Restaurant of the Week: Fire House Express

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Fire House Express, 121 W. Foothill Blvd. (at Euclid), Upland

Rather than a fire station with express firefighting service, Fire House Express is a casual pizza and pasta restaurant in a shopping center storefront by Vons. Pizza is baked in an open fire oven, probably accounting for the name.

It’s a clean, sharp looking place with modern design and a couple of TVs hanging in the corners. You order at the counter and return to a booth. (A server brings the food to your table.) They sell pizza, sandwiches, fried chicken and pasta. I stopped in for dinner this week and had the lasagna ($7.99) as a dinner with salad and soda ($2.99 more). Later in the week I returned for a pizza slice lunch special with salad and soda ($4.99).

The salad comes in a transparent takeout container but isn’t bad for what it is. The lasagna was made while I waited and was essentially a plate of noodles, sauce, cheese and sausage, rather than a tightly layered concoction. Still, I liked it enough to return for the pizza. It’s not a high-volume slice place. The chef, who was making a pizza as I ordered, asked what I’d like on my slice. What the heck, I requested sausage and mushrooms.

What arrived was a wide but stubby slice, apparently one-fourth of a small pizza. The crust was airy, almost fluffy, the toppings generous, the sausage especially good.

Overall, Fire House Express was a pleasant surprise. I wouldn’t recommend going there for dinner unless you like solitude — over the course of 90 minutes one evening, I was the only customer — but it’s a good lunch spot if you’re anywhere nearby.

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Restaurant of the Week: Local Baker

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Local Baker Bakery and Cafe, 120 E. 9th (at 1st Ave.), Upland
The local bakery everyone (including me) loves is Some Crust in Claremont, but Local Baker in downtown Upland is awfully good too. A storefront operation a half-block from the gazebo, the bakery is said to date to 1895. An Australian expatriate renovated it, seemingly on a whim, a dozen years ago. The current owners have had the place for five years.
I’ve gone there now and then over the years for a muffin or pastry. Local Baker has seating inside and a few tables on the sidewalk under an overhang, perfect on warm days like the weather we’ve had this week.
The other day I had an apple muffin ($1.85), a rare item elsewhere, with multiple apple pieces. And at lunch on a different day I had the chicken and lime salad ($8.10), with mixed greens, grilled chicken, cucumber, tomato and cilantro. The lime vinaigrette dressing, served on the side, is very good. To my taste, it’s one of the better salads I’ve had.
Besides cookies, tarts and custom cakes, Local Baker, which most nights is open until 9 p.m., also does sandwiches and a few pizzas. I haven’t had those, but the $5.95 spaghetti with meat sauce and garlic bread, which I tried before a recent council meeting, is disappointing, acceptable but nothing special, although the price is right.
Well, can’t win ‘em all. Service is friendly, the food (mostly) good. If people-watching opportunities are limited due to low foot-traffic, the setting is at least charming. Local Baker is a bright spot downtown.
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Restaurant of the Week: Esther Tacos

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This week’s restaurant: Esther Tacos, 1466 Foothill Blvd. (at Grove), Upland.

A lot of taquerias are lovable dumps, while many attractive Mexican restaurants serve crummy food. Here’s a storefront operation — in the Foothill and Grove center, across Grove from Rancho Cucamonga’s Red Hill BBQ — that hits the sweet spot. The service is cheerful, the interior clean, the walls decorated in bright murals and the food inexpensive and tasty.

I’ve eaten there a half-dozen times. (I once mentioned them favorably in a restaurant roundup column and they posted two copies, which are still displayed, even though they only got a paragraph or two. Awwww.)

They sell breakfast plates, tacos, burritos, sopes, tortas, soups, and beer and wine. You order at the counter. The al pastor (marinated pork) is dense and smoky, in tacos (99 cents each) or in a torta ($5.99), although the torta bun was crumbly. The fish tacos ($2.49 each) are Ensenada-style, grilled rather than battered.

Seating is in oak chairs at oak tables. Brass railings top the dividers. Two walls have murals. It’s a pleasant place.

And for better or worse, you’re in the same center as various automotive service shops; I once killed time with lunch at Esther while getting new tires. I told the tire guy I’d be at Esther and he actually walked over to give me a report. Even at the very edge of Upland, it remains the city of gracious living.

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Restaurant of the Week: Giuseppe’s

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This week’s restaurant: Giuseppe’s, 2433 N. Euclid Ave. (above 24th), San Antonio Heights.

Giuseppe’s is a quaint place just north of the Upland border that specializes in both Persian and Italian foods. This means you might exclaim during your meal: “Mama mia, that’s-a spicy kebab!”

I’d been wanting to try this restaurant for ages because of the novelty. My friends Tom and Ann, who are regulars, met me there for lunch on Wednesday. Two of us ordered koobideh kabobs and the third got the lasagna. (The takeout menu doesn’t have the lunch prices but the items were under $8.)

The kabobs and rice were hearty, the lasagna cheesy. Having baskets of pita bread and French bread on the same table was slightly surreal.

Our server had earlier brought out complimentary shirazi and yogurt salads. As we were finishing our entrees, she returned with complimentary filet mignon and veggie kabobs.

I quietly asked Tom and Ann: “Do you think we’re getting all this because you’re regulars or does she know what I do for a living?” Ann replied: “Well, I did say we were waiting for a newspaper columnist…”

Sigh. (I try to eschew special treatment.)

Well, no matter why we got the free food, the kabobs were good, especially the flavorful filet mignon. We polished off about half when the server returned with complimentary baklava. No complaints there either.

The restaurant is in a small building, easy to miss, as you round the curve into San Antonio Heights proper. The restaurant interior is comfortable and well appointed, with a subtle Mediterranean influence — columns at the entryways, colorful mats under the glass tabletops, muted Middle Eastern art on the walls.

Why does Giuseppe’s have an Italian name but two different cuisines? The co-owner said her family, which is Iranian, took the pizza parlor over in 1997 (it was founded in the mid-’80s) and added the Middle Eastern items. Her husband used to own an Italian restaurant, however, and that part of the menu isn’t an afterthought.

Wonder if you can get falafel on your pizza?

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Restaurant of the Week: Louie’s Chicken and Fish Grill

This week’s restaurant: Louie’s Chicken and Fish Grill, 960 N. Mountain Ave. (at Foothill), Upland.

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I was driving north on Mountain Avenue one lunch hour this week, looking for Upland Kebab, which was on my list of places to try. I didn’t see it this time, which means that either I missed it (both coming and going) or it’s gone. But Louie’s, a little farther north, was my second choice and that’s where I ended up.

Louie’s opened last year next to a FedEx store on the southeast corner of Mountain and Foothill. (Anyone remember what was in the Louie’s space before? La Salsa comes to mind.) I learned about the restaurant from a Business story we ran last year. Owner Louie Camacho previously owned Yahoo Chicken and Louie’s Chicken Cafe, both in Chino.

You order at the counter. They have rotisserie chicken ($9.95 each to go), grilled seafood, fish tacos, wraps and salads. All in all, a slightly different concept.

I got catfish, blackened, with brown rice and cole slaw as my sides ($8.49). Blackened is so often done poorly that it’s gotten a bad name, but this version didn’t overdo it. The slaw was moist and pleasantly crunchy.

Louie’s also has trout, tilapia, white roughy, Atlantic salmon, mahi-mahi, halibut and jumbo shrimp, ranging from $7.49 to $13.95. Obviously this is not fine dining, especially with the minimal decor and fast-food seating, but the menu is a nice change from the norm. There’s a patio with umbrella-shaded tables that looks like a relaxing spot — although not on a day when it’s not 95, as it was when I visited.

Louie’s, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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Restaurant of the Week: Everest Drive-In

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This week’s restaurant: Everest Drive-In, 430 N. Central Ave. (at Arrow Route), Upland.

Emulating its namesake, Everest rises majestically along a quiet stretch of Central near Montclair, next door to a vacant lot.

It’s another of those burger palaces that has a zillion items on the menu, sort of the spiritual opposite of In-N-Out: not only a dozen styles of hamburger but pastrami and other kinds of sandwiches, basic Mexican items, salads, breakfasts, even an “old fashioned Sloppy Joe” ($2.99).

I had a burger combo there a while back with fries and a soda ($5.49). The char-broiled patty is topped with Thousand Island, lettuce, tomato and red onion. Good stuff. The fries aren’t bad. One nice touch: Ketchup is on the tables in glass bottles. The restaurant interior, however, is bland, beige and uninspiring.

Not having had a chance to write about Everest at the time, I returned recently for two more meals. I got the Mediterranean chicken sandwich, again as a combo ($8.58); it comes on a wheat bun, with red and green peppers and feta cheese. A for effort, although the sandwich was better conceptually than as a physical object. Oh well. A week later, an a la carte BLT ($4.19) hit the spot for dinner.

There are other Everest locations in Altadena and La Crescenta. But if you’re going to explore Everest, why travel farther than Upland?

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Restaurant of the Week: Connal’s

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This week’s restaurant: Connal’s, 1226 W. 7th St. (at Mountain), Upland.

Connal’s, which opened Dec. 11, took over the building that housed Mi Taco, a beloved Mexican drive-thru, from 1966 until early 2007. Readers reacted with shock and horror when I broke the news of its passing. I had no idea. When a reader passed along the recipe for the signature dish, the Matador Salad, clipped and saved from an old Daily Report food page, nearly 200 people wrote me requesting a copy.

Connal’s is an interesting story itself, which I will share in Sunday’s column. In brief, it was founded in 1958 in Pasadena and the Upland location is the first expansion in its 50-year existence.

The menu is enormous for a drive-thru burger joint, highlighted by burgers, grinders (or subs, if you prefer), salads, Mexican dishes, hot sandwiches, dinner plates, hot dogs and ice cream. They have flavored sodas, floats, freezes and shakes, including specialty flavors such as pineapple-banana and chocolate-peanut butter. I count 204 items in all.

I went in for lunch during Monday’s downpour. The counterwoman was exceptionally polite; this wasn’t the robotic service one tends to get. I had a tuna melt ($4.39), onion rings ($2.99) and small drink ($1.29).

It was a decent tuna melt, wrapped in paper and cut in half. The onion rings came on a plate, piled high. I ate probably a dozen, which to me is more than enough onion rings for any normal person, and then counted how many I was throwing out: 14.

Last year, I tried the Connal’s in Pasadena and had a burger and fries. The serving of fries was similarly generous, and again, at least half went in the trash. Tip: One serving of fries or onion rings would serve two people, or even three or four.

The Upland interior is white tile, with red accents; it’s vaguely In-N-Outish, except the twin archways separating the counter from the small seating area — six booths, five tables — remain, charmingly, from the Mi Taco days. There’s some nostalgia kitsch on the walls. The exterior is now painted white, and cleaned up, but Connal’s still looks a lot like Mi Taco. Which itself looked like a Taco Bell, even though it wasn’t.

Nice to have a bit of Pasadena out in Upland.

You can view the menu on the Connal’s website.

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Restaurant of the Week: Upland German Delicatessen

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Pictured: A chicken schnitzel sandwich and German potato salad.

Upland German Delicatessen, 983 W. Foothill Blvd. (at Mulberry), Upland

Underneath Upland’s bland exterior lies, let’s be frank, a bland interior. But between the exterior and the interior lies a strata of fascination. Among the denizens of that realm is what I believe to be the Inland Valley’s sole German restaurant.

It’s one of those quiet gems, tucked away in a dull strip mall behind a Taco Bell and near the Hi Brow bar. For some reason I’d never been there before, a lack I remedied on Monday.

Inside, the deli offers a homey environment. There’s a small seating area with glass-topped tables, German postcards visible from under the glass; and a few shelves of market goods, including imported foods, especially chocolates, and Advent calendars. Cheerful German oompah music played softly. A wall was covered in decorative pieces of wood in which mottos were burned in script. The largest read: “Tough times never last, but tough people do!” A good message right now.

At the counter I ordered one of the combo lunch specials, the Stuttgart sandwich (Black Forest ham, mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomato and onion) on rye, with German potato salad, a pickle and an iced tea ($9.15 with tax). The meal came on a sectioned plate with real silverware. Excellent sandwich. I hadn’t had German potato salad: It’s finely chopped baked potato, piping hot, mixed with mustard. Interesting, but not my new favorite dish. I almost never eat more than a bite of a pickle but polished this sweet one off.

They also have wienerschnitzel, bratwurst, braunschweiger and other German foods, and they make baked goods such as tortes and strudels. A server brought by samples of plum torte for customers. It was a topper to a memorable, filling meal.

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Restaurant/Car Wash of the Week: EZ Take Out

This week’s restaurant/car wash: EZ Take Out Burger/EZ Car Wash, 515 N. Mountain Ave. (at Arrow Highway), Upland.

I suspect this will be a one-week-only permutation of my Restaurant of the Week feature. But why not do a knockoff of myself? EZ Take Out is a transparent copy of In N Out. Yet two of its three Inland Valley locations set themselves apart from any other restaurant you can likely think of by pairing themselves with a car wash.

You can walk up to the window, get a meal and eat at a patio table. You can go through the drive-thru for a meal. Or you can pull into a car wash bay just feet away, drop quarters into the slot and set to work with the wand and the foaming brush. Be careful not to spray the people on the patio!

For the novelty of it, I went in on Sunday, washed my car ($2.50), then parked in the sun and got the Double Take Combo ($6.45 with tax). The Double Take is a double burger with cheese, lettuce, tomato and, if you like, onions. The combo gives you thin-cut fries and a medium soda.

I liked the burger, a gooey, greasy version that came wrapped in paper (gee, that seems familiar), and the fries too. Also, the car wash was fine. The water sprayed automatically, without me having to squeeze the trigger, making EZ a good choice for carpal tunnel sufferers. The pink soap was a colorful touch.

The restaurant menu is simple: single and double burgers, a gardenburger and a chicken sandwich. They also have shakes, including the unusual flavor boysenberry. You can get your burger low-carb style, wrapped in lettuce. Or try it as a Wild Thing, which comes fried in mustard. I guess there’s no “secret menu” at EZ.

The car wash menu is likewise simple: tire cleaner, spray, foaming brush, rinse, wax. Oddly, you switch among them by pressing numbers on a silver keypad that looks exactly like one on a pay phone.

There are eight EZ Take Outs, seven in SoCal and one in Utah. The one at Foothill and Central in Upland, founded in 1969, was the first. The chain’s website is www.eztakeout.com.

Circa 1999, btw, I wrote a feature story for the Bulletin on odd combo businesses. One was a Pomona restaurant that serves burgers, donuts and Chinese food (it’s since added fried chicken). One was an Upland carpet store that sold golf clubs (now out of business, I believe). And the third was the Upland EZ Take Out with a car wash.

The franchise owner was pleasant enough but, even when goaded by questions like “Has there ever been a mixup between the two operations — like you made a milkshake with detergent?”, he assiduously avoided humorous comment.

Feel free to supply your own.

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Restaurant of the Week: Fratello’s Pizza and Pasta

This week’s restaurant: Fratello’s, 1667 N. Mountain Ave. (at 16th), Upland.

There aren’t many places to eat above 16th Street in Upland, which is probably how privacy-lovin’ homeowners up there like it. One of the few exceptions is Fratello’s, which is in the Stater Bros. center along with Rancho Los Magueyes, Happy Wok, Legends and the Bulldog Pub.

I first visited Fratello’s last week. It’s on the small side, just a few tables, a bar and an open kitchen, but the ambience is pleasant enough: golden paint, dark wood, comfortable seating and vintage wine posters. The insistent music may be a bit much.

I tried one of the $5.99 lunch specials: a cheese pizza slice, salad and soda. The salad was above average, aided by the vinaigrette dressing. The pizza was quite good. The crust was uncommonly light and chewy. Based on this slice, Fratello’s is now my second-favorite pizza in Upland (although I still need to try Petrilli’s).

On Thursday I went back for the pasta lunch special (also $5.99): a half-order of either spaghetti or penne, meat sauce or marinara, and a soda. I went for the penne with meat. Pasta is pasta, and hard to mess up, but the sauce was hearty.

So were the ’70s rock classics playing over the sound system: “Blinded By the Light,” “Rocket Man” and “Brown Sugar,” among others. Until the next table asked that the volume be turned down.

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