Restaurant of the Week: Don Baja Grill

Don Baja Grill, 1524 Foothill Blvd. (at Wheeler), La Verne; open daily, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

In La Verne recently at lunchtime, I sought out the new Mexican spot in the Vons center. Don Baja Grill replaced El Patron II, a sitdown place that I liked (although the one in Rancho Cucamonga, not far from our office, is the one I patronize). Don Baja is fast casual, where you order at the counter.

Their specialty is fish tacos and burritos, shrimp, cocktails and ceviche, while also offering four types of meat: beef, pork, chicken and beef tongue. I have to wonder if La Verne has any other restaurants that sell tongue. (Note that I’m only wondering, not stating that as fact, which means I won’t be wrong if you name one or two other places in city limits that do. But there can’t be many.)

For vegetarians, they sell tacos with potatoes and burritos with beans and cheese and with (unspecified) veggies.

I got the two fish taco combo ($8.50). These were good, double-tortilla tacos with the requisite cabbage, cream and diced tomatoes. The rice was fluffy, the beans creamy. It’s 50 cents extra if you want your fish grilled rather than fried. I washed it all down with a watermelon agua fresca, which was among the drink choices that come with the combo, a good bargain.

I would eat at Don Baja again and wish them luck in a storefront that’s seen some turnover.

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Restaurant of the Week: Tropical Mexico

Tropical Mexico, 1371 S. East End Ave. (at Grand), Pomona; open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Tropical Mexico opened in 1967, making it almost certainly Pomona’s oldest extant Mexican restaurant, and one of the oldest in the area. It’s located off in the hinterlands in an industrial stretch. You may think you’ve been misdirected until, rounding a bend, suddenly you find a restaurant. Next door is a pallet yard, pallets stacked in towers as if laid in for lean times.

I’d been to Trop Mex, as regulars call it, just once, in 2006, although I’m a fan of Mexico Lindo south of downtown Pomona, until recently owned by the same family. A friend wanted to eat at Trop Mex and three of us joined him.

The parking lot is so expansive, with a circular layout, that one leg of the lot has its own stop sign.

Inside, the layout and feel are different than the more rustic, semi-outdoor experience of my memory. A friend who’s been eating there for decades told me later that indeed, the restaurant used to be “darker, smaller, seedier,” with an open patio and a lot of paintings on velvet. (The classic of dogs playing poker, he assured me, is still on view, a boon for art lovers.)

Today there are two dining rooms. We were in the main one, with a high ceiling, skylight, tiled floors, paintings of Mexican Independence figures and murals.

The menu seems the same as Mexico Lindo’s, with breakfasts, seafood, leaning toward plates rather than a la carte items, and with beer. Chips, warm and fresh, and salsa were delivered to our table.

The friend who invited us got a chicken burrito ($7.15), enchilada style ($2.75), seen above. Our vegan friend didn’t find much on the menu but got two potato tacos, below ($5.84). “Not many choices for a vegan, but they were accommodating,” she said.

A third got a shrimp burrito ($9.90), below. He praised it as “shrimp-tastic,” adding, “They were not stingy with the shrimp.”

Lastly, I got the steak picado plate, which came with rice and beans ($14.76) as well as soup or salad; I got the albondigas soup.

The soup was fine. I have to say, my steak picado was a bit fatty and gristly, the “Mexican” rice was dry and the beans were gluey. I’ve had a much better version of this plate (and for $9.65, or $5.11 cheaper, albeit without soup or salad) at El Patron in Rancho Cucamonga.

The friend who invited us and got the chicken burrito said: “Perfectly delicious, but there are perfectly delicious places closer to my house. What appeals to me is the murals. I wouldn’t come back just for the food, but there’s the ambiance.”

My absent friend, the one who’s been eating here for years, told me something similar. He said he’d give the food a B-minus, but that he has had birthday dinners here regardless because the space can accommodate groups small and large, and there’s just something about the restaurant’s feel and its obscure location that are appealing.

I get it entirely. There’s no place in the valley quite like Trop Mex.

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Restaurant of the Week: Luchador Urban Taqueria

Luchador Urban Taqueria, 341 S. Garey Ave. (at 4th), Pomona; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday

Luchador, named for masked Mexican wrestling, opened in December 2018 in the former Papa’s Tacos spot around the corner from the Fox Theater. I had tried Papa’s only once with friends prior to a concert by the National, and we were so hungry, one memorably said, “This is the worst Mexican food I’ve ever had. But I can’t stop eating.”

Luchador, by contrast, is by the chef and owner behind Corazon Urban Kitchen, Sergio Nogueron. He had opened Corazon downtown, then after a spat with his landlord moved it uptown. Corazon closed a few weeks ago. But Luchador seems to be going strong.

I ate there in May, the afternoon of the Alejandro Aranda concert outside the Fox. I forget what I’d wanted, but they were out — it was a busy day, what with the crowds — so I went for the sopesitos, one carnitas, one al pastor, plus a pineapple agua fresca (total $8.23 with tax).

They were delicious and just the right amount of food, filling without weighing me down. There’s not much seating, a couple of tables inside plus a bar. A woman behind me said to her friend about her own meal: “This tastes like what my grandmother would make. My mom’s mom.”

I meant to come back, but it took me a while. Last Saturday, chatting with a friend downtown at Cafe con Libros, we headed over for an impromptu dinner. She’s vegetarian and got taquitos de papa ($8.50); in deference, and also because I’d had steak picado at lunch, I got two veggie tacos ($2.50 each). The restaurant was busy, which was encouraging. We got a sidewalk table. It was too dark to take photos of our food.

My tacos, on handmade tortillas, had poblano and bell peppers, onions, spinach and cactus, an unusual mix (no beans?), but it worked. The taquitos weren’t the typical fried tubes but more like rolled tacos. “They were very good,” she said, impressed. “I thought they might be saturated with grease and crispy. I could taste the potatoes.”

Pomona has a few restaurants in the modern Mexican movement, not the same old stuff (that we love) but with a more creative touch, better ingredients and with multiple vegetarian or vegan options. Many are along Garey: Dia de los Puercos, Borreguitas, Just Vegana, El Jefe and Luchador.

It’s a good trend. And Luchador is a good spot.

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Restaurant of the Week: Chapala Restaurant

Chapala Restaurant, Bar and Grill, 1542 W. Holt Blvd. (at Benson), Ontario; open daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., except Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

You could date your longevity here by whether you know the low, long building at Benson and Holt as Last Round, or Las Playas, or Antonio’s, the latter of which occupied the corner for a few decades until the mid-’00s. The latest restaurant and bar is Chapala.

I learned of its existence from a rare mention of an Inland Valley restaurant in the Times food section’s news briefs column. The paragraph cited Chapala’s ceviche towers, tortas ahogadas, birria de res and handmade tortillas, plus mariachis on Friday and Saturday. To be clear, the Times didn’t visit; the mention was merely a rehash of a news release.

Still, I was impressed by the savvy of a local restaurant able to insert itself into the Times. So when a small group wanted lunch in Ontario, I chose Chapala. It’s named for a city in the Mexican state of Jalisco by a lake, accounting for the restaurant’s lighthouse logo.

The building has two halves, a restaurant side and a bar side. We checked out both and both were empty at 1 p.m. on a Thursday, perhaps not the best sign. We were seated in the bar area. I counted nine TVs, so it’s probably a fun place to unwind after work and watch sports.

Two had shrimp tacos ($2 each), said to be “all right” but served on cold tortillas. Handmade, but cold. Someone else got carne asada tacos ($1.55 each), which he said were “good.”

I had a chicharron torta ($6.75), decent but unexceptional.

The asada guy also got a shrimp cocktail ($13). He said the shrimp had been frozen and thawed in the cup, which might have accounted for the watery cocktail sauce.

Perhaps we came at the wrong time and ordered all the wrong things. But for what we experienced, Chapala was disappointing. On the bright side, we weren’t disturbed by the conversation of other diners.

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Restaurant of the Week: Fat Burrito

Fat Burrito, 9608 Base Line Road (at Archibald), Rancho Cucamonga; open Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Have you had puffy tacos? They’re a specialty in San Antonio, Texas, where I ate them at Ray’s, but they’re rare in SoCal, with Arturo’s Puffy Tacos in Whittier being the prime exemplar. Bar Ama in downtown L.A. makes them, although they’re off-menu; personally, I found them oily and disappointing on a visit earlier (oilier?) this year.

But now comes Fat Burrito, a family owned Tex-Mex restaurant in Rancho Cucamonga that opened last December in what had long been home to the late Chile Red.

Fat Burrito is a good name for a Mexican restaurant. But the specialty is puffy tacos.

On my first visit back in April, a friend got a chicken huarache ($8), seen above. He hadn’t had a huarache before. “That was excellent,” he said after finishing. “I’m glad I stepped outside my comfort zone.”

I got the puffy tacos ($3.55 each): one al pastor, one chile verde. They come with onions, cilantro, cotija cheese and sour cream. The tortillas puff out, as if the tortilla were an animal in defense mode. These were delicious tacos, and scarcely oily at all.

On a subsequent visit I got carne asada and pollo asado in my puffy tacos (above). I was back this week and got the final two meats: machaca and carnitas. I have completed the Fat Burrito meat circuit.

I’d be hard-pressed, though, to tell you which meat to get. They were all tender and moist. But as a pork fan, I’m partial to the al pastor and chile verde.

You order at the counter, by the way, and take a seat in the small but comfortable dining room. The menu has a couple of other items, including something called a burrito salad, plus standard tacos for $2.25, but that’s about it.

All told, I’ve eaten at Fat Burrito four times so far, and I’m sure I’ll return many more times. Between Fat Burrito and El Patron, Rancho Cucamonga now has a couple of very good Mexican restaurants. (And perhaps more of which I’m unaware.)

On one visit, I tried a burrito. It’s in their name, right? I got chile verde ($9.25). You know, the burritos here are good too, wrapped in flour tortillas, the interior a pleasing mishmash of rice, beans and meat, everything kind of fusing into one filling.

It’s also true, though, that you can get a good burrito plenty of places, but you probably can’t find puffy tacos anywhere else in the Inland Valley. Go for those. You’ll thank me.

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Restaurant of the Week: Pola’s Mariscos

Pola’s Mariscos, 8801 Central Ave. (at Arrow), Montclair; open daily 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

I’d noticed Pola’s while driving along Central Avenue, in the aging center with Dolce Bistro, Tokyo Kitchen and more. Pola’s took over a long-vacant Quizno’s whose sign’s ghost image could be easily read even years after its departure.

While no expert on Mexican seafood, mariscos sounded appealing, and a new restaurant in Montclair is almost news in itself. So I arranged to meet a friend for lunch there. I could accurately say this took place on a cold, blustery day, even though this was in the middle of January rather than any time in the four weeks since then, which have largely been just as dismal.

It’s a simple operation with a short menu. I got the campechana ($12.50), with shrimp, octopus, tomatoes, cucumbers and avocado.

The seafood, simply prepared, tasted fresh and of the sea. Does the serving look large in the stemmed glassware? It was. It was all I could do to finish it.

My friend got Reyna’s mix ($13.50), with shrimp, octopus, crab (hence the extra $1), cucumbers and tomatoes. He pronounced himself equally satisfied and stuffed.

The menu has aguachile, shrimp cocktail, molcajete and tostadas, plus menudo on weekends, but no tacos or burritos.

We were given crisp tostadas as accompaniment, plus ketchup, mayonnaise and hot sauce. The staff was friendlier than the norm. Pola’s is a nice place.

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Restaurant of the Week: Corazon Urban Kitchen

Corazon Urban Kitchen, 1637 N. Garey Ave. (at McKinley), Pomona; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and until 8 p.m. Sunday

Pomona has a lot of Mexican restaurants, most of them taquerias, but places taking a more chef-driven approach are rare. There’s been some movement in that regard in the past year with the vegan Mexican spot Borreguitas, the cholo-friendly Dia de los Puercos and the modern Mexican Corazon Urban Kitchen.

Among the experimental restaurant’s experiments was where to locate. Corazon opened on East Second Street earlier this year, was raved about and then within weeks closed in a landlord-tenant dispute. This summer it surfaced on Garey Avenue above the 10 Freeway between a tire shop and a liquor store across from Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center.

I had lunch there recently with a friend who’d eaten there once before. A window seat will put you practically on the sidewalk.

Parking is either on the street or in the lot immediately to the south, which the server assured me was fine. The exterior is a muted red with a stylish metal sign, the effect somewhat offset by a banner or two. The interior is inviting with faux wood flooring, pumpkin-colored walls and portraits of such Mexican icons as Frida, Cantinflas and El Santo.

Lunch started with chips and salsa. The chips were warm, the salsa fresh tasting.

My friend and I ordered from the lunch specials, which are $8. I got a carnitas sope with rice, he got a chicken tinga torta with fries. We both thought they were great. A reader had recommended the sopes, two discs of masa with a meat (or not), queso fresco, cilantro and crema, and I was not disappointed. I should have asked my friend to cut his torta in half for a better photo, but I swear there was chicken inside. We both left full.

“I would say ‘Delicious torta,’ which is a boring thing to say,” he said. “Not only would I come back, I did come back.” While he preferred his first-visit quesadilla, he said: “The taste is prima.”

Plates cost $10 to $25. Entrees include short rib tacos, potato taquitos, chicharron tacos and a chorizo burger. Their Facebook page says they now have a vegan chile relleno. Blogger John Clifford gave a detailed account of a meal here back in June. Owner Sergio Nogueron, he said, is a Ganesha High graduate who worked in restaurants in LA before returning to his hometown. Welcome back, Sergio.

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Restaurant of the Week: Dia de los Puercos

Dia de los Puercos, 115 W. 2nd St. (at Garey), Pomona; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday except until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Monday

You may recall this corner spot as home to Joey’s BBQ, or later The Rookery, which has moved a few storefronts west. Since August it’s been home to Dia de los Puercos, a Mexican restaurant that began as a food truck and added a West Covina restaurant, as well as becoming a vendor at the LA County Fair. Shuttering Covina, owner Rick Garcia has now opened in Pomona and also at the new Riverside Food Lab food hall.

I’d been to the Fair spot and to the Covina location, enjoying both, and was happy to see the restaurant in a permanent spot closer to home. I went in for dinner earlier this month.

It was populated on a Saturday night, but low-key. It can be hard to tell if the dark-windowed restaurant is open but for the open front door. A greeter is right inside when you enter. Here’s the menu; click on the image for a readable view.

For a place whose name translates as Day of the Pigs, pork is obviously a theme, but there are other meats too, as well as vegetarian and vegan options. I got the El Tri ($10), the three-taco plate, with pastor, barbacoa and huitlacoche.

Underneath the cabbage were three very good tacos, and filling too, on handmade tortillas, with some fresh chips on the side.

The dining room has banquettes, a bar and two original Joey’s picnic tables as well as some newer communal tables. The walls have graffiti-style art, street signs for 6th Street and Brooklyn Avenue, and a wall-length photo mural of the 6th Street bridge, all appealing for the Boyle Heights diaspora. Latin and soul oldies such as “Sideshow” and “Ring My Bell” played. The place had a mellow, friendly vibe.

In addition, there’s a front dining room with a bar as well and a patio. As with Joey’s and The Rookery, the space is larger than needed, and a bit awkward, but they’re trying to make use of the entire floor plan.

I went back a week later for lunch on a Sunday. There were some large groups, including extended families with men in buttoned-up flannel Pendletons. A Latina reader saw me and later shared that while I was the only Anglo in the restaurant, “you looked totally comfortable” — which I was.

Anyway, I got the El Sangweesh ($7), a sorta with pork mole as my meat. The result, which I cut in half for easier eating, was flavorful and carried me through the rest of the day.

Eater LA’s Bill Esparza has produced a close look at the restaurant, which he describes as “a shrine to Chicanismo, or Mexican-American street culture” and an exemplar of “pocho cuisine.” Recommended reading, and the photos are great.

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Restaurant of the Week: Borreguitas

Borreguitas, 977 S. Garey Ave. (at 10th St.), Pomona; open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday; closed Sundays

This is a rarity, a vegan restaurant, and in a smaller subset, vegan Mexican. A vegan friend who lives nearby had eaten at Borreguitas several times since its July opening and invited me and two other friends to lunch.

Seating about a dozen, it’s a small place, sandwiched (possibly with sprouts) between a barbershop and La Fuente, a 24-hour Mexican restaurant. The story is that there’s an ownership connection with La Fuente, where vegan items were introduced and ignored because nobody really knew about it. Borreguitas, however, seems to be a hit. In the two hours we were there, people kept cycling through or picking up to-go orders.

The menu has tacos, burritos, quesadillas, mulitas, enchiladas, tortas, pozole and ceviche, all Mexican staples, only with soy meat, vegan nut cheese and the like.

Of our group of four, three got the “asada” burrito with either red or green salsa ($10). I photographed the green. You can imagine the red, I trust.

“This is magnificent,” one carnivore declared. “This sauce is fantastic.” (He had the red. Maybe I should have photographed it instead.) “This was the best vegan burrito I’ve ever had. Also the first,” he clarified. “But it won’t be the last. I’ll be back.”

The second carnivore also liked his burrito and said, “I will gladly take my meat-loving friends here.” He had earlier joked: “My comment is, ‘Add a little meat and: delish.’ You don’t need to put that.” I didn’t need to, but I try to go above and beyond.

Of course the vegan liked it. She’d had it before.

I had the street tacos, four of ’em ($1.25 each): two “asada,” two “al pastor.” They looked much like the real thing, dusted with cilantro and chopped onion, the asada looking steak-ish, the al pastor ruddy, with (a nice touch of authenticity) thin-sliced pineapple on top. Even though they were all from soy meat, there was no question which was which.

They did taste fairly convincingly of the meats they replicated, although the mouth feel wasn’t the same. Neither was the fat content, of course. I also had one of the aguas frescas, pineapple-spinach ($3), an unusual combination but one that worked. Someone else got a horchata ($3) and liked it.

I’d be open to returning, even if I prefer the real thing. Borreguitas is definitely a welcome addition to Pomona and the rest of the valley. As I write this, Borreguitas has 61 reviews on Yelp and a five-star ranking.

As you might expect, customers were mostly young, including a hipster with a lumberjack beard. But they also included families with young children. It was a nice scene, akin to something you might see in Silver Lake.

By the way, Borreguitas means little lamb. “Which is adorable,” one friend remarked, “but which they don’t actually serve.” Maybe over at La Fuente.

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Restaurant of the Week: Taqueria La Oaxaquena

Taqueria La Oaxaquena, 825 E. Mission Blvd. (at Towne), Pomona; open daily, 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. except Friday and Saturday until 4 a.m.

I’ve noticed Taqueria La Oaxaquena from across Mission Boulevard at Taqueria Guadalupana, one of my haunts, always meaning to give it a shot. On a lunch break a few weeks ago, I did so.

It’s a large space occupying two storefronts, with a bare floor and few frills. You order at the counter and sit at one of the basic fast-food-style booths lined up in rows. A mural of a Mexican village scene, probably meant to represent the pilgrimage town of San Juan (the exterior sign is Taqueria La Oaxaquena de San Juan), decorates one wall and spills over onto the next.

The menu is confusing and incomplete — a few pictured items on a couple of banners and some signs noting specials — and the staff is more comfortable in Spanish. They sell tacos, quesadillas and mulitas with the standard fillings, and some uncommon ones, plus breakfast, some seafood items, aguas naturales (bionicos, licuados and smoothies) and ice cream. Based on the exterior signs, their specialties include birria, barbacoa and mole con pollo.

My first visit I had one of the specials, four tacos ($5) al pastor, plus a Coke. They arrived with double tortillas, handmade and crisped on the grill, with a generous amount of barbecued pork. They were quite good, and there was a bar of salsas, limes, etc. to choose from.

I took a flier that listed a few of their items, plus the fillings. Three are vegetarian: huitlacoche or corn fungus, champinones or mushrooms and flor calabeza or squash blossoms. On a return visit, I had a huitlacoche quesadilla ($6.50, I think), which took me back to my vacation to Mexico City. It’s a rare item in these parts. It had mushrooms, corn fungus, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese.

I also got an aguas fresca ($2.50, I think), serving myself with a ladle from one of the five jugs. Mine was strawberry, and I liked it.

The clientele on my visits was very Mexican-American and working class. I can’t tell you whether the food is from the state of Oaxaca or the state of Jalisco — anyone able to explain this to me? — but I can tell you this is among Pomona’s better Mexican restaurants. For the adventurous, it’s worth making a pilgrimage to.

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