Restaurant of the Week: Gus’s BBQ

Gus’s BBQ, 500 W. 1st St. (at Oberlin), Claremont; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. except until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 p.m. Sundays

The Claremont Packing House got a fresh jolt of excitement when ailing standby Casablanca was replaced by the South Pasadena barbecue outpost Gus’s BBQ. Gus’s has been around since 1946 on Fair Oaks Avenue but became more of a diner until new owners took over in 2007, re-emphasizing smoked meats and boosting business.

I’d seen Gus’s neon blade sign many times and had always meant to check them out, but my only taste of the food was when they catered a friend’s wedding a year ago (deliciously). It was neat to see them come to Claremont for their second location. We don’t often get that kind of attention.

The place has been busy since its late June opening. The interior is medium-sized, with a full bar specializing in whisky, and then there’s the wraparound patio, which also has inward-facing seating to the bar. The corrugated tin of the Packing House and the neon Gus’s sign make the fit seem natural.

They sell sandwiches, burgers, salads, barbecue entrees and Southern specialties. The barbecue is, literally, all over the map, as they have Memphis baby back ribs, St. Louis spare ribs, Texas beef brisket and Carolina pulled pork.

I’ve been there twice for solo lunches, both in the middle of a weekend afternoon, and both times the restaurant had a fair number of other off-hour customers.

The first time I had a pulled pork sandwich ($13) with sweet potato fries as my side. Served with cole slaw on top, and on a light ciabatta roll, the pork was full of flavor, assisted by a bit of mustardy Carolina BBQ sauce from the selection at the table. I couldn’t have asked for a tastier pulled pork sandwich.

A week later, I returned to try ribs. They were busy enough that they sat me at the bar, which was empty but which soon filled up. I had the half-rack of St. Louis ribs ($23), with braised southern greens and mac n’ cheese as my sides.

A half-rack amounted to seven bones, with tender pork that came off the bone easily. The greens were leafier than is usual, the mac lightly cheesed and with bread crumbs on top. While a full rack of ribs is $5 more, the half-rack was plenty for one person.

This is genteel barbecue in polite, hipsterish surroundings. We might prefer the downhome funk and friendliness of, say, J&J in Pomona or Bigg Dane and Beale’s in Fontana, but Gus’s food is excellent.

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Restaurant of the Week: Burger Bar

Burger Bar, 665 E. Foothill Blvd. (at Claremont Blvd.), Claremont; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday to Sunday; closed Monday

When the Meat Cellar moved a few blocks west to the old Wolfe’s Market, the former location was turned into Burger Bar under the same ownership. I wrote about Meat Cellar last week and may as well round things out by giving the same treatment to Burger Bar.

It’s been upgraded a bit, with a bar (obviously you need a bar at a place named Burger Bar) and local beers from No Clue, Last Name and nearby Claremont Craft Ales as well as red and white wines. The seating is a little better too, and there’s table service rather than ordering at the register.

The new Meat Cellar has an expanded menu. Burger Bar is more like the old Meat Cellar menu: sandwiches, burgers and a few entrees, like steak frites. Basically, my favorites are still served here in this quieter, more low-key (no valet parking, at least) restaurant. And there are some new items too.

On my first visit, I had one of those new items, the turkey burger ($15). This was not what I had expected, frankly, being more like the “chicken burger” you sometimes see on a menu; this was a tightly packed disk of turkey rather than ground turkey that would closely resemble a hamburger in looks and flavor. The crispy onion straws helped relieve its monotony, but I would recommend they drop it from the menu.

As that’s not how I wanted this Restaurant of the Week to go, I decided to return before writing something.

On my second visit I got a hamburger — in this case, splurging for the Wagyu ($18). This was more like it.

On the other hand, the guy at the table behind me complained about his burger being undercooked and said he had a Cordon Bleu degree. Compounding its evident flub, the kitchen made him the wrong burger for his replacement sandwich, for which management apologized and comped him. (I’ve had days like that too.)

I’m pretty sure I’ll return to Burger Bar, but a little less enthusiastically than expected. They may have a few kinks to work out yet.

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Restaurant of the Week: Meat Cellar

Meat Cellar, 160 W. Foothill Blvd. (at Harvard), Claremont; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Meat Cellar was already the subject of a Restaurant of the Week post, in 2016, only now it’s moved a few blocks west to the old Wolfe’s Market, and the old location has become a Meat Cellar-owned spinoff, Burger Bar. So it seems best to start over.

The new Meat Cellar is probably triple the size, a full-service restaurant with a full bar, an open kitchen and, as before, a meat case like a butcher. That in a way serves as a nod to the space’s century as a grocery until its demise in 2017 (although the back part of the building continues as Wolfe’s Kitchen and Deli). There are two dining areas, one near the bar and the other near the kitchen.

I went in for a weekday lunch recently on a day off. Here’s the new menu; click for a larger view. (I’m glad I took a photo, as Meat Cellar currently has no website and its Facebook page hasn’t been updated since July 2017.)

The menu is greatly expanded from the original location; it’s still got the sandwiches, steak frites and other items from before, but now there’s salads, appetizers, desserts, more small plates and far more seafood.

They brought out a piece of cornbread, which was tasty, and a dollop of butter almost the size of the cornbread, which went unused.

I ordered the farmers market salad, a new item, with chicken ($13 + $5).

It’s got strawberries, currants, romaine, feta and more, plus balsamic vinaigrette. I liked it: It felt like a meal, with chicken and strawberries in nearly every bite.

The interior is rustic, with exposed rafters and ductwork, a skylight and wooden slat tables. Service was low-key and professional.

The new Meat Cellar, which opened earlier this year, was a hit immediately; drive past any evening and you’ll see plenty of diners inside through the large windows. Due to the small parking lot, Meat Cellar has valet parking, possibly the only restaurant to offer this in the Inland Valley, and you’ll see cars parked on the streets around the neighborhood for two or three blocks. It’s a more intense use than Foothill or the primarily residential neighborhood is used to, for sure. But it’s a good use of the space and a great addition to the local dining scene. Congratulations to them.

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Restaurant of the Week: 85 Degrees C Bakery Cafe, Claremont

85 Degrees C Bakery Cafe, 428 Auto Center Drive (at Indian Hill), Claremont; open daily

I’ve been to the Chinese bakery chain 85 Degrees (Celsius) in Chino Hills a few times, which will tell you I like it. One opened up in Claremont last fall, in the Super King center.

Even though I live in Claremont, my lone visit so far was not on my way to work or on a weekend but rather for a workday meal. I was headed to an interview in Claremont at 4 p.m. one day from our Rancho Cucamonga office and needed a quick lunch. It occurred to me that 85 Degrees was right off the freeway and wouldn’t take long.

It’s in a space in the middle of the center that previously housed a couple of Mediterranean restaurants in succession. I was skeptical of how this would work, given that the Chino Hills space is probably four times larger, and with a patio. But the selection of serve-yourself items is about the same size as in Chino Hills. There’s no cake display and far less seating.

I grabbed a tray and tongs and picked up, in clockwise order below, a wheat mushroom roll ($1.65), apple danish ($1.80), pork sung bun ($1.80) and spinach danish ($2), plus a sea salt jasmine tea ($3, not pictured because it arrived after I started eating), paid and took the lone table available. I felt bad taking a table for four, but it was that or eat standing up, and besides, I wasn’t there long.

As always, I liked my items, with the wheat mushroom roll my favorite and the pork sung bun the least. If there were more seating, I would visit more often.

An 85 Degrees opened in December in Rancho Cucamonga. Suddenly, they’re everywhere!

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Restaurant of the Week: Elvira’s Mexican Grill, Claremont

Elvira’s Mexican Grill, 415 W. Foothill Blvd. (at Indian Hill), Claremont

Elvira’s, which has become a popular spot in Upland, opened a second location this year in Claremont in the Old School House complex. A friend and I checked it out recently for lunch. (It’s pronounced “El-veer-uh,” btw.)

I’m a fan of the one in Upland and had been to Claremont’s for a take-out order of flan for an office farewell party. That gave me a couple of minutes to admire the decor. It may be the most upscale Mexican restaurant in the area, with Gloria’s in downtown Ontario in the running. Except the food at Elvira’s is superior.

The main dining room has a soaring ceiling, exposed wood beams, two chandeliers, original paintings and niches to display pottery. Even the hallway to the restrooms has art. There’s a bar area and an expansive patio.

The Old School House is the former Claremont High School. The restaurant is the former library, sans enormous drapes, according to my friend, an alumnus. He says the first restaurant was Casa Ramon, followed by Don Salsa and Casa de Salsa, which vacated in 2014. As the space was renovated, some great exterior features such as statuary over the entrance and education-themed panels on the outside wall were revealed and incorporated.

Since I’ve talked up the food at the Upland location, I’m saying less about that here. It’s a nice sit-down spot. My friend got the enchiladas suizas and I had the chile verde burrito (each $13.50). “They were really excellent,” my friend said when done, also praising the guacamole. If you get an order of guacamole, they make it tableside.

I enjoyed my burrito. Now, I could have had a burrito of comparable quality for under half the price at a beat-up, quick-serve place and been perfectly happy, but you’re paying for service and ambience. Service was friendly and attentive, and the ambience couldn’t be beat. Also, the salsa was really good.

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Restaurant of the Week: Bert and Rocky’s Cream Co.

Bert and Rocky’s Cream Co., 242 Yale Ave. (at Bonita), Claremont; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Ice cream and candy shop Bert and Rocky’s started in Upland in 1989 and expanded to Claremont in 1998; the Upland location, by the high school, has closed, leaving the Claremont shop as the mainstay.

It’s a popular spot with a lot of foot traffic, great homemade ice cream and a community-oriented outlook with school fund-raisers and the like.

I’ve gone to Bert and Rocky’s since its Village location opened — not frequently, but probably once a year. It wasn’t until meeting a friend there during October’s heat wave that it occurred to me to make it a Restaurant of the Week.

They’ve got a couple dozen ice cream flavors, plus sorbet and other non-dairy permutations, at any given time, available as cones (their waffle cones are housemade), dishes, sundaes, banana splits, freezes and milkshakes.

I went for Butterfingers and cream in my go-to size, junior scoop ($3.45). Seems plenty big to me.

Bert and Rocky’s also has fudge, bark, caramel apples, chocolate-dipped items, scooped candy and nostalgic packaged candy like Necco wafers. There are a few tables, a bar, some outdoor chairs and, on most afternoons, a crush of customers — but also a friendly and patient staff.

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Restaurant of the Week: Grizzly’s Biscuits and Donuts

Grizzly’s Biscuits and Donuts, 353 W. Bonita Ave. (at Indian Hill), Claremont; open daily 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

It’s the first place in the Village to sell fresh doughnuts (newspapers’ preferred spelling, btw) in this century. Grizzly’s opened in April and was an immediate hit, because: doughnuts. Also because: good doughnuts.

It’s from the team that brought us Pappas Artisanal in La Verne, one of the area’s better dining options. Grizzly’s sells small-batch doughnuts, about six styles per day, from $2 to $3.50, plus biscuit sandwiches from $7 to $9. They use choice ingredients, some of them locally sourced, like Chino eggs, and good for them.

Doughnuts first: I’ve had the glazed, chocolate raised, vanilla crumb, raspberry Nutella, apple fritter and strawberry rhubarb fritter. They got off to a good start with me because the glazed was still warm. There is nothing like a warm doughnut, when the icing is still gooey. Grizzly’s doughnuts are less sweet than we’re used to, but they have more flavor. The only one of the above I wouldn’t get again is the vanilla crumb; the crumbs largely fell off onto the bag as I ate.

Now, biscuits? An unexpected concept — do people go out for biscuits? — but in sandwich form, these are worth trying. I’ve had the Harper (cheddar, sunny side egg, roasted onions, garlic aioli) and the Baseline (bacon, cheddar, sunny side egg, roasted onions, garlic aioli, pictured below), both of which were very good as well as filling, the sort of breakfast that keeps you going past lunchtime. Plain biscuits are $2 each.

An editor here got the Le Monde (egg whites, mushrooms, roasted onions, spinach, swiss cheese, chickpea garlic sauce) and was both wowed and relieved our office isn’t next door.

That said, one Claremont loyalist put off by the pricing told me she’d rather get one of Some Crust’s famous egg sliders for a couple of bucks less, and if you just want a dozen doughnuts for the office, you might be better off going to Yum Yum for a wider variety at a cheaper price. (Or to Cake Among Us in Rancho Cucamonga.) But if you’re the foodie type, Grizzly’s is the best spot this side of Glendora’s Donut Man.

There’s limited seating. Also, you may find a line out the door, especially after my colleague Liset Marquez’s feature story on the business a few days ago, but don’t be deterred: Because the doughnuts are displayed right inside the door, any time there’s more than, say, three customers, one of them will be outside. Good marketing.

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Restaurant of the Week: The Upper House

The Upper House, 352 S. Indian Hill Blvd. (at Arrow), Claremont; open daily until 11 p.m.

Located in Peppertree Square, the center most of us visit only for the Peruvian restaurant Kykiryki, the Upper House opened in January, replacing Royal Panda, which by all accounts (I never ate there) was your typical quick-serve Chinese restaurant.

The Upper House, by contrast, is a sit-down spot, and it serves real Chinese food. I met some friends there for lunch on a recent Saturday.

Inside it’s all blond wood, light and airy, and the service was exceptionally friendly. The menu is long, typical for a Chinese restaurant, but not absurdly so. In an unusual touch, the lunch menu ($8 to $10) is good seven days a week. But we ordered off the regular menu: cumin lamb ($14), pineapple chicken ($10, below), combination noodle soup ($10) and vegetable lo mein ($8).

We all liked our food; one, in fact, even liked the water: “This water is so good. Write it down.” [I dutifully complied.] “It’s got jasmine in it.” [Note: Water not pictured.]

Speaking of his soup, one declared fulsomely: “It was a delightful combination of flavors and textures.” Once that was out of the way, he said: “It was really good.”

A second said of the chicken: “Mine was also delicious.” Chiming in about her lo mein, the third said: “Ibid.” (Yes, she really said “ibid.” The water must have gotten to her.)

I got the cumin lamb, a dish I’ve had at a couple of other restaurants, one in Chino Hills, the other in Alhambra, and this version was their equal. By my standards, then, the Upper House is among the handful of authentic Chinese restaurants in the Claremont-Pomona-La Verne area.

(That said, while the menu avoids orange chicken and cream cheese wontons, it does, confusingly, have a section labeled egg foo young, another, dated signifier of Americanized food, But who knows, maybe they put their own spin on it.)

As for the name the Upper House, we asked and were told it doesn’t really mean anything. But it’s more interesting than the generic Royal Panda.

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Restaurant of the Week: Dr. Grubb’s

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Dr. Grubb’s, 353 W. Bonita Ave. (at Indian Hill), Claremont; closed Sundays

Dr. Grubb’s opened in the Village in the mid-’00s, taking a spot that had been occupied by a short-lived empanada restaurant that I really liked. Grubb’s, a healthy option where you pick a “protein,” a sauce and a side, didn’t wow me on my one and only visit, pre-blog, and in fact struck me as slightly weird and unsatisfying. Did I want a foam plate with chicken, couscous and a sauce, to be consumed with a plastic knife and fork, for a couple of dollars more than I wanted to pay? I didn’t.

But Dr. Grubb’s has hung in there and became a favorite with the college crowd, and it recently moved into larger quarters two doors west, the former Salad Farm space. Some friends and I gave it a chance for lunch on a warm afternoon recently.

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The interior is impressive, with a long, polished bar at which you can eat taking up most of the length of the storefront. There’s some regular seating too, and patio seating as well.

The menu is larger, but it’s still a protein, sauce and side operation. (They also have four beers on draft.) Proteins include salmon, shrimp, tofu, chicken and steak, with one-side combos ranging from $10 to $14. The idea of selecting a protein, which was an eye-roller for me originally, seems mainstream in the Chipotle era, by the way. We ordered and adjourned to the patio.

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Whereas Dr. Grubb’s had at first seemed somewhat provisional, now they give out plates and actual silverware. I liked my salmon with lemon thyme sauce and white rice ($12) and may have made the best choice of our group.

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One got shrimp with sun-dried tomato pesto and vegetables. The latter were bland, the former “fantastic.” “The sauce kind of makes it,” he said. “I wouldn’t have expected sauce to be a choice. Don’t neglect the sauce.” He smeared leftover sauce on his vegetables and they were improved by the addition.

Another got tofu with lemon thyme and vegetables. Finding them both “tasteless,” she also heaped praise on the sauce for rescuing her meal. “Thank goodness for the sauce,” she said.

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The last, but not least, of our group got chicken with mango sauce and penne pasta. It was good, he said, but he rued his choice of mango sauce: “The guy recommended the garlic aioli and I probably should have done that.” (By contrast, I asked what sauce I should get and followed the advice. I am not bigger than the counterman.)

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Everyone said they would consider going back, even the vegetarian, although I don’t know that anyone would order the vegetables again. I dodged a bullet on that one. At this point I go to Dr. Grubb’s once a decade, but I may pick up the pace. Final thought: Don’t neglect the sauce.

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Restaurant of the Week: Poke Dot

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Poke Dot, 175 N. Indian Hill Blvd. (at 2nd), Claremont

The poke craze, like the Pokemon craze, has hit Claremont. Poke Dot, whose only other location right now is in Irvine, opened last week in the Village (or the “new Village,” depending on your outlook). A “coming soon” sign for Oke Poke is hanging outside the Old School House.

A friend alerted me that Poke Dot had a half-off deal for its opening weekend, so rather than let the place settle in, I headed over on Sunday. It was busy, not surprisingly. The restaurant, whose name is a pun on “polka dot” if you need help with the pronunciation, is between Jamba Juice and a skate shop and replaces a gift shop that moved a couple of doors north.

As with Oke Poke, whose Chino Hills location was featured here recently, you line up like at Chipotle or Subway to make a series of possibly bewildering choices. Regular or large bowl, OK. Salad or rice, yes. By the time you decide whether you want masago or furikake, or both, you may be flying blind.

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I opted for a regular bowl ($9), brown rice, a mix of cucumber, onion and cilantro, then tuna, scallops and the seasonal fish, yellowtail. The seasoning and sauce question was answered cilantro twist, and for toppings, I got masago, furikake and green onions. Combined with a canned soda, I’d normally have paid $11.

The bowl was quite good, and while I had liked Oke Poke, the fish seemed to be of higher quality here. Which is good for me, since Poke Dot is closer than Chino Hills, or even the Old School House. At this point, the only other Poke Dot is in Irvine.

After your meal, you can play Pokemon in the neighborhood — the fountain in the courtyard plaza is a hotspot, as is 2nd Street between Harvard and Yale.

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