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: Oh Queso

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Oh Queso, 14270 Chino Hills Parkway (at Grand), Chino Hills; open daily

Chino Hills isn’t really a burger town, so I was doubly surprised when a foodie friend advised me that an excellent burger could be had in town at a Mexican restaurant. I ventured into the far western reaches of Chino Hills to find Oh Queso, located in the Stater Bros. center, around the point where the town peters out into scrubby hills.

Oh Queso looks like a chain but isn’t. It calls itself California Mexican Cuisine and has the usual array of tacos and burritos. They also have “gourmet burgers,” described on the menu as being made with “6 ounces of fresh ground chuck and brisket beef.”

I got the cheeseburger ($5.25) but with a fried egg ($1 extra) and as a combo with fries and soda, a total of $9.14 with tax. I’d never had an egg on my burger but my friend said it helps, and another friend swears by eggs too.

The fries were of the crunchy, double-fried variety, very good. A basket of house-made tortilla chips, also good. The burger? It was served on an egg bun, sturdy enough to hold up under the burger, cheese, egg, tomato, onion and sauce. The patty was thick, fresh and loosely packed. In sum, this burger was a magnificent thing, beefy and drippy.

They also sell pastrami burgers, bacon cheeseburgers and a green chili cheeseburger, or you can add sauteed mushrooms, an extra patty or extra cheese.┬áThe egg didn’t do much for me, but maybe I’ll acquire the taste. The guy at the next table got a pastrami burger, seemed impressed and took a menu home.

The restaurant interior is nothing to get excited about, although it’s pleasant enough, with tables and actual chairs, as well as a communal table with padded benches. You order at the counter and your food is brought to you. The service was friendly.

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Oh Queso’s cheeseburger is certainly a contender for best Inland Valley fast-food burger, possibly beating out the Habit, Five Guys, Fatburger and Rounds, and for the money it’s a better deal than sit-down burger champions Back Abbey and Eureka. I haven’t made a comprehensive survey, and note I said “contender,” but if there’s a better burger locally, somebody tell me where it is.

I don’t know when I’ll be driving that far out into western Chino Hills again, but if I do I now know a good place to eat there.

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Update September 2016: Actually, I’ve gone back twice. The burgers are worth it. I hear the carne asada fries are another winner.

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Restaurant of the Week: Slater’s 50/50

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Slater’s 50/50, 8009 Day Creek Blvd. (at Victoria Gardens Lane), Rancho Cucamonga

In proof the Inland Valley is getting hipper, or more accurately less unhip, Rancho Cucamonga is now home to the sixth location of a rising high-end burger chain. Slater’s signature ingredient is bacon, its 50/50 burger being half-bacon, half-beef, and they have 100 beers on tap.

Replacing Harry’s Pacific Grill, Slater’s opened July 1 and people discovered it quickly. A friend and I showed up at 6:30 p.m. for dinner midweek and the stated wait was 60 to 75 minutes. Thankfully there’s a Starbucks next door, which is likely to see booming business from people cooling their heels. They’ll text you when it’s your turn, and it was indeed 75 minutes before it was.

The interior is much as I remember it from the sedate Harry’s, heavy on the wood and with its own bar. They’ve added multiple TVs, all tuned to sports, albeit with the sound off, or at least overwhelmed by the classic rock blasting from the sound system and the dull roar from the couple of hundred people inside.

We had an appetizer platter ($6.45, below) of onion rings (a bit greasy, but okay) and sweet potato fries (very good) and two sandwiches ($9 each): a 50/50 for me (bottom), a veggie burger for my friend. Counter-style, you can fill out a slip to choose your patty, bun, cheese, condiments, etc. An indecisive fellow, I’d also rather leave the choices of what goes well together to the kitchen professionals, yet I decided to build my own this time.

The veggie burger was declared “pretty wonderful,” with actual vegetables (black beans, most notably) visible. “I would so get that again,” my friend said. The buns are especially good, the brioche and the honey wheat, being flavorful and substantial.

My 50/50 was fine, but as you’d expect a burger made half of bacon to be, saltier than a typical burger. By the end I was a little tired of it. It was gimmicky, although less so than the chain’s “burger of the month” for July, which is an all-bacon patty, topped with bacon, with bacon dressing, bacon cheese and bacon pretzel bun, plus a fried egg. Maybe they’ll sell you a pancake as a side.

I’m not sure I’d get the 50/50 again, but I would try something else, maybe one of the standard burgers where they’ve already made the choices, or one of the non-burger options. The desserts and milkshakes sound intriguing too. (I might have ordered a shake but the restaurant was chilly.)

Service was attentive, with multiple people checking on us multiple times. There was a glitch on the bill where they tried charging me 50 cents each for condiments that were supposed to be free, but the bill was corrected.

Worth trying to see what the fuss is about, but you might want to arrive at an off-hour. And it helps if you like Starbucks.

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Restaurant of the Week: Super Chili Burger

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Super Chili Burger, 6090 Riverside Drive (at Magnolia), Chino

I’d heard about this place from a reader’s tip and decided to head down to Chino for a long lunch hour to check ’em out. It’s a few blocks east of Central Avenue in a standard fast food building.

The menu has burgers, chili, tacos, burritos, fried chicken and gyros, plus eggs, omelettes and pancakes for breakfast. It’s one of those burger places where you can get almost anything and is popular with students from the nearby junior high and high school. Oh, and I noticed that besides the three standard milkshake flavors, they also have pineapple.

Of course I ordered the namesake chili burger, the quarter-pound size, with onions, lettuce and tomato, in a combo with fries and a Coke ($5.97 with tax). A customer hanging out at the counter, a public defender named Bill, recognized me, as did the counterman, Jimmy. Believe it or not, this generally happens everywhere but restaurants.

Well, courtesy of employees Jimmy Alexandris and his brother, Nick, two cheerful, gregarious guys, I soon had the history of the family-run restaurant, founded circa 1987 by their parents, both Greek emigres. The whole family pitches in to operate the place and has watched the city change.

As for the food, I’m not a chili burger aficionado so I can’t compare the Super Chili Burger version to the competition. I’ve been to Tommy’s twice and got heartburn both times, which never happens to me. I did not get heartburn from Super Chili Burger. To me, that’s a plus, but your personal belief system when it comes to chili may differ. In any event, my lunch wasn’t a knockout, but it was messy, gooey and satisfying.

If nothing else, you might go just to meet the family.

Update February 2017: Needing a quick dinner in Chino recently, I returned to Super Chili Burger and got a chili dog combo. Cheese and onions– why not? The bun collapsed partway through, but that was okay. It was a good, cheap meal. Special note: It was heartening to see a pile of two or three newspapers left by customers, available to be read.

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Restaurant of the Week: The Habit

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The Habit Burger Grill, 1608 Foothill Blvd. (at Chelsea), La Verne

The Habit opened recently in a standalone building in front of the remodeled Vons center near Wheeler and was busy pretty much from day one. There are two dozen Habits, which began in Goleta in 1969, but the nearest one is in Glendale.

The operation seems perched between Fuddruckers and In-N-Out with its emphasis on fresh, quality ingredients and its somewhat stylish interior. On Saturday, when I visited, the lunchtime line stretched to the door. The menu has charbroiled burgers, some tasty-sounding sandwiches including chicken, tri-tip and albacore tuna, and salads.

I got the No. 1 Char combo ($5.95), a single burger, fries and soda, and took a seat on the patio. My number was called on the loudspeaker in a few minutes. The fries were pretty good and the burger even better, charred to perfection and served on a toasted sesame seed bun with lettuce, tomato, mayo, pickle and, a nice touch, caramelized onions.

The staff was friendly, just like at In N Out. They’ll come take your tray or offer to fetch a soda refill.

The patio is the stroke of genius. Rather than an afterthought with one or two tables, theirs has 12, and the tables and chairs are wood, not molded plastic. Saturday was uncommonly warm, as it’s been all week. I sat outside in short sleeves for the first time in weeks, reading the centennial issue of Westways with its pieces on two SoCal icons, ’30s artist Maynard Dixon and writer Carey McWilliams, soaking up the weather and feeling mighty fine about living in Southern California.

This could become a habit.

* Update, February 2014: And indeed it has. I still eat at the Habit now and then. I should probably try more items on the menu, but the burgers and fries are really good.

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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/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: The Back Abbey

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Photo by John Valenzuela

The Back Abbey, 128 N. Oberlin Ave. (at 2nd), Claremont; closed Sundays

The Back Abbey opened in June 2008 behind the Laemmle theater in Claremont’s Village Expansion. The building, which dates to at least the 1920s, was an ice house that chilled citrus bound by rail for other states. The small, distinctive structure was saved when the Expansion was being planned and sat, window-less but full of promise, until early this year when renovations began.

Well, it’s a neat little building and the Belgian pub that occupies it is a great addition. A friend and I went in for dinner a few days ago. It has a lived-in look, dark and rustic. The metal rafters are exposed and the hanging lights look industrial. There are tables inside, and one long high table with bar-style chairs, good for individuals, plus seating outside.

The beer menu apparently doesn’t exist. The food menu is on a chalkboard posted high above the bar. It consists of salads, burgers and bratwursts. It’s upscale bar food.

I had the Back Abbey Burger (at $13, possibly the most expensive burger in the Inland Valley) and my friend had the Grilled Vegetable Burger ($11), a portabello mushroom with eggplant, feta cheese, zucchini, red bell peppers and another item or two I got tired of craning my neck to read off the menu. It proved far more interesting than a Gardenburger.

My burger came on a brioche bun and had mustard aioli, microgreens, caramelized onions and a type of bacon whose proper name I couldn’t read. Well, it was a heckuva burger and worth the $13, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t blanch at a double-digit burger.

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The presentation and price, not to mention the setting, invite comparisons to Father’s Office in Santa Monica and Culver City.

The half-order of fries I can recommend unreservedly. They come in a paper cone with three dipping sauces. The sauces are OK; the fries are amazing.

As for the beers, the Abbey has some 30 Belgian beers on tap. This is apparently A Big Deal in the beer community, Belgian beer being considered among the best and having it on tap being a rarity. There’s no beer list, annoyingly, so you may be hard-pressed to know what to get. My friend tried a couple and liked them. Beer doesn’t appeal to me and a sip of one didn’t change my mind.

But if you’re into it, Back Abbey is almost like a wine bar for beer. It’s very non-909 and Claremont’s lucky to have it. The clientele ranged from the 20s into the 60s that night, and it will be interesting to see this fall if Claremont Colleges students adopt the place and its $7 to $9 beers or whether it remains more of a beer snob/foodie hotspot.

About my only criticism is that it’s very LOUD. It’s not TVs, it’s not music, it’s just conversation that makes the interior almost as noisy as a nightclub. I don’t know if there’s anything to be done about it, other than timing your visit to off-hours.

You can read reviews on Yelp and on the M-M-M-My Pomona blog.

Update 2016: I go here two or three times a year and have yet to have a bad meal. At lunch on a weekday, it’s sedate, and there’s a nice outdoor seating area too.

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Restaurant of the Week: Terry’s Burgers

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Terry’s Burgers, 6709 Carnelian Ave. (at 19th), Rancho Cucamonga

Terry’s is the restaurant I was trying to find last week when I headed east on Base Line from Carnelian. Terry’s is actually along 19th Street just around the corner from Carnelian, in the shopping center with the new Korean supermarket, Market World. I had lunch there Thursday.

Inside, Terry’s looks like a sitdown restaurant (perhaps it once was?) with comfortable booths and hanging lamps. You order at the counter, they give you a number and bring the food out.

There’s an extensive menu, much like Legends and Jim’s, two other local burger-and-more joints. Besides the standard fare, they have hot sandwiches, salads and Mexican food. Dinner specials include roast beef, chicken fried steak, pork chops (all $6.96) and N.Y. steak ($7.50). Ambitious.

Going for the namesake item, I got the burger special ($5.55 with tax), a burger with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and Thousand Island dressing. It arrived in a basket atop a mound of fries. In my considered judgment, it was an above-average burger, at one of the valley’s classier burger restaurants.

I’m glad I kept looking for Terry’s.

* Update, January 2014: I returned to take photos. Terry’s seems much the same, and my burger combo was now $5.97 with tax, only a modest increase. There’s nothing special about the burgers, really, but they’re fine for fast food. I like the chalkboard menu. There’s a separate one for breakfast items. Looks like they’ve dropped NY steak and pork chops.

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Restaurant of the Week: Sammy’s Burger

This week’s restaurant is Sammy’s Burger (note lack of plural), 765 W. Holt Blvd. (at San Antonio), Ontario.

Sammy’s is a stone’s throw from Grinder Haven, which is an occasional stop for me, but I’d never tried Sammy’s. It’s in a long, narrow building on a long, narrow lot, fronted by an old-school sign reading “Burgers” (the top appears to have been removed) that is almost hidden by neighboring signs. Blink and you miss the place.

According to research by the Ontario Library’s Joanne Boyajian, 765 W. Holt, previously a home, in 1969 was reborn as Burger Lane Drive-In with “drive thru service and inside seating,” to quote the phone book. It was also the Burger Lane main office, with a second location at 1715 W. Holt in Pomona. By 1975, the name was Jerry’s Burgers; in 1980, it was A ‘n N Burgers; in 1990, it became Sammy’s, its name for the past 18 years.

It’s seen better days, but Sammy’s was moderately busy when I went in for lunch Friday. They have the usual array of burgers, a dozen hot sandwiches, plus burritos, teriyaki and basic breakfasts. I got the hamburger, fries and soda special, which was $4.09 with tax. My food was cooked fresh and delivered after five or 10 minutes.

The fries were crisp and better than average; I finished them, which is rare for me. The burger came on a soft bun with Thousand Island, lettuce, tomato, pickles and chopped onions. Tasty and filling.

The takeout menu brags “Best Burger in Town.” It’s a respectable hamburger and certainly a contender for the best in Ontario. A blog reader says Sammy’s has a good pastrami burger. The menu’s most expensive hamburger is the $4.25 Sammy Burger. I don’t know what it is, but it must be big, since it’s pricier than the double cheeseburger.

Sammy’s is Korean-owned and the back of the menu charmingly explains how to introduce yourself in Korean or speak several “useful expressions.” I’ll have to practice before I try “How are you doing?”: “Eo-Tteo-K’e-Ji-Nae-Sae-Yo?”

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