Column: Restaurateur set template for Village success

Happy 80th birthday to Dan Sauter, the man who founded The Danson restaurant in Claremont (1973-2005, now operating as Espiau’s). More importantly, his restaurant established new criteria for how to run a restaurant in downtown Claremont: Sunday hours, outdoor seating, beer and wine. He’s the subject of Sunday’s column.

Above, an early menu for The Danson. Click on the image for a larger view.

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Restaurant of the Week: Pepo Melo

Pepo Melo, 301 Harvard Ave. (at Bonita), Claremont; open 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday

Taking the place of a Chinese antiques store that never seemed to have any customers and yet hung on for years, Pepo Melo is a hive of activity in the morning, and for all I know at other times of day as well. It specializes in fruit bowls, most of which are vegan, and seems to be a hit with the colleges crowd.

I’ve been there twice so far, starting with an inaugural visit on my birthday, which shows I had confidence in them. I wanted a light breakfast to take me with on the train.

You might remember the building as the Sugar Bowl, a malt shop that was a setting in a “Fugitive” episode of the 1960s. It’s across from the Harvard Square complex that was once the Village Theater.

The Pepo Melo menu is below (click for a larger view), although you can customize your own bowl based on the fruits and toppings that are available. The bowls are made in front of you behind a row of ingredients, like at Chipotle.

I went with the PBB&J ($6, medium), with strawberries, bananas, hemp granola and peanut butter drizzle, plus a $2 fruitade drink, cucumber mint, of the two options. These are made from leftover fruit from the previous day. The drink was refreshing and the cost less than expected.

The bowl was similar to the chunky strawberry bowl at Jamba Juice, a favorite, only without yogurt. It was tasty and had lots of fruit, but was slightly dry.

I returned a month later for an Aww Snap ($9), with ginger, mint, lemon, raspberries and pitaya sorbet base. (It’s supposed to have granola but they were out.) An impressive amount of labor went into this, with the employee slicing mint, grating ginger and cutting a fresh lemon to squeeze. The result had zing. I liked it, although I missed having granola.

Pepo Melo has no seating, but Shelton Park is right across the street, and that’s where I ate the Aww Snap bowl.

According to a story in the Student Life campus newspaper, the owner is a melon broker, Pepo is the scientific name for the flesh of a melon and Melo is one letter shy of melon. I think it’s a nice addition to the Village, although a Claremont friend hooted at the whole idea: “All they sell is fruit bowls? Who’s going to buy that? I don’t give them long.” Hey, I’d have said the same thing about the antiques store!

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Restaurant of the Week: The Spot Cafe, Claremont

The Spot Cafe, 435 W. Foothill Blvd. (at Indian Hill), Claremont; open daily, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

In a prime location in the same building that houses a Trader Joe’s, the Spot Cafe has been serving up healthy fare for a few years now. I’ve been in a couple of times for breakfast, but it’s never been my (wait for it) spot.

Then a friend offered to meet up for dinner, wanted a salad and suggested the Spot. A look at the menu online revealed that the Spot has a more extensive menu than I’d realized, including a half-dozen salads. It dawned on me that the Village is light on places to get a salad. I used to get one now and then at zPizza, which recently closed.

The Spot also has sandwiches, wraps and more, with smoothies, fresh juices, protein shakes and coffee the specialty. Acai and pitaya bowls and bagels are offered at breakfast. They also make pizza, of sorts, on tortillas. (It’s that kind of place.)

My friend got the grilled chicken salad ($8 for a full), with mixed greens, cucumbers, red onions, tomatoes, olives, pepperocinis and balsamic dressing. “The salad was super filling and tasty,” she declared. As for breakfast, “I usually get their bowls, which I love,” she said, saying they’re more filling than the ones at Jamba Juice.

Having had a large lunch, I got a half-size salad: strawberry and spinach ($5.25 half, $7 whole), with cucumber and almonds. OK, more almonds than I’d prefer, but a good salad, enlivened by a light lemon poppyseed dressing.

I also got a regular Amazon acai smoothie ($7), with acai, bananas, strawberries, nonfat yogurt and apple juice.

May I say it hit (wait for it) the spot?

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Column: ‘American Idol’ sensation was regular at open mic

Alejandro Aranda has been wowing them on “American Idol” since March 6. He says he’s a dishwasher from Pomona, a description that, combined with his humble manner and way with an acoustic ballad, have made him a sensation. I delve into his recent past as an open mic and street performer in Pomona and Claremont in Sunday’s column. Photo from March 30 Pomona appearance by Liliana Pardo.

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Restaurant of the Week: Creme Bakery

Creme Bakery, 116 Harvard Ave. (at 1st), Claremont; open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday

Claremont’s had a good bakery going back decades: Hodges, Jensen’s and then Some Crust, perhaps the quintessential Claremont Village business, where you can get not only very good pastries, breakfast sliders and coffee but a sense of Claremont.

Now there’s a second bakery in the Village. Creme opened last September and has quickly established itself as a formidable presence one block east of Some Crust. A frequent customer of the latter, I’ve begun gravitating to Creme.

It’s the product of a retired Whole Foods executive and enthusiastic baker, Erica Hartig Dubreuil. You’ll know right away it’s a French bakery from the genteel atmosphere, the lovely displays and the emphasis on croissants, scones, tarts and baguettes.

The croissants are superb, the slight crust of the exterior yielding to a pliable interior.

The apple danish is lightly crunchy and chewy, with a generous amount of apple.

I’ve also had a cranberry orange scone, dense and sweet, the first item I tried, and a ginger scone. I wouldn’t mind working my way through all the offerings. The only item so far that I’ve been indifferent toward was the vegan blueberry muffin, which stuck to the paper. I do think Some Crust does vegan muffins better.

Morning buns, muffins, scones, cookies and more will face you when you enter. Creme has a few coffees, baguette sandwiches for lunch, a case of elegant tarts and more. Seating is at a long, L-shaped communal sofa with the occasional tiny table. You won’t stay for hours, or bring a group, but you can meet with or bring one or two people, or just sit and people watch or, as I do, read a newspaper.

Is the Claremont Village now popular enough for two bakeries? I hope so, because I love Some Crust, and I’m quickly coming to love Creme too.

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Restaurant of the Week: Menkoi-Ya Ramen

Menkoi-Ya Ramen, 333 W. Bonita Ave. (at Yale), Claremont; open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 11 p.m. daily except Wednesday, closed

Menkoi-Ya was the first ramen specialist in Claremont, opening in January 2018 in the former Full of Life Bakery storefront. Since then, Ramen Lounge has opened a block away. I liked Ramen Lounge fine, even if the skater decor and casual service would repel a ramen purist.

Having been there, it was time to try Menkoi-Ya, which I did during my recent staycation, walking in for lunch one early afternoon. (Note the hours above; they close between lunch and dinner.) It’s a much more traditional environment with paper lantern-like lampshades, forest green walls and a wall-length mural. The music was modern alternative pop, but not too loud, and service was noticeably calm and polite.

The menu has appetizers, rice bowls and nearly a dozen styles of ramen. Most have a pork broth, but there are a couple of vegetarian versions.

I got the house Menkoi Ramen, with pork broth, shoyu base, toro chashu (slices of housemade pork belly from a sort of loaf), takasuimen noodles, green onions, dried seaweed and bamboo shoots ($8.50), plus a soft-boiled egg ($1).

The broth was subtler than at Ramen Lounge, and the noodles, made fresh, are stretchy, chewy and crinkled. For all I know the chashu was excellent for its type, but I didn’t think the pork added much to the experience, and I’m a pork fan. Still, this was a tasty, filling bowl of ramen.

One advantage of sitting at the counter, as I did, is that you can’t be observed fumbling with your noodles or chopsticks. In fact you’re looking at a short wall, unlike at an American-style counter. I actually handled the noodles fairly well. Having been an occasional customer at Full of Life, I recognized that where I was sitting was essentially where I used to stand to place an order of breakfast granola. Ah, nostalgia.

I liked Menkoi Ya and would return, in part to try one of the rice bowls but perhaps for another bowl of ramen.

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Restaurant of the Week: Ramen Lounge

Ramen Lounge, 238 Yale Ave. (at Bonita), Claremont; open noon to midnight Tuesday to Sunday; closed Mondays

Six or seven years ago, two friends and I went looking for ramen locally and could only find a so-so version at a Japanese restaurant in Chino. My friends, newcomers to the area, were amazed ramen essentially was unavailable around here. Now, ramen may be the poke of 2019, what with the number of ramen parlors that opened last year and are still opening in the Inland Valley.

Claremont now has two, and they’re less than a block apart in the Village. There’s Menkoi Ya, a more traditional restaurant, and the less sedate Ramen Lounge. I hadn’t been to either when a friend suggested we get ramen.

It was a Sunday and Menkoi Ya was closed, so we went to Ramen Lounge. On such points does fate turn.

Ramen Lounge‘s interior is purposely a bit stark, with a bare floor, a few tables and banquettes, a J-shaped bar and art from famous old-school hip-hop record jackets by De La Soul, Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. One friend calls it skater decor. The restaurant took over last fall from Yiannis, a Greek restaurant that had occupied the space since the early 1960s, initially as the Yale Cafe.

The menu is short: ramen, rice bowls, small plates. We started with two pork belly steam buns ($8), which were garnished with pickled red onions and slaw. We liked them.

We each got a bowl of tonkatsu ramen ($13). It came with pork belly, pickled bamboo shoots, a soft-boiled egg, corn and baby bok choy. The broth was thick and milky. We both liked it. We weren’t impressed by the bacon-sized strip of pork belly, which we extracted and pulled apart into small pieces, and which my friend found too fatty.

There’s a party vibe at Ramen Lounge, not a Japanese vibe. Note the hours: noon to midnight. Servers were dressed casually (one was in a ballcap), matching the skater feel.

I haven’t had enough ramen to pass judgment, although the newfound plethora of ramen parlors will make forming opinions easier. A friend who prefers Menkoi Ya turns up her nose at Ramen Lounge. It’s probably not the best ramen. But it hit the spot on a cold, rainy day.

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Restaurant of the Week: Hi Family

Hi Family, 944 W. Foothill Blvd. (at Regis), Claremont; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily except Wednesday, closed; also 12732 Foothill Blvd. (at Etiwanda), Rancho Cucamonga

In the small plaza across from Stater Bros., Hayato (best Japanese restaurant in Claremont) and Mediterranean mainstay Darvish are firmly lodged, while Chinese restaurants have come and gone. Hi Family, though, has hung in there for four years, according to Yelp; after a foodie friend recommended it, we made plans to eat there.

Unfortunately, that was on a Wednesday, the one day it’s closed. A few weeks later, in Claremont at lunchtime on a Monday, I gave it a spin solo.

It’s small, just eight tables, with dark wood and cobalt walls. The menu has a few standard American Chinese dishes like orange chicken, but most of the menu is real Chinese.

The first thing they bring out is a tumbler of water with slices of cucumber inside, an unusual but welcome flourish.

My friend said he’d had dan dan noodles and rattan pepper beef. Noticing that hot pots seem to be a specialty, I got the chicken, small size ($19), after they were out of short rib, my first choice. But that’s just as well, as Los Chicken, as it’s known, appears to be the most popular dish. The name is evidently a Mandarin pun, a shorthand version of Los Angeles as well as chicken, if I understand what I read correctly.

They bring out a portable stove to keep the soup hot. The soup had chicken (with bones in some cases), cabbage, chile oil and no doubt more. I ordered it medium spicy, which in my case was too spicy. I was blowing my nose into my napkin and gulping that cucumber water.

But it was tasty, generous with the chicken and with searing oil. The soup stayed hot and there were leftovers enough for two more meals. I also had an order of rice ($1), spooning the soup into a small bowl and mixing in the rice.

Once outside I noticed the sandwich board special for “crawfish rice.” Had I seen that going in I might have ordered it.

Szechuan-style Hi Family is the most authentic of the (I believe) three Chinese restaurants in Claremont, with Upper House being a middle ground (with more seating too) and Mr. You Express, which I haven’t visited, a fast-food spot. It probably goes without saying that Hi Family is for the more adventurous diner — although you could always get orange chicken.

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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

CLOSED

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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