Restaurant of the Week: Luna Grill

Luna Grill, 10877 Foothill Blvd. (at Spruce), Rancho Cucamonga; open daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The fairly new Spruce Plaza in Rancho Cucamonga is a mini-restaurant row. I don’t believe the center has anything but restaurants: Cafe Rio, The Habit, Tokyo Joe’s and Luna Grill. (In the old days, there’d have been a Yoshinoya Beef Bowl.)

Luna is a San Diego-based Mediterranean restaurant chain with local-to-us locations in Eastvale, Redlands, Temecula and, said to be coming soon, Chino Hills.

Don’t confuse Luna Grill with Luna Modern Mexican Kitchen a few miles east. Besides the difference in cuisines, that Luna is a sit-down restaurant; this Luna is fast-casual.

The menu has salads, plates, wraps and bowls. No stranger to Mediterranean food, I thought several of the items sounded or looked inviting. I went for the salmon plate ($14), which came with rice, pita bread and a small salad, and got carrots as my side. My friend ordered the lamb plate ($15), ditto.

Of the lamb, which is halal (the Muslim equivalent of kosher), my friend noted from the menu board that it’s the second-most caloric entree — after the veggie plate. Hmm.

We liked our meals. I’m a fan of Mediterranean food, fine versions of which can be had in Rancho Cucamonga at Zait Bistro, Mezzaterranean and Zaky’s, plus a new Saca’s. But Luna Grill, while corporate, and sanding off some of the rough edges, hasn’t compromised too much in bringing that style of food to the masses. (Compare to, say, SpireWorks in Upland, where you can get a kebab sandwich “Philly style.”)

In other words, returning to Luna Grill would not be lunacy.

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Restaurant of the Week: SpireWorks

SpireWorks Modern Döner, 2129 Baseline Road (at 210), Upland; open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

SpireWorks is a new chain with locations so far only in Eagle Rock, Westwood and Upland, with Thousand Oaks coming soon. Yes, we are part of the in crowd for a change.

Ours opened in the new Sycamore Hills Plaza straddling the Upland/Claremont border on Baseline immediately east of the 210. It’s kind of amazing to see this center spring to life on rocky, scrubby land I’d never paid any attention to. And now there’s a Whole Foods 365 there. The mind reels.

I met a friend at SpireWorks for lunch a couple of weeks ago, curious about döner after having had some in Germany last year. It’s not unfamiliar if you’ve been to a Mediterranean restaurant where they carve meat off a vertical spit. Döner is what they call that in Europe, where döner kebabs (sandwiches on pita bread) are very popular.

SpireWorks has beef and chicken döner, plus falafel. You can get them as plates, bowls or sandwiches. They also sell salads.

I had a beef döner plate with two sides ($12.50): tabbouleh and hummus. I won’t say I was transported back to Wittenberg, especially without a cobblestone street outside and a Lutheran church nearby, but I enjoyed it. The bread, rather than pita, was unusual.

My friend had a falafel bowl ($9.50), Istanbul style (more on that below), and said she liked the mild flavors. Personally, I think the sauce is overdone, but she gave me some falafel, and it was fine.

The sandwiches come on thick bread, not pita, and salads, sandwiches and bowls can be ordered in one of four styles: Istanbul, Berlin, Greek and Philly (!), the latter with Cheez Whiz. Needless to say, SpireWorks is not offering a purist vision of döner but a compromised, America-friendly version. I don’t entirely approve, but the food is okay, and I can see going back.

I like the faux lemon-crate label wallpaper, by the way.

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Restaurant of the Week: Mes Amis, Upland

Mes Amis, 1386 E. Foothill Blvd. (at Alta), Upland; open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily except Sunday, closed

I was a fan of Mes Amis, which opened in 2010 in Chino Hills and, famously, has a second location in London, England. That was almost an in-joke for the two Elias brothers, each of whom ran one of the Mes Amis and put both cities on their menus and business cards.

There was an ill-starred attempt at an Upland location as well — maybe Shanghai or Rio de Janeiro proved impractical — but that didn’t work out. And the Chino Hills restaurant closed last August when its lease was up.

But Mes Amis, and Sammy Elias, have resurfaced in Upland, where he took over the former Claire’s Mediterranean Food and Pastry, using the Mes Amis name but keeping on Claire, a distant relative, and her pastry-making.

I went in for lunch a few weeks back and was greeted like an old friend, which I believe I am. More on that at the end.

The restaurant is at the west end of the center on the south side of Foothill Boulevard and west of Grove Avenue. The center has a few restaurants, a nightclub and a Firestone shop. Not upscale in any sense. Mes Amis’ interior is one big room rather than having a kitchen in the middle as before, but the decor is largely the same as in Chino Hills.

The menu has many familiar items but more plates and sandwiches, and supposedly the goal is to get you out quicker than they did at the leisurely placed Chino Hills location. As my lunch lasted probably 90 minutes, Sammy’s quicker pace isn’t exactly Zankou level, but Mes Amis is more casual than before, it’s true.

I got an order of cheese sambousek ($5, above), a rosewater iced tea ($2.75) and a chicken kabab plate ($14). The knife-and-fork sambousek, a warm pastry with cheese, diced tomatoes and parsley, lives up to the word “appetizer,” as it made me anticipate the meal, and the addition of rosewater to my standard iced tea was a pleasant upgrade. The kabab plate had rice, hummus, zucchini and five pieces of grilled chicken on a bed of cabbage and onions, plus an excellent small salad.

It was all delicious. This was an awful lot of food, though, enough that I took home half my plate. The amount of food seems out of character with what is a fairly nice restaurant with sitdown service. (A friend felt a similar disconnect on his and his wife’s lone visit to the earlier Upland location and never returned.) Still, the remainder made for prime leftovers. You might consider sharing a plate.

Because I wasn’t anonymous and the owner waited on me personally, then insisted on treating me, this isn’t a totally objective view. For what it’s worth, I’d say Mes Amis is a good addition to the Upland dining scene. Also, that Chino Hills fans would want to give the new version a try, even though it’s a schlep to Upland and the ambience is a little less atmospheric. But you can look at the photos and make up your own mind.

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Restaurant of the Week: Mezzaterranean

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Mezzaterranean, 9491 Foothill Blvd. (at Malachite), Rancho Cucamonga; open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily; closed Sundays

I learned about Mezzaterranean, the name being a clever mashup of Mediterranean and mezza, the Lebanese name for appetizers, from a friend’s Yelp reviews, and eventually got around to going once I figured out where it was, the Auto Zone center, which many of us would tend to think of as the Taco Hut center.

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Opened in 2014, it’s a small place, and packed during the lunch hour; on my first visit, at noon, a friend and I had to sit at the makeshift counter as all 25 or so seats were taken. On a second visit, around 2 p.m. (on a different day, just to be clear), I got the only indoor table that was free, although it did clear out over the next hour. It’s a popular place, with many getting take-out besides the dine-in orders.

You order at the counter, from a menu with hot and cold mezza, soups and salads, sandwiches and plates. The open kitchen is right behind, a hive of activity. That first visit, I had a lamb kebab plate ($12) and my friend ordered a beef shawarma sandwich ($7).

The place was crazy busy and our orders seemed to get misplaced; eventually someone noticed we hadn’t gotten our food, asked what we’d ordered and made it, upgrading my friend to a plate and giving us free baklava ($1), which was very good. And so was the food.

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I went back a few weeks later and ordered the soujuk sandwich ($7, below), a spicy beef sausage on a pita with pickles, tomatoes, hummus and sauce. I’d never tried that, and it was okay, but I should have gotten fries or rice or something on the side.

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On a third visit, I tried the chicken shawarma fries ($8-ish), at a friend’s recommendation, and those were really good too.

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I like Mezzaterranean, although I might give the edge to Zait Bistro, elsewhere in town, for Rancho Mediterranean — which wouldn’t be a bad name for a city.

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Restaurant of the Week: Zait Bistro

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Zait Bistro, 7251 Haven Ave. (at Base Line), Rancho Cucamonga

Located in Terra Vista Village, next to Stuffed Pizza and Ralphs and near a boba shop, Zait Bistro is a mom and pop Lebanese restaurant. A friend picked it for dinner based on online ratings and it sounded fine to me.

Zait’s menu has 10 combo plates of shawarma, kababs and falafel, which come with two sides and pita bread. They can be ordered in two or three sizes depending on the number of skewers or pieces you prefer ($8 to $15). They also have grilled chicken, sandwiches and salads.

The woman at the counter let us try some of the sides, which were in small bins at the counter behind plastic. That was nice. It was like being at an ice cream shop, except we were trying Mediterranean salad, not mint chip.

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I ordered a small lamb kabab, with one skewer, plus tabbouleh and grape leaves ($10); my friend had two shrimp skewers plus potatoes and falafel ($15). We sat down to await our food. A sign on the wall cautions that “fresh food is not fast food” and gives the preparation time for each entree, up to 18 minutes.

Our food arrived after what seemed like a typical wait, but the heads-up was appreciated, as was the concept of making our food to order. It’s served in foam containers, which isn’t much for presentation, but for those taking home leftovers, it’s handy.

My lamb was very good, and one skewer was quite enough food, especially with the sides. My friend got about eight shrimp of impressive size. “This is a lot of shrimp,” she exclaimed. I was a little envious. She also praised her falafel for having more taste than the typical overly fried version.

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Zait has a Pepsi freestyle machine and Turkish coffee for 99 cents, plus baklava and harissa for dessert.

I would go back. Zait is all right.

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Restaurant of the Week: Zaky Mediterranean Grill, Claremont

 

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Zaky Mediterranean Grill, 806 S. Indian Hill Blvd. (at Auto Center Drive), Claremont

Zaky has locations in Rancho Cucamonga and Upland, both of which I like for casual Lebanese food. They took over the former World Famous Grill (!) in what some call Claremona, the portion of Claremont below the 10 Freeway. There’s a Starbucks and Denny’s next door.

I hadn’t been to this one, but it’s similar to the others, only a little more stylish (what would you expect from Claremont?), and with a visible grill. That’s the first thing you see upon walking in, before you even get to the counter to order.

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Zaky’s has wraps, kabob and shawarma plates and rotisserie chicken. Baklava was displayed in a case.

I got the two-skewer chicken plate, with hummus and rice as my sides ($12), plus a small soda. They have a Coke Freestyle machine where you can mix and match. (For the record, I got Vanilla Coke Zero.)

Immediately, a skewer of chicken was put in the grill before my eyes.

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My food took a little while, but it was well worth it the wait. Chicken is their specialty, and they know what they’re doing. The sides, pita bread and garlic sauce — oh, that garlic sauce — were all fine too. My only regret was getting two skewers: One would have been plenty.

They’re now selling pork kabobs too. The owner gave me a couple of pieces to try. Unusual, but well done, even though the traditional chicken and beef are my favorites.

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Restaurant of the Week: Pizzita Circle

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Pizzita Circle, 4047 Grand Ave. (at Pipeline), Chino; open daily

Actually, I was looking for Al’s Italian Beef, which I’d been meaning to find since its opening in 2014, but it wasn’t where I thought it was. An Internet search in the parking lot revealed that it had been elsewhere in that center, but had closed over the summer. Too bad. It was the Chicago-based chain’s only local location.

I was parked on the southwest corner in front of Tamarind, previously featured here, and Phillys Best, a chain at which I’ve eaten elsewhere. But the curiously named Pizzita Circle, located between the two, was a new one.

Well, what the heck. I was in search of lunch and might as well try it.

They serve 1) pizza and 2) Mediterranean food, an unusual combination, in a fast-casual setting. The latter included pita sandwiches, salads and plates ($8 to $11), while some of the pizzas were traditional and others had Mediterranean-type toppings. As the website puts it: “With our main specialty being our outstanding pizza and pita, we arrived at our present name, Pizzita Circle.”

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Splitting the difference, I got a Mediterranean pizza: lamb, beef, onion, tomato and peppers ($9). All pizzas are 10 inches. And you know, it was pretty good. I wouldn’t call it New York pizza, as they do, but it was tasty, the crust airy and crispy on the bottom, and I ate the whole thing. The restaurant also has beer and wine as well as a selection of bottled sodas, unusual for an eatery of this type. And they deliver.

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The woman behind the counter, probably the owner, was personable and told me there are two locations in NYC, family-owned. She moved west, missed the food and opened one here in mid-2014. There’s a photo mural of the Manhattan skyline focused on the Empire State Building.

Pizzita Circle probably won’t put you in a New York state of mind, but I enjoyed my meal. And the website includes a poem about their food, in six stanzas.

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Restaurant of the Week: Alamir Flatbreads

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Alamir Flatbreads, 426 Auto Center Drive (at Indian Hill), Claremont; open daily

Alamir joined Fattoush in 2013 as Middle Eastern restaurants seeking some synergy from the Super King market, which took over from the former Albertsons below the 10 Freeway and which caters to Middle Easterners. Alamir previously was located in Anaheim.

It’s kind of bare inside, lots of tables and not much else, and was pretty quiet on a recent Wednesday evening. But I was confident because of a reader’s recommendation. Alamir has about two dozen flatbreads, round like pizzas but smaller, lighter and much cheaper.

I had the zaatar and cheese, which is dried thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and olive oil ($2.50) (you read that right). “Is this really 10 inches?” I asked, to make sure I was getting an entree at that price. I was. The version without cheese is a mere $1.75.

After a trip through the pizza oven, the flatbread was done. It looked like a pizza but with a thin, soft, floury crust. (Bottom one in the photo below.) It had a little too much dry spice for my taste, like if you shake on too much oregano, but it tasted good, and I liked the concept and the price. I would get a different flatbread next time, though. My big-spender friend had the chicken chipotle flatbread, which was $6. Showoff. It had a very light sauce, spicy cheese and boneless chicken chunks. A chicken fan, he said he really liked it.

Other varieties include kafta, plain cheese, scrambled egg and cheese, sojouk and kafta. They also have a traditional veggie pizza, calzone, and triangles with spinach or cheese. Most of the items are $6 or less. See the menu here; the website’s out of date, but the menu is fairly current.

A little different, but interesting, and the prices can’t be beat.

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Restaurant of the Week: Zaky Mediterranean Grill

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Zaky Mediterranean Grill, 1013 W. Foothill Blvd. (at Mulberry), Upland; also 6622 Carnelian St. (at 19th), Rancho Cucamonga

Zaky Grill, which has a mostly-takeout location in Rancho Cucamonga off the 210, expanded to a larger second location in Upland a few weeks ago along Foothill Boulevard.

As an occasional customer at the Carnelian spot, which has just a couple of molded-plastic tables, I stopped in for dinner recently in Upland, where Zaky’s shares a new-ish minimall with a Starbucks, a cell phone store and a pizza parlor.

This Zaky’s has plenty of dining space. You still order at the counter, and the menu of sandwiches, plates, salads and rotisserie chicken turns out to be exactly the same in both locations. (View it here.)

I had the chicken kabob sandwich ($5), which is prepared to order on pita bread with garlic sauce, onions, pickles and tomatoes. Delicious.

The owner recognized me from previous visits and gave me a dessert, knafeh ($4), a pastry with cream cheese and honey, very nice.

I’d been to the minimall location before when it was B-Man’s Teriyaki and later when it was a Philly’s Best. The interior hasn’t changed much, being a bit stark, with track lighting near the ceiling that is mildly unpleasant. But Zaky’s food is pretty good stuff and the dine-in option is welcome. I hope they beat the location’s curse.

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Restaurant of the Week: Mes Amis, Chino Hills

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Mes Amis, 14720 Pipeline Ave. (at Chino Hills Parkway), Chino HIlls

Mes Amis opened in January in half of a contemporary glass and steel building just north of a busy intersection. My Chino Hills friends found it on Yelp (where Mes Amis currently gets 4 1/2 stars) and that night four of us had dinner before watching “Lost.”

The interior is sleek, with plenty of natural light, tables and no booths, a gold and rust color scheme, tasteful decor and a TV silently playing in one corner. Most of the cooking can be seen from the dining room.

The novelty, as outlined in Friday’s column, is that Mes Amis has two locations: London and Chino Hills. (Perhaps Paris was too crowded.) The owners are brothers, a continent apart, and although the menus are similar, each owns his own location.

The menu is Lebanese, but with a modern take, and the food shows a high level of care. We had a “journey,” one of four appetizer plates that cost $9.95 (for now). It had four items, like a bento box, and divided among four people, it was almost a meal.

Our entrees included mixed kabobs with lamb and chicken (pictured) and the Double Treasure, which is lamb patties with two sauces. The entrees were around $15. After the “journey,” we probably could have ordered two or three entrees instead of four. The meat was tender, the grilled vegetables delicious, the presentation thoughtful. We all liked our food quite a bit.

Service is non-intrusive and leisurely, by design. We certainly weren’t rushed; indeed, our server took our “journey” order and didn’t return to take our entree order until we had finished the appetizer. Owner Sammy Elias later told me that was slower than even he’d like, but that the idea is to slow down to eat as the Lebanese do.

Our suggestion would be a note to this effect on the menu, or an explanation from the server that could begin: “Have you dined with us before? Our philosophy is…” Many diners will embrace the policy, but it may be counterproductive (see the criticism on Yelp about the service) not to tell us what it is.

That quibble aside, we liked Mes Amis very much and are anticipating our next visit, and our next “journey.” The only local Lebanese restaurant at this level that I’m aware of is Casablanca in Claremont, and Mes Amis may be even better.

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