donuts

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Cake Among Us, 7890 Haven Ave., (at Town Center), Rancho Cucamonga; open 4:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays, closed Sundays

Cake Among Us vaulted into prominence late in 2016 when a state-by-state ranking of doughnut shops on BuzzFeed chose it to represent California. The list is titled “The Best Doughnut Shop in Every State,” the rankings determined via Yelp star ratings and number of reviews. Skip to No. 5 to find Cake Among Us.

Here the alleged best doughnut shop in California was in Rancho Cucamonga — and I’d never heard of it. How could I live this down? But I quickly tracked it down and had breakfast there, not once but three times, as well as a sort of lunch with friends.

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First off, it’s not precisely a doughnut shop, but rather a bakery with doughnuts, scones, danishes, cupcakes, wedding cakes and more. That said, they do have a fair number of doughnuts, many of them creative, and all the ones I’ve tried are quite good. They even have vegan doughnuts.

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They’ve included lemon-filled with vanilla frosting and raspberry icing, apple-filled, honey wheat blueberry (dense, chewy, with real blueberry flavor) and an apple fritter (light, not burnt-looking as many are, with bits of apple).

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With friends, we got a half-dozen that included cream cheese, one person’s favorite, and pineapple, another’s. One had Nutella and peanut butter.

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“All the doughnuts were really good,” the wife said. “They were all good,” her husband allowed, “but it wasn’t like ‘this is the best.'” That’s the problem with being ranked No. 1: It’s hard to live up to. Their daughter seemed to like them all and went off in a glaze haze.

Another customer was picking up a cake. The message in icing: “We’re Here for the Sex!” Next to that were pink and blue footprints. Ha ha. Must be for a baby shower. I got cupcakes later that day for a friend’s birthday party. Among the flavors they have: creamsicle, raspberry, Oreo and peanut butter.

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It took me a while, by the way, but eventually the pun in the store name became clear and I liked the place all the more.

Is Cake Among Us better than, say, Donut Man in Glendora? Perhaps not, especially with Donut Man being 24 hours. But Cake Among Us is really good.

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Restaurant of the Week: Mezzaterranean

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Mezzaterranean, 9491 Foothill Blvd. (at Malachite), Rancho Cucamonga; open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily; closed Sundays

I learned about Mezzaterranean, the name being a clever mashup of Mediterranean and mezza, the Lebanese name for appetizers, from a friend’s Yelp reviews, and eventually got around to going once I figured out where it was, the Auto Zone center, which many of us would tend to think of as the Taco Hut center.

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Opened in 2014, it’s a small place, and packed during the lunch hour; on my first visit, at noon, a friend and I had to sit at the makeshift counter as all 25 or so seats were taken. On a second visit, around 2 p.m. (on a different day, just to be clear), I got the only indoor table that was free, although it did clear out over the next hour. It’s a popular place, with many getting take-out besides the dine-in orders.

You order at the counter, from a menu with hot and cold mezza, soups and salads, sandwiches and plates. The open kitchen is right behind, a hive of activity. That first visit, I had a lamb kebab plate ($12) and my friend ordered a beef shawarma sandwich ($7).

The place was crazy busy and our orders seemed to get misplaced; eventually someone noticed we hadn’t gotten our food, asked what we’d ordered and made it, upgrading my friend to a plate and giving us free baklava ($1), which was very good. And so was the food.

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I went back a few weeks later and ordered the soujuk sandwich ($7, below), a spicy beef sausage on a pita with pickles, tomatoes, hummus and sauce. I’d never tried that, and it was okay, but I should have gotten fries or rice or something on the side.

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On a third visit, I tried the chicken shawarma fries ($8-ish), at a friend’s recommendation, and those were really good too.

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I like Mezzaterranean, although I might give the edge to Zait Bistro, elsewhere in town, for Rancho Mediterranean — which wouldn’t be a bad name for a city.

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Restaurant of the Week: Mustang Sally’s on 66

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Mustang Sally’s, 8411 Foothill Blvd. (at San Bernardino), Rancho Cucamonga; open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekends

Mustang Sally’s was subject of a column of mine due to its location, in a small older building, probably originally a house, by the Pacific Electric Trail and overlooking Foothill Boulevard. At the time I hadn’t eaten there, but since then I’ve been in twice.

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It’s a cute place, with decor that emphasizes Texas and the Southwest. I went in on a quiet Friday last month for lunch.

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They have a steak special that day: a bone-in ribeye, salad and fries, normally $12, for $8. Too good to pass up. Did I want onion straws? Sure.

The salad, served in a metal bowl, could have been a meal in itself — but then there was the steak, said to be fresh from Hottinger’s, a well-regarded meat market in Chino. It was a decent steak, and excellent for the price; I took home half or more of everything. I can fault them only for bringing out the salad at the same time as the entree. It really was an embarrassing amount of food for eight bucks.

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I returned earlier this month to try the Mexican food, ordering the Tasty Tacos ($7), three hard shell tacos with lettuce, tomato, cheese and a mix of beef and potatoes, a family recipe.

They were stuffed and the overflow from each created a sort of mini-taco salad on my plate. The tacos were tasty, just as advertised, and the avocado salsa was a solid accompaniment. I took a photo of the final taco so you could see what one actually looks like under all the cheese.

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Service is casual but friendly. (It might have been the cook who was waiting on me during the slow period.)

There’s a neat patio out back with picnic tables and a bean-bag toss with a view of Foothill and the bike/walking trail. The food at Sally’s is good, the setting a little better.

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Restaurant of the Week: The Melt

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The Melt, 7870 Monet Ave. (in Victoria Gardens), Rancho Cucamonga

The Melt is a San Francisco-based burger chain with a small number of locations in California and Colorado. I’d eaten once at the Sunset and Vine restaurant and was only barely conversant with it before one opened earlier this year at Victoria Gardens.

The menu has burgers, grilled cheese, two salads, tomato soup and mac ‘n’ cheese, plus milkshakes and all-natural sodas. The corporate ethos is to use better ingredients and no preservatives. They also serve craft beer and wine.

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On my first visit I ordered the grilled cheese and tomato soup combo ($10) and got a black cherry soda. It was a warming, basic meal. Frankly, it was forgettable, but pleasantly so.

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I wanted to return sometime for a milkshake after trying the overdone version at The Mug Shakes. On my second visit, then, I got the swiss and shrooms burger ($7) with fries ($2.45) and a mint chocolate chip shake ($5). Other choices were vanilla bean, double chocolate, cookies and cream, snickerdoodle (!) and salted caramel.

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Very good burger, which came with grilled onions and greens, on a poppyseed bun, and the fries, sprinkled with oregano, were addictive. The shake had a crumbled cookie, like a Thin Mint, on top and I liked it too.

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A couple of small tables stand outside the restaurant, beyond which is more of a communal patio with chairs in cheerful primary colors. The restaurant is along the made-over street for youngish people with outdoor seating, stylized crosswalks and sidewalks, and overhead strings of lights. I like it.

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Restaurant of the Week: The Stackz Co.

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The Stackz Co., 9223 Archibald Ave. (at Sixth), Rancho Cucamonga

I’ve passed by Stackz, which wasn’t far from our old office, but never pulled over. The aging business center is uninspiring, and then there’s the Z in the name and on the second sign, “Subz, Saladz and Brewz,” which subtly offended me.

Then we moved our office over to Archibald, where we’re now 3/10ths of a mile from Stackz. A couple of newsroom colleagues reported how good it was, as did a random reader. So I dropped my prejudices and went in.

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Stackz has beer and wine cocktails, and also sandwiches and salads. The interior is industrial chic, with plank walls, exposed ductwork, corrugated metal trim, a barrel and some interesting art, all vintage B&W photos of early airplanes and bicycles, I think to match the old-timey design of the logo.

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You order at the bar and take a seat at a table, a picnic table or the bar. On my first visit, I got the meatball sandwich ($8) as a combo with fries and drink ($3 more). This sandwich was very good, especially the springy roll, which tasted fresh. It was a pleasant surprise. No wonder people say nice things about Stackz.

I went back another day and got the cold Italian sub as a combo with chips and drink (same price as above). While I’m not generally a fan of cold sandwiches, this was pretty good too.

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The atmosphere is somewhat male. The majority of customers are men, and on my first visit, a picnic table of them silently eyeballed the female server as she walked away. That said, the service is friendly, there are women customers and the menu even has kids items. Also, the sandwiches are quite good. I’d go back even if I had to drive a few miles.

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Restaurant of the Week: Combine Kitchen

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Combine Kitchen, 12750 E. Foothill Blvd. (at Etiwanda), Rancho Cucamonga; open daily

Combine Kitchen is in what some of us call Foncho, the area east of the 15 Freeway that is almost Fontana but is still Rancho Cucamonga. Specifically, it’s in a modern center near Sacred Heart Catholic that has (ooh-la-la) Tilted Kilt, Starbucks and the area’s first dim sum restaurant, China Republic.

Combine is like almost nothing else in the area: a hipster coffeehouse with gastropub food, from a menu that changes seasonally. A foodie pal raved about it. A friend and I took a long lunch there recently.

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First you order a drink and they prepare it, then they’ll take your food order. They have espresso, chemex, nitro cold brew and pour overs, plus some oddities, like the Mello Yello, which is tumeric and ginger tea mixed with almond milk, and More Fat Coffee, with grass-fed butter, coconut oil and cinnamon — as the menu puts it, “don’t knock it till you try it.”

The menu has only a few items — five sandwiches, five breakfast items and three bowls, plus a special or two. Vegetarian and gluten-free items are marked, although there may not be enough of them; a vegetarian friend whom I invited for dinner declined because all she could get was one item, which had goat cheese, which she didn’t like. So there’s that.

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There are muffins and cookies at the counter, by the way.

But back to lunch. My friend had the Combine breakfast, scrambled eggs with bacon, potatoes and garlic toast ($11.50), plus an iced coffee ($4.45). I got the pork belly banh mi sandwich ($11.50) and potatoes, plus a cold brew float ($6.50).

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For seating, there’s a counter, communal tables and a shallow window counter, plus some nooks and crannies, the whole room sleek and modern, with lots of natural light. At one table, a mother was teaching her young son to read. There are a few shelves with specialty items arranged for sale, including books.

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We liked our food, including the potatoes, which are smashed flat. As a non-coffee person, I’m not sure what I was thinking by ordering a cold brew float. I had the jitters from the first sip that lasted the rest of the day. But that might be your thing.

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My foodie friend at last report had enjoyed the steak and eggs on garlic toast, shrooms and eggs on toast, lox and pork belly, all of which he called amazing, as well as several coffee drinks.

Combine is open for coffee from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. For food, breakfast and lunch are served from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; after a two-hour break, the dinner menu runs from 5 to 9 p.m., except Mondays.

Basically, it’s a bit of Silver Lake in Rancho Cucamonga. If that sounds as appealing to you as it does to me, further instructions are unnecessary.

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Update September 2016: I had breakfast: shrooms on toast, with a side of bacon, and it was even better than I’d hoped, plus a chai latte.

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