Restaurant of the Week: Sabor a Mi

Sabor a Mi, 8976 E. Foothill Blvd. (at Vineyard), Rancho Cucamonga; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday

I’m rarely johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to new restaurants. Either I don’t know about them or I wait until they find their footing. I wouldn’t have known about Sabor a Mi if a reader hadn’t alerted me within a couple of weeks of its early February opening and even invited me to join her and her husband for dinner.

So a recent evening found us meeting up at the restaurant, which occupies a storefront within the Thomas Winery Plaza. It’s very well-appointed, with tasteful decor, art on the walls, Edison bulbs and an inviting bar.

The menu has starters, salads and entrees ($14 to $19). Sabor a Mi does not have tacos or burritos, but rather empanadas, carne asada and mixiote. Our table ordered conchinita pibil ($16), chicken enchiladas with mole ($16) and mole poblano ($18), pictured in that order below.

The first is slow-roasted pork in Yucatecan style, the second is self-descriptive other than perhaps the dark sauce (typically containing chocolate, fruit and various spices) and the latter is boneless leg and thigh chicken, also in mole.

We liked all our dishes; mine was the poblano, which came with handmade tortillas. For dessert we shared the creme brulee trio ($6), which were flavored with guava, jamaica and horchata, respectively. Excellent.

Sabor a Mi, by the way, is a popular Mexican song — Eydie Gorme, of all people, did a version in 1964 — and translates as Taste of Me. The Cordon Bleu-trained woman behind the restaurant has worked her way up in the business from bussing tables to chef to owner. The menu has items from various states in Mexico, including mole birthplace Puebla, Michoacan, Mexico City and the Yucatan.

Service was friendly and the owner visited our table as she made the rounds of the room, a nice touch. Things weren’t perfect: The waiter misinterpreted our declining the guacamole appetizer as an order for the guacamole appetizer ($8), not that we minded, one of my sides was wrong and when he brought back the bill and credit card slip, he had to apologetically explain that he’d at first charged another table on the card before realizing his mistake and voiding it. No harm done.

On the other hand, there were little extras, like an aperitif of pork rinds with avocado and sprouts, and small complimentary dishes of avocado ice cream. My friends had been there before and also gotten such fillips. They said the service was better this time. So, be patient.

Few other restaurants in the area (Sabor Mexicano in Pomona comes to mind) seem to be doing quite what Sabor a Mi is attempting, and good for them. Sabor a Mi is also one of the most stylish local Mexican restaurants. They serve beer, wine and tequila, and a Mexico City-style weekday lunch special, comida corrida (“lunch on the run”), with three courses served simultaneously, promises to get you out within 30 minutes. But maybe you’ll want to linger.

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Restaurant of the Week: El Patron II, La Verne

El Patron II, 1524 Foothill Blvd. (at Wheeler), La Verne; open daily except Monday

A reader told me a year ago to try out El Patron II. This led me to find El Patron (I) in Rancho Cucamonga, which is a couple of miles from our office and has become a favorite. Once I arranged to meet a friend at El Patron II for lunch and, of all the luck, we picked the day it’s closed.

But on a night last month, craving Mexican food, I remembered El Patron II and went there for dinner.

It’s a storefront in the Vons center. Like RC, it’s sitdown, although they were doing a lot of takeout, and the menu looked about the same. I’d describe the food as homestyle Mexican cooking: nothing fancy, but good versions of the staples, with an emphasis more on plates than on simply a la carte items, although they have those too. And they fresh-fry their hard tacos, which are worth trying.

I got the chile verde plate ($10), which I hadn’t had before. What came were impressive hunk of tender pork in a slightly spicy green sauce, with rice, refried beans  and corn (or flour) tortillas. Delicious, and I took some home. And yes, there were complimentary fresh chips and salsa.

Another thing similar to RC: the exceedingly attentive and helpful service. It must be a thing they emphasize, and it’s appreciated. They don’t rush you, they check on you a few times and when I asked for a to-go box, the server also refilled my iced tea.

It’s nice to have an El Patron not far from where I live and another one not far from where I work. You may not be so lucky.

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Restaurant of the Week: Taco King

Taco King, 1317 E. Foothill Blvd. (at Alta), Upland; open Monday to Saturday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed Sundays

If I understand the history properly, this location was once Taka Taco (take a taco) and became Taco King in 1975. It’s a square standalone building in east Upland with a marvelous image in neon of a guy in a sombrero and serape leaning against a cactus and, elsewhere on the sign, an uninspiring motto, “Home of the Bean Special.”

I have never been tempted to order the bean special, whatever it is, but I have eaten at Taco King a few times over the years. It never struck me as exceptional. But I had a surprisingly good burrito there in October. I didn’t take any photographs except of the exterior because I was sure I’d written about Taco King here before.

Wrong! A search of this blog revealed that I hadn’t. So the next chance I had, I went back and ordered the same thing, pictured above, a combination burrito with carne asada ($6.05). It was light on the beef, which would bother some, but the stew-like filling was, dare I say it, more traditional. The first time I got it as a combo (a combination burrito combo?) with chips and a drink ($9.20).

You order and pick up from a window, where they’ll place squeeze bottles of red and green salsa on your tray. (It’d be great if they also handed out copies of the Sinclair Lewis novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” but no, I brought that with me.)

The small dining room is done in pastels. the wall art includes Mexican currency mounted inside a frame, and a few photos show the place as Taka Taco and then Taco King, labeled with the year.

Was anything here prior to Taka Taco, or was it the original occupant? Inquiring minds want to know.

Taco King has tacos, of course, for $1.90, soft or hard, with carnitas, pastor, asada, chicken, beef and cabeza (head meat), plus burritos, taquitos, burgers, nachos, menudo and breakfast items. It currently has a middle of the road 3 stars on Yelp, the usual split-the-difference rating between those who love it and those who say they threw their food away.

Three stars is about right, though: solidly good. But I have newfound respect for the place. While there’s nothing hip or trendy about Taco King, and the overall look and style may veer closer to Del Taco than Tacos Mexico, when was the last time you had cabeza or menudo at Del Taco?

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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: Schaefer’s Food N Drinks

Schaefer’s Food N Drinks, 6939 Schaefer Ave. (at Euclid), Chino; open 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday and 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday

Schaefer’s opened over the summer, and a source at City Hall soon recommended the tacos. A few weeks later, when I was in Chino for my book talk, a friend brought up Schaefer’s and said it was a burger place. Realizing it was lunchtime, I decided to head over.

It’s in a new Stater Bros. center large enough to have several other eateries and businesses. Across Schaefer to the north are crops, and in fact the whole area is caught in an interesting transition, with a lot of empty land, some new tract homes and some farmland. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

Schaefer’s is a new venture by Joe and Angie Guillen, who did catering for 30 years before opening a restaurant, according to a story posted inside. It’s a sit-down restaurant with a full bar and which features “from-scratch recipes,” a sign proclaims.

The menu has burgers and Mexican food, which is how it could be described as specializing in either, plus salads, sandwiches and a full breakfast menu that includes menudo. That first visit, I had the Frisco burger, one-third pound on parmesan cheese bread ($12), very good, plus thick-cut fries. It was very filling.

Figuring I should give the other half of the equation a try, I returned for a carne asada burrito ($7.50) on a lunch break. The lunch pricing means you get a drink, in my case an iced tea, for only $1 more. That’s a good deal. The burrito was rather light on the carne asada and I wasn’t impressed. But that’s okay. I think Schaefer’s is a winner.

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Restaurant of the Week: Gloria’s

Gloria’s Cocina Mexicana, 401 N. Euclid Ave. (at D), Ontario; open daily, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and to 9 p.m. Sunday

The 1938 Ontario Laundry building, later Blue Seal Laundry, was cleverly designed by architect Peter Ficker with a tower resembling a washing machine spinner. The building has been a series of Mexican restaurants for two or three decades, but now a Downey restaurant has poured money into transforming the place, which opened in mid-August as Gloria’s.
There’s a tile entry, a patio along Euclid, a mural against the flower shop next door, and a beautiful, tasteful interior with dining rooms and a bar. With its cream walls, dark wood and trellis features, it’s one of the nicer restaurant interiors in the valley.

The food, however, is less impressive. I had a lunch of enchiladas suizas ($14) with rice and beans, which was okay but nothing great.

Back with a friend for lunch two weeks later, I got a chicken burrito ($8), plus red sauce (as the server described it) for $1. The burrito was a little bland, but all right, and the red sauce was, unusually and unpleasantly, like tomato paste. A real disappointment. My friend got the two taco combo ($7), one asada and one carnitas. He said the asada was good and the carnitas dry, but overall he liked them.

Service was friendly and attentive both visits.

In sum, Gloria’s is a good addition, and the improvement to a major corner and a historic building is a boost for downtown. I wish the food were as exciting as the surroundings.

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Restaurant of the Week: Oli’s Tacos

Oli’s Tacos, Montclair Place mall (Moreno and Fremont Streets), Montclair; open 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily except 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday

Oli’s won a pop-up contest to join the Montclair mall’s new Moreno St. Market food court and opened Aug. 17. Owned by the mother-daughter team of Olivia Medina and Evelin Sanchez, Oli’s had operated from a small location at 1442 S. Euclid Ave. in Ontario, but now that’s closed for a shot at the big time: gleaming and relatively spacious quarters inside a popular mall.

Because Oli’s may be there for only a limited time, I checked it out for lunch last Sunday. The food court has been relocated within the mall, still accessible from the parking deck off Moreno, but with an inviting entrance and sign, the first, I believe, to use the mall’s new name of more than one year. Baby steps.

Although the old Arboreatum got points for its punning name, Moreno St. Market is a step up in design, and the varied seating is appealing: tables, small booths and counters, with some plush furniture nearby. Rather than the usual horseshoe or L-shaped layout, eateries are on opposite sides of the walkway, with seating (and escalators) in the middle.

The offerings are trendier: Pokeway, Noodle World Jr., Boba World, Stickhouse and Oli’s, plus holdover Panda Express. In other words, it’s virtually all Asian except for Oli’s and Stickhouse, which is ice cream. Two or maybe three more spaces, cleverly concealed, are set aside for future eateries.

Oli’s had a line, and signs advised patience as they’ll be making your food from scratch. At least at that moment, it was the most popular business in the food court. You can get regular tacos, quesadillas and burritos with typical taqueria meats, but they also have some specialty items like vampiros and mulitas, vegetarian and vegan options, aguas frescas and handmade tortillas.

I got an asada taco and a birria taco ($2.25 each), a shrimp taco ($3) and a strawberry guava agua fresca ($3). About 10 minutes later, they were ready, an employee ladled my drink out of the jug and I repaired to a table.

These were good tacos, the kind you’d get at a taqueria, either on the mean or a little above. To get them in a shopping mall was almost revelatory. The drink was great too.

There’s a hand-crafted vibe to the Oli’s space, with stylish signs and menu board, hip art by Miriam Bricio and friendly, non-robotic service. Chipsters will love it, but so should everyone else.

A small caveat: At your typical taqueria, three tacos and a drink would not cost $11. But the food is good, and maybe Oli’s has mall-type expenses, so grant them the extra buck or two. Oli’s is almost certainly the best food court restaurant in the Inland Valley, and that it’s locally owned is heartening.

Update: Oli’s tells me via Twitter that they’re at the mall through September but “we hope to stay here long term.”

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Restaurant of the Week: El Pueblo Meat Market

El Pueblo Meat Market, 13218 6th St. (at D), Chino; open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

I pass carnicerias in many of our cities, like El Tarasco in Rancho Cucamonga near Red Hill Coffee Shop, or Mi Mercadito in Pomona, without ever going in. But after a recommendation from a (*cough*) highly placed law enforcement figure in Chino, I gave El Pueblo a try. It’s across from City Hall and the old police headquarters and courthouse.

Downtown Chino, such as it is, is light on places to eat. A couple of times now while attending council meetings, I’ve needed a quick bite and walked over to El Pueblo. They have some grocery and convenience items, but largely it’s a butcher shop, plus a counter for ordering food to go. They sell tacos, burritos, tortas, quesadillas, menudo and a few more items.

My first visit I had an al pastor torta ($6). This was consumed on a bench outside the council chambers in near-darkness in January. It hit the spot.

And this month, on a summer evening after a meeting ended early, I got an asada burrito ($6), then walked it over to Aguiar Square, the plaza behind the Children’s Museum, to eat. A fountain is circled by amphitheater-type seating, but a transient was there talking to himself, and sitting near him might have resulted in getting hit up for the money I’d saved by eating a cheap dinner. So I took a spot on a bench elsewhere in the plaza.

The burrito was okay, nothing special, but filling. On Yelp, someone gripes that they mix the steak with ground beef, which I can’t say is true, but which might be true. The torta was a better choice. Even better might have been the taco Tuesday special, which I noticed too late: three chicken tacos for $3.

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Restaurant of the Week: Mariscos el Puerto

Mariscos el Puerto, 5599 Riverside Drive (at 13th), Chino; open daily, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Years ago I ate Mexican food in a quaint 1920s-style gas station in Petaluma, where the seating was outdoors by the old pumps. In Chino, there’s a Mexican restaurant inside a ’60s or ’70s Texaco service station, the kind where they might have sold you candy bars, checked your fluids and put your car up on the rack for Murph to take a look-see.

A couple of foodie friends in Pomona tipped me off to Mariscos el Puerto, which specializes in food from Ensenada, largely seafood. They both liked their meals, and one later urged me: “You gotta try the gas station. It seems so wrong, but it’s so right.”

So I made a special trip and met a Chino friend for lunch. After four taquerias cycled through the building in five years, Mariscos el Puerto took it over three years ago, a sign it’s got staying power. While the gas pumps and canopy are gone, the building still resembles a gas station from the street.

Inside, you wouldn’t know it, at least not in the dining area. You order at a counter that might be original. Otherwise, it’s just a restaurant, one with colorful wall-filling murals of undersea scenes, and no Slurpee machine in sight.

I got a fish taco ($1.75), a shrimp taco ($2.29) and a limonade ($2), the latter ladled from a jug on the counter and pleasantly pulpy. The tacos were crunchy and very good. Presumably, to live up to their building’s heritage, they change the oil frequently.

My friend got a ceviche tostada ($3) and a taco. Her verdict? “Cheap. Cheap and good.”

Mariscos el Puerto is a good place to pull in, if you brake for tacos. Also, the former gas station sells beer and wine, in case you want to — wait for it — get lubricated.

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Restaurant of the Week: El Patron

El Patron, 9269 Utica Ave. (at Sixth), Rancho Cucamonga; 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekends

El Patron has spawned a second location, El Patron II, in La Verne. I tried to eat there recently but unfortunately chose a Monday, the only day it’s closed. A few days later, I went to the older one in Rancho Cucamonga. Who can judge the sequel without having seen the original?

It was in a business park and hard to find, but the key is that El Patron faces 6th, not Utica. The facade is biz park bland, but open the door and you’re hit with bright colors, as the walls are painted mustard, maroon and orange. (Your color wheel may differ.)

I took a seat, examined the menu and was delivered chips and salsa. I asked the server about the specialties and he pointed to menu items 6 (chile relleno, taco or enchilada) and 7 (chile relleno, taco AND enchilada). I went for No. 6 ($10), with a hard shell shredded beef taco.

This proved to be a great choice. While I’m not a big fan of chile rellenos, this was a good one, smothered in green sauce, and the taco was freshly fried, something you don’t see all that often. It made me think of Ramon’s Cactus Patch and the Mitla Cafe.

I could see El Patron becoming an occasional lunch stop for me as it’s not that far from our office and the food is very good, with friendly but low-key service. Now I feel prepared for El Patron II. By the way, readers say the same family runs Los Jarritos in Pomona.

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