Restaurant of the Week: Popular Cafe

Popular Cafe, 9637 Central Ave. (at San Bernardino), Montclair; open daily 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For years I drove past the sign for Popular Cafe and chuckled at the immodest but charming name without ever really considering going in. Last spring a source who’s a regular suggested meeting there for a lunch interview. Well, why not?

After the bland exterior, the inside has some homey touches: a hutch behind the greeter station, kitchen-style cabinets visible in the kitchen. It’s family owned by a Chinese American couple, with the wife waiting tables and the husband cooking the food, at least on my visit.

Serving breakfast and lunch only, Popular Cafe has been around for some 25 years — see, it must be popular — starting off down the street and later relocating a few blocks north. The couple’s children, I’m told, used to help set tables when they were shorter than the tables. Awww.

I had the meatloaf sandwich ($7.29), which came with lettuce, tomato and mayo, and got slaw as my side. Not a lot of places have meatloaf sandwiches (sigh), and even fewer serve it as an actual sandwich rather than open-faced with gravy and mashed potatoes. But not only does Popular Cafe get points for trying, they get points for succeeding, as this was a solid version.

Three months later, I went back for another lunch. They’re known for omelets and pancakes and I believe serve breakfast all day. (Why not, when it’s essentially a two-person operation? There’s not a lot of red tape to cut through.) For lunch they have hot and cold sandwiches and some $7 lunch specials, including a few Chinese American dishes like kung pao chicken and egg foo young.

I got the mushroom swiss burger ($8), lured by the menu’s promise of a hand-formed patty. Indeed, it was a better than average burger. The bun, however, wasn’t quite up to the job of holding everything together. A sturdier bun is recommended.

So, this is a decent option for all-American food. My second lunch came on a slow day in which I was the only customer the whole hour. C’mon, people, it’s the Popular Cafe. Don’t make liars out of them.

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Restaurant of the Week: Pomona Valley Mining Company

Pomona Valley Mining Co., 1777 Gillette Road (at Dudley), Pomona; 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday

Perched atop a hillside above the 10 Freeway, Pomona Valley Mining Co. is a destination restaurant with a theme. At the bottom of the hill, a sign on a weathered-looking shack points you in the right direction.

That requires a heart-stopping drive up the hill, one that it might be possible to get used to, but which freaks me out the handful of times I’ve done it. (Too bad I don’t still have that F-150.) Once up there, though, you’re rewarded with views of Pomona, the freeway and Elephant Hill. A seat near the bank of windows is a must.

The exterior is meant to resemble a Gold Rush-era wooden building, and wagons, lanterns and other such items decorate the drive up, the parking lot and the interior. The dining room is down a flight of stairs.

I was there for dinner recently with bloggers Dining in Pomona (and wife Mrs. C) and New Diner 2. It was a blogging summit meeting. As with most summit meetings, progress was incremental and deals were elusive. The only photo ops were of food.

I had had dinner at the Mining Co. precisely once and remember only that my cheapskate friends were irate that they were charged for soda refills, which I believe were taken off the bill. At noontime it’s a rental facility and I’ve been to a couple of service club lunches there.

The menu is largely steaks, prime rib and seafood. Two of our party got the shrimp and scallops ($26), one got the ribeye ($32) and I got the Miner’s Filly filet mignon ($34). Salad and soup bar is free with a meal or $18 on its own; you get a chilled plate that resembles a mining pan, except you’re panning for veggies, not gold. I had a little of the albondigas soup, which had (ugh) peas.

Cheese bread was delivered gratis (and au gratin). What’s not to like?

The seafood crowd was perplexed that their shrimp and scallops came in a cream sauce rather than a garlic sauce. (The menu says they’re “sauteed with garlic butter,” after all.)

The ribeye eater was put out by its preparation; it should be cooked “hot and fast,” leaving a char on the outside, she said. Also, her lemonade ($3.50) was never refilled. But then, maybe they don’t do free refills? Still, they should ask if she wanted another. She said that’s typically the way women are treated when outnumbered by men at a table, but noted ominously, “I have just as much influence on the tip.”

I may have been the only satisfied customer, enjoying my splurge steak with herb butter and mushrooms. Overall, though, the salad and soup were unexciting, the service average to indifferent and the mining theme a little dated. Here are the takes of Dining in Pomona and New Diner 2.

So, as a holdover from the era of theme restaurants — it appears to have opened circa 1977 — Pomona Valley Mining Co. is an interesting curio. The food’s okay. But if you go, it will probably be more for the views.

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Restaurant of the Week: Cock-a-Doodle

Cock-a-Doodle, 12940 Central Ave. (at Riverside), Chino; open daily

This year Cock-a-Doodle, which opened in 1957, turns 60. I think it’s the second-oldest restaurant in Chino after Centro Basco down the street. It’s got a great name, with chicken and roosters a motif in the decor and the exterior window box. Devotees just call it The Doodle. Because you’re not going to shorten the name from the back end.

It’s in what’s left of downtown Chino, a wan business district. I’ve eaten there a couple of times over the years. In the last few months I’ve made a point of going back. Under the motto “family dining since 1957,” they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a menu of country fried steak, sandwiches, salads, prime rib and more.

For starters, I had lunch there with Al McCombs last fall. Lunch started with cabbage soup. It’s different, and I like it.

That was followed by the filet of sole ($12) with a side of steamed vegetables. Lunch on the lighter side.

I went back before a council meeting a few weeks later, but I wasn’t hungry enough for a meal, getting only a shrimp cocktail ($8). It was fine but not something to base a Restaurant of the Week post around.

Finally, I went back for a full lunch, armed with notes from a 2008 blog post here (concerning the vintage calendars on display; I’ve updated it with photos). In the comments section, an employee gave some insider details about the restaurant, including its (shades of In N Out!) secret menu, a few specialties that fell off the menu but which they’ll still make for you if you ask.

First I ordered an iced tea and they gave me a mini-pitcher. That’s not secret, that’s just unexpected.

Then I got the Tony’s Special: a chicken breast smothered with shrimp scampi, plus rice ($17). Great pairing. Soup or salad (I got the cabbage soup again) come with any entree, free.

For dessert, I ordered strawberry shortcake ($5.25), another secret item. It’s strawberry compote on warm biscuits with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. The server told me it was small, but it didn’t strike me that way. Apparently nobody has ordered either item in a while, but the server knew what they were, and the owner came over to ask how I knew about them. I felt like an insider.

Most of the activity whenever I’ve eaten there is in the dimly lit bar. The cheery dining room tends to be little occupied, or even empty, although I suspect it’s busy certain nights or for weekend breakfasts. Anyway, I like it better for reading purposes, and the high-backed booths are cool.

There’s nothing trendy about the Doodle, and nothing spectacular either, but the down-home food is pretty good, the service is friendly, the owners are local and the ambience is old Chino, a quality in shorter supply every year. If that sounds appealing, do the Doodle.

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Restaurant of the Week: Iron Skillet

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Iron Skillet, 805 N. Euclid Ave. (at H), Ontario; open daily, 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

One of Ontario’s most distinctive restaurants, the Iron Skillet dates to 1959 and was built in the Googie style, with a low-pitched roofline and expansive windows, not to mention an old-fashioned counter with swivel seats. Originally a Spires Squires, it’s been Iron Skillet, under various hands, since about 1980.

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After a period in the doldrums, it’s perked up in recent months under new owner. A reader advised me to give it another try, touting the freshly baked bread, pies and home-cooked food. So, after a long period away, I’ve gone in a couple of times for lunch.

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First visit I got a special, the BBQ brisket sandwich ($9), which was a mistake. I forgot that kind of sandwich is basically chipped beef. The fries were better than average, though.

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Next time I got the half-sandwich special ($11, I think), which came with two sides, from among a choice of soup, salad or pie. I got a tuna melt plus a Caesar salad and apple pie. (There were three flavors available.) It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I got pie, or that I opted for my baseline diner sandwich.

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This was a filling meal, and pretty good too: big salad, hearty sandwich even in a half-portion and, after a few minutes for everything to settle, a slice of pie. While the pie was along the lines of the type you get in a supermarket, i.e., not spectacular, it was pie in a diner, where the ambience improves the experience. I’m not sure why it was served with a spoon rather than a fork.

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Everything is homemade, including the pie and bread, my server told me. Breakfast is served all day, they’re open for dinner and, after 4:30 p.m., dinners come with ice cream on the house. Perhaps no other restaurant in Ontario can make that claim.

The menu has a variety of breakfast items, sandwiches and salads at lunch, and chicken, steak and seafood items for dinner (including, for those who find this appealing, liver and onions). Unexpected beverages include Italian sodas, Shirley Temple and Roy Rogers.

The Skillet is worth a fresh look if you like classic American diners. It’s nice to see them trying again.

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Update August 2016: I’ve gone back a few times, including twice for breakfast, getting the cinnamon french toast (oh, that home-baked bread) and hash and eggs, both superior. An early bird dinner (for me it was a late lunch) of prime rib wasn’t bad either, and if memory serves, around $10. And it came with ice cream.

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Restaurant of the Week: Septembers

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Septembers Taproom and Eatery, 6321 Haven Ave. (at Lemon), Rancho Cucamonga

In the old McAlan’s Pub building in the Trader Joe’s and Vons centers, Septembers is a welcome gastropub with local brews and better than average food, concentrating on classic American sandwiches.

Reader Dave Paniagua, who had earlier drawn my attention to Ontario’s Corner Deli, alerted me to Septembers, and since I’m now a regular at Corner Deli, I took his tip seriously.

Septembers is quiet on a lunch hour, with a few people around the bar and only a few diners. They have beer and wine, plus some cocktails. The interior is pleasantly industrial, with high-top and regular tables under an exposed ceiling, distressed wood walls and corrugated steel accents.

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Virtually everything on the menu was potentially of interest to me.

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Well, not nachos, but you get the idea. It’s a a well-designed menu, too, isn’t it?

They have several set lunch specials, all for $8. First time I got one of those, a grilled chicken sandwich with fries. It was good enough that I returned the next week to order off the regular menu. I got a sloppy joe — how often do you see that on a menu? — that was made with chuck and brisket on a long roll ($14, first photo below). An excellent version of the old-school classic. The criss-cut fries, with your choice of seasoning (I got sea salt and vinegar), were addictive.

Next visit I got a shrimp po’boy ($14, second photo below). Served open face, it was overstuffed and strictly knife and fork. Good, yet maybe too much of a good thing. The side of mac and cheese was excellent.

I’ve gone back three times since, making this one of the best-researched Restaurant of the Week posts ever. The Italian panini melt ($14) was a little boring and so big I couldn’t finish it even if I’d wanted to. The classic burger ($11, third photo below) with onion rings was very good; two onion rings don’t sound like much, but they were very large. That time I finally had room for dessert, getting the apple crisp a la mode ($5, bottom); as you can see, they didn’t skimp on the ice cream. And most recently, the fish and chips ($12) were meaty.

I’m not a drinker, so in that sense this may be the most poorly researched Restaurant of the Week ever, but I can tell you they have local brews such as Dale Brothers and Hangar 24. Margaritas are $3 on Mondays, wines are $3 on Wednesdays and you can get a $6 sampler paddle of beers on Thursdays.

If no dish has wowed me, everything has been solid, and my impression of the place is positive. I appreciate that the chefs are using quality ingredients and raising everything up a notch. A sandwich and an iced tea will set you back about $20 with tax and tip. If you can splurge a little, it’s worth it.

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Restaurant of the Week: Guasti Homestyle Cafe

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Guasti Homestyle Cafe, 13526 Central Ave. (at H), Chino

Some of you may remember when the Homestyle Cafe was in Guasti, the old winery village near Ontario Airport, and was beloved by truckers and families alike who liked the big portions and homey atmosphere. After its demise, the similar Guasti Cafe opened on the site under different owners before having to move in 2007 due to pending redevelopment.

Now using both names, the cafe is 7 miles southwest in Chino, in a former pizza parlor with a sprawling layout, stone lions out front and a small chapel in back. The masonry building dates to 1923.

I don’t know how many customers made the move, but on a recent visit, I recognized several employees from the previous location, including the longtime cashier and a couple of the servers. The manager is Tommy Hornbake, formerly of Ontario’s Iron Skillet.

The menu is pretty similar to the old place, emphasizing breakfast staples but also adding soups, salads and sandwiches for lunch; weekday hours are 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and until 3 p.m. on weekends.

I’ve never been there for lunch but I’ve made it in for breakfast a couple of times. The pancake combo ($9) provides two pancakes, two sausages or bacon strips and two eggs. The eggs and sausage were fine; the pancakes are a foot in diameter and nearly an inch high in the center. I’m not a “big food” fan, but if you are, this is the meal for you.

They’ll give you a pizza box in which to take home your uneaten pancake portion. That’s my kitchen counter and takehome pancake-and-a-half at left. Plop the pancake on a plate, put a paper towel on top and zap it for 45 seconds or so. I got five meals (!) out of this one order: one in the restaurant and four at home. Not bad for the money, although I didn’t feel like eating a pancake again for a couple of weeks.

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Restaurant of the Week: Nancy May’s ’50s Cafe

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Nancy’s Cafe, 9759 Arrow Route (at Archibald), Rancho Cucamonga

One of my favorite breakfast spots, Nancy’s opened in 1994, faltered a couple of years ago due to a divorce and returned as good as ever in April 2009, the namesake Nancy back at the helm. It’s open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. seven days.

The strip center behind a Jack in the Box doesn’t look like much, but Nancy’s is a cozy place, cheery in both decor and service. Nancy’s collection of pig-themed objects, some large, some tiny, are placed subtly throughout the restaurant. 1950s music plays constantly and employees occasionally sing.

For breakfast, Nancy’s has all the standards. The pancakes are especially good. On a recent visit I got the two-egg breakfast with sausage, country potatoes and biscuits ($6.95). A very good meal, and the sausage is among the best I’ve had, plump and meaty.

I’d never had lunch at Nancy’s, though, so I went in on Wednesday to try it out. Lunch is strictly burgers, sandwiches and salads. I got the turbo turkey melt ($8.95), which came on sourdough. My choice of sides was cole slaw, a decent version. The sandwich was filling and tasty; there’s an attention to quality here. A tiny cup of jello was on the side.

Half a chocolate cake was perched on a domed pedestal on the counter a few feet away, but I managed to resist. In fact, my meal was so filling, I didn’t even eat dinner. Thanks, Nancy’s.

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Restaurant of the Week: Joanne’s Cafe

This week’s restaurant: Joanne’s Cafe, 1141 N. Mountain Ave. (at Princeton), Ontario.

Joanne’s is in an A-frame building on Mountain near Fourth Street and was most recently Home Kitchen. Longtime residents will recall it as the Pie Place. *

I ate there months ago, without reviewing it, when it was still Home Kitchen, and on Friday thought I’d give it a try under the new name. The place seems virtually the same.

Inside it’s a moderately-sized open room, somewhat updated from the classic coffee shop — there are chairs at the counter, for instance, not swivel seats, and carpeting rather than tile — and with a lot of pink, green and orange. Cheery and colorful. I didn’t notice the fish tank until on my way out.

The prices seem reasonable to me. You can get a meatloaf dinner (the menu’s come-on: “Mom’s old recipe will find a new friend in you!”) with vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy, garlic toast and soup or salad for a mere $6.99. The five “senior breakfast” specials (“value-priced for seniors 55 and up”) are priced under $4.

If you want dinner, you’d better have it for lunch: Hours are 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., seven days.

I had a tuna melt ($5.99), with cole slaw rather than fries or fruit. Big and piled thick, on sourdough with cheddar, the sandwich was pretty good. The slaw, kind of tasteless. The server kept the ice tea coming. Overall, an unexciting but pleasant enough experience.

Disappointing, though, that the onetime Pie Place * is now pie-less. But if you need to indulge, there’s a Baskin Robbins next door.

* By acclimation (see all the comments), this was actually an outpost of the House of Pies chain, not The Pie Place. Thanks for the correction.

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Restaurant of the Week: Brandon’s Diner

This week’s restaurant: Brandon’s Diner, 8689 Base Line Road (at Carnelian), Rancho Cucamonga; also 870 E. Foothill (at Campus), Upland, and 10271 Magnolia, Riverside.

Brandon’s is a hugely popular breakfast spot, and maybe lunch and dinner spot too. For whatever reason I’d never been there. An online review at the Dinerwood site (an LA guy, he’s also reviewed BC Cafe) caught my eye a while back, so last Saturday, a friend and I went in for breakfast to the Rancho location in the Sunrize Center. Even at 10:30 there were five small groups waiting for a booth, but the wait wasn’t long.

Inside, Brandon’s is surprisingly old-school: tile floor, booths, a long counter with swivel seats and signs with regular daily specials. The kitchen is in the back, not behind the counter. They have the full complement of breakfast items as well as sandwiches, Mexican food and dinner plates, plus beer and wine.

I had the half French toast combo with two eggs and two sausages ($7.45); my friend had Polish sausage, two eggs, home fries and two French toast halves ($7.95).

The French toast was very good, thick and dusted with powdered sugar. They also have a French toast variety with the name Cinnamon Revolution, which seems to promise a spice insurrection in your mouth. (“Vive le Cinnamon Revolution!”)

The sausage links were plump, some of the best I’ve had. However, my over-medium eggs arrived over-easy.

My friend’s Polish sausage, split and grilled, was tasty, and the scrambled eggs very nice when flavored with the two (!) kinds of salsa brought to the table. However, she described her watery coffee as perhaps the worst she’s ever tasted. “This is like gas station coffee,” she said, before quickly deciding that even gas station joe is better.

So Brandon’s isn’t perfect. That said, we enjoyed our meal and the atmosphere, and also the people-watching.

The clientele was diverse — whites, blacks, Latinos — and included a Goth couple, the woman in white gloves, the man in Kiss-style platform boots, striped pants and a belt buckle that read “666.” Goths tend not to smile so it was hard to tell if they were enjoying themselves. They certainly livened the place up for everyone else.

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Restaurant of the Week: Richie’s Diner

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Richie’s Diner, 8039 Monet Ave. (at Victoria Gardens Lane), Victoria Gardens, Rancho Cucamonga

I’m familiar with the Richie’s in Victorville, an occasional lunch stop when I lived and worked there in the mid-1990s. That one, if memory serves, had a virtually all-white interior and was fairly utilitarian. The food was OK but nothing exciting. The VG one is more a modern take on a diner, outfitted in browns and gray, with comfortable booths and classier touches. It’s a little disconcerting to see a wall niche with bottles of wine not far from a lineup of classic bottled sodas and emblems of old-school gas station pumps, but it mostly works.

I ordered the California tuna melt ($8.95) on sourdough with slaw as my side and a Pepsi with vanilla flavoring ($2.19), which came in a metal cup. A tuna melt is my baseline sandwich. This one really was a melt — sometimes the cheese isn’t melted at all — and was one of the better examples I’ve had. It came with avocado, probably a treat for most people, but to be honest, I’ve never really liked avocado. The slaw was good too.

All in all, Richie’s beat expectations.

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