Restaurant of the Week: Tokyo Joe’s

Tokyo Joe’s, 10877 Foothill Blvd. (at Spruce), Rancho Cucamonga; open daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Tokyo Joe’s is a small chain of fast-casual Japanese(-ish) restaurants with California locations only in Riverside and Rancho Cucamonga. The latter opened in 2017 in a strip of restaurants near the office buildings east of Haven Avenue that has Luna Mediterranean Grill, The Habit, Cafe Rio and Jersey Mike’s.

I ate at Joe’s recently for the first time, meeting a friend for lunch on a weekday. Their main items are bowls, although they also have salads, poke bowls and some made-to-order sushi. See their menu here.

I got the MoJoe Bowl ($9, above), with chicken, pineapple, carrots, egg, onion, green and red peppers and rice, substituting brown for white at no extra charge, which was welcome. My friend got the Mahi-Mahi Bowl ($11.25, below), with wild mahi-mahi, tropical salsa, lemongrass aioli, teriyaki sauce, macadamia nuts and cilantro.

“It was a bowlish bowl,” my friend said with an implied shrug, “with a nice piece of mahi-mahi.”

I wasn’t dissatisfied with my bowl either, but neither of us walked away with any particular enthusiasm. You can order a larger bowl for $2 more, which would be good only if you want to take some home. We could barely finish ours as it was and before mine was done I was tired of eating it.

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Restaurant of the Week: Kiku Sushi

Kiku Sushi, 3090 Chino Ave. (at Emerald Way), Chino Hills; open 11:30 to 10 p.m. daily

Chino Hills has more good Japanese restaurants than any other Inland Valley city. I tried Kiku Sushi recently; it’s in the same center that has a Harkins 18 cinema and a few so-so restaurants. Kiku means “chrysanthemum.”

A friend and I arrived just as the place opened for lunch, which I say to explain the photo below of a seemingly empty dining room. The restaurant was nearing capacity by the time we left.

Apparently Kiku is known for its all you can eat sushi, but that’s how I (crunch) roll. I just ordered off the sushi menu.

I had albacore ($6.50) and yellowtail ($7.50) nigiri sushi, with large pieces of fish. Unusually, besides the two pieces each on rice, a third piece of each fish was provided. That was new to me, but a nice bonus.

I also got my standby, the salmon skin cut roll ($6). (As the tuna melt is my baseline sandwich, the salmon skin cut roll is my baseline sushi.) Not the best version I’ve had by any means, but acceptable.

My friend got the tonkatsu bowl ($7), a fried pork cutlet over rice. No Japanese food enthusiast, she liked it.

Service via an English-language server was helpful. A giant video screen played YouTube music videos, which was a little tacky. A better touch were the slatted screens over the windows, which muted the light coming in from outside. It’s hard to block out an ocean of asphalt, blinding noontime sun and throngs of people headed for the multiplex a few yards away, but the screens did a commendable job of creating a cozy atmosphere.

Kiku is fairly average as far as Japanese restaurants go in Chino Hills (and some on Yelp say it’s really gone downhill after an ownership change), but I’d go there again for a semi-civilized meal before or after a movie. It’s got to beat Buffalo Wild Wings.

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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: Imperial Sushi

Imperial Sushi, 108 W. Holt Blvd. (at Euclid), Ontario; open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday to Sunday

Downtown Ontario now has a sushi restaurant — but not a Japanese restaurant. That’s because Imperial Sushi, reflecting the demographic, is Mexican-run and Mexican-focused. They have sushi, but also tacos.

I was skeptical, but when a friend proposed meeting there for lunch, I was willing. Imperial Sushi is a couple of storefronts west of the downtown epicenter of Holt and Euclid, in a former mariscos spot.

There’s no sushi bar, just a kitchen, plus booths in the fairly large dining room. To start, a server brought out a cup of tortilla chips and, for dipping, a cup of ceviche. Right off the bat, this was going to be a different experience.

The menu has sushi rolls (but no nigiri or sashimi), plus ceviche, fish tacos and cooked seafood dishes. Just to further mix up the cultures, one of the latter includes fettucine.

We got a spicy tuna roll ($10), a crunchy roll ($11) and a guamuchilito roll ($12), pictured in that order below.

Overall, this is the brownest sushi I’ve ever seen. These and all other rolls use cream cheese. The spicy tuna was close to a Japanese restaurant version, except for the spicy orange sauce squirted on it; the others appeared to have added crunch through deep-frying rather than using tempura.

There was no wasabi, although we were given a small carafe of what the server called salsa soya, or soy sauce.

At another table, a man was matter-of-factly shaking Tapatio sauce on his roll.

“For a Mexican place i’d say the sushi’s not bad,” my friend observed. “For a sushi place it’s … adequate.” We didn’t finish our rolls and I doubt I’ll be back.

Imperial Sushi would be easy to mock, but let me say something in its defense. Americans are notorious for adapting foreign cuisines to their taste. This includes Mexican food, Chinese food and Japanese food. In Japan, they do not eat California rolls, obviously, nor do they serve the kind of party rolls many Americans love.

So, Mexican-Americans have adapted Japanese food to their taste too. Good for them. Imperial Sushi isn’t to my liking, but it’s a fascinating cross-pollination of two cultures, and I wish them well.

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Restaurant of the Week: B & F Japanese

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B & F Japanese Restaurant, 3495 E. Concours St. (at Haven), Ontario; open for lunch and dinner weekdays, dinner only Saturdays and closed Sundays.

B & F is in a plaza off Fourth and Haven not far from our office, and a colleague had said something nice about it recently. When a friend who once lived in Japan wanted to meet for lunch, I suggested B & F.

The plaza is less visible than before due to the apartments that went up on the southwest corner — it used to be visible from Fourth — but then again, the center suddenly has a few hundred neighbors instead of an empty lot, and that’s gotta be good for business.

The restaurant is medium-sized, sushi bar off to the right, dining room to the left. We sat in the dining room. All the tables have heating elements on the top and range hoods overhead, and they seem like holdovers from a previous restaurant, as nothing on the menu looks like anything you would need to cook yourself, unless you decide your sushi is too raw.

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We got bento box lunches: sashimi and salmon teriyaki for him (top), nigiri sushi and garlic pork shogo yaki for me (above; $10 each). They came with small salads, fried tofu, a scoop of potato salad that was more like mashed potatoes, and orange segments, with a bowl of rice on the side and a bowl of miso soup to start.

What we had was acceptable, but nothing special, and it didn’t live up to the current four-star Yelp rating. The fish was sliced a little thin and wasn’t outstanding. That’s not to say something else on the menu might not be very good; people on Yelp rave about the amount of fish in the chirashi bowl.

The service was attentive and friendly. The restaurant doesn’t seem to be Japanese-run, which didn’t bother me or my friend, but might bother you. So, an okay spot, but unremarkable. You could get sushi just as good or maybe a little better down the street at Benihana.

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Restaurant of the Week: Shoboo Kitchen

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Shoboo Kitchen, 3626 Grand Ave. (at the 71), Chino Hills; open daily until 11 p.m. except for Sunday, 9 p.m.

Chino Hills without a doubt is the best city for Japanese food from there to Rancho Cucamonga. I’ve tried three or four Japanese restaurants in Chino Hills over the years and all were good to excellent. (Ojiya was the best.) I’m quick to say I’m no expert on the cuisine.

Recently I met a friend at one of the others, Shoboo Kitchen, which is located off the 71 Freeway in a center with a Sprouts market, See’s Candies and a Chick-fil-A. Shoboo is relatively small, seating maybe 30, and while people talk about a line at lunch, there wasn’t one on the Monday we visited.

The menu is extensive, and even the number is lunch specials is large. There’s a Lunch Special A list of a dozen items (each $9.45) and a Lunch Special B list of another dozen or more (each $11.45). I was examining those when my friend pointed out the bento boxes on another page.

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We each got bento boxes ($10), a segmented tray with rice and salad. He ordered hot items: pork ribs and chicken; I ordered cool items: sushi and sashimi. (Between us, did we have the McDLT of Japanese food?) Anyway, I would rate the lunch good, not great, but certainly worth the money. The atmosphere was on the low-key side, a plus from my perspective. Just a nice, homey place.

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Restaurant of the Week: Onishicho

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Onishicho, 504 E. Foothill Blvd. (at Sumner), Pomona

I remember Onishicho when it was Classic 66 Burgers, where I ate a downscale Sunday afternoon lunch a decade ago and from my booth half-watched a reality show on the TV mounted behind the counter. The restaurant, midway between Towne and Garey avenues on Foothill, later became a Chinese fast-food spot, with two or three iterations, one of them gone in the wink of an eye.

Since 2015 it’s been Onishicho, a Japanese restaurant specializing in ramen. This is why we love the crazy-quilt of Southern California, where otherwise-bland restaurant buildings can prove endlessly adaptable depending on the tenants or market forces. Reader Megan Gearhart alerted me to the latest incarnation and said it was doing a brisk business.

On a cold, rainy night last week, I was driving home, thought it’d be a perfect night for ramen and made for Pomona. I pulled into the lot, stepped inside and was shown to a booth that may have been the one I sat in a few years earlier.

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The interior has been cleaned up and made over considerably. It may be a little stark and brightly lit, but Japanese fans, lanterns and umbrellas add color, as do green vertical blinds.

The menu consists mostly of ramen and teriyaki, no sushi. I asked the difference between the No. 1, Tonkotsu Ramen, and the No. 2, Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen, and was told the second one was saltier. (A friend subsequently told me “shoyu” means “soy sauce.”) I went with No. 1 ($8) and the straight noodle recommended by the server.

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The bowl arrived with slices of pork belly, green onions, a hard-boiled egg, pickled ginger and the noodles in broth, throwing off steam. I’ve had ramen only three or four times before, in Little Tokyo, on Sawtelle, at Noodle World Jr. and, recently, in Chinatown at the well-regarded Ramen Champ. Onishicho’s broth did not rival Ramen Champ’s, although I don’t have the expertise to tell you why, but there’s no need to set the bar that high. This was good ramen, close to home.

It was filling too: There was an option to get a combo with curry rice or teriyaki, and at first I regretted not getting the latter. But after draining the bowl, I was full.

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Service was polite and friendly; my server, eyeing my humble glass of water, insisted on bringing me a cup of hot matcha tea, and it was good. I expect to return.

I’m fairly sure there is no other place specializing in ramen in the Inland Valley, and to find this in Pomona, in a former fast-food outlet on old Route 66, is a bonus.

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Restaurant of the Week: RA Sushi

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RA Sushi, 13925 City Center Drive (at the Shoppes), Chino Hills

Some people rave about the RA happy hour (3 to 7 p.m.); I went with friends a few years ago and wondered what the fuss was about. I suppose I’m kind of a purist about these things, and RA seemed too much like a party place, not a Japanese restaurant.

But a friend wanted to meet there recently for dinner, and so five of us converged on the Shoppes one Saturday night. It was warm enough that we got a table on the patio, which wraps around two sides of the wing-like exterior.

Gazing into the distance, the green hills of Boys Republic across the way were visible, giving the sense that the mall was nestled in a rural area. Not entirely true, but not entirely false either. I do like the Shoppes, and there’s a Barnes and Noble a few paces from RA.

We got a bunch of rolls, photographs of which I believe are in descending order below: lobster salmon ($13.45), with lobster, mango, avocado, cucumber, topped with salmon, lobster and lobster cream sauce; crazy monkey ($10.25), with smoked salmon, mango and cream cheese; Viva Las Vegas ($13.60) with crab, cream cheese, tempura batter, topped with spicy tuna, crab and piece of fried lotus root; and rainbow ($12), a California roll with tuna, yellowtail, shrimp, salmon and avocado arrayed “to look like a rainbow,” the menu explains.

These were all pretty good, actually. Viva Las Vegas with its crunchy and smooth textures was described by one person as the best specialty roll she’d had. I don’t know if I had a favorite, but maybe the lobster salmon. I also had a scallop nigiri ($5), fine.

There’s alcohol too. Somebody ordered the Umami punch ($18), 60 ounces (!) in a giant glass, meant for two; everybody had some. Even I took a couple of sips.

RA is still kind of a party place, by which I mean it comes off as the Yard House of sushi, but it proved a convivial spot to hang out with friends. The interior is snazzy. There’s better sushi in Chino Hills, which is to Asian food what Pomona is to Mexican food, but RA is OK.

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Restaurant of the Week: Benihana

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Benihana, 3760 E. Inland Empire Blvd. (at Haven), Ontario

Benihana, the Japanese chain with an Ontario location, may be the Inland Valley’s best “experience” restaurant. If you go for the teppanyaki, where you sit around the grill, the chef puts on a show involving fast action with the utensils, some sleight of hand and a few jokes. He’ll flip a few shrimp tails or egg shells into his hat or shirt pocket and maybe do some juggling.

I shot a short video of the chef’s final flourishes.

I’ve eaten there a few times over the years, including once on Christmas Day with my visiting parents, and returned recently with a friend to celebrate publication of my book. (Many more times I’ve been to the sushi bar.) It was as much fun as I remembered.

I went for the Land ‘n Sea ($34), steak and scallops, and my friend had the teriyaki chicken ($19), both of which come with a small salad, soup, rice, grilled vegetables, hot tea and ice cream. The menu can be seen here.

I didn’t go with the intention of writing a blog post, so I didn’t take many pictures. But it’s difficult to photograph your entree anyway because everything arrives in stages. The chef gives you the vegetables and a few pieces of grilled shrimp, and then, if you have a combo entree like I did, one part of them and then the other part, as he’s cooking everything at once.

(As regular readers know, we frown on chains here at the David Allen Blog, but we’re not militant about it. If a chain has only one or two local outlets, that makes it fair game. There’s only one local Benihana and I belatedly decided I might as well post about it.)

It’s not the greatest food or anything, but it’s fine, and the show is pretty good. Who can tire of watching an onion stacked in layers like a volcano shoot steam skyward? This time, though, the wait for the entree seemed long, and the chef encouraged us all (the tables seat eight) to get to work on our vegetables even though the bowls were still arrayed around the grill waiting for him to finish. I practiced a long reach to snag my mushrooms and onions. In a way, then, dinner was not entirely satisfying. Still, it’s an enjoyable special occasion restaurant.

And it’s large! There are more than 20 grills, and most of them were in use on our weeknight visit.

Did you know Benihana is 50 this year? I didn’t. According to the corporate history, the first, in 1964, was in New York City; there are now 70 around the world. I don’t know when Ontario’s opened, but probably the early or mid 1990s; Daily Bulletin types were going there on occasion when I started here in 1997.

Oh, and at the end of your meal, they still give each group a Polaroid of themselves in a little paper frame, as if you were boarding a cruise ship, except here it’s free.

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