Restaurant of the Week: Chuy’s Cocina

Chuy’s Cocina, 10285 Central Ave. (at Kingsley), Montclair; open daily, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

A friend who drives up Central on a frequent basis noticed Chuy’s and suggested a group of us meet there for lunch. I had overlooked the restaurant, which opened last September in a small, multi-tenant building, but agreed instantly. Always nice to find a new restaurant to try in modest Montclair. (The current Yelp rating, by the way, is five stars, based on 63 reviews.)

You generally order at the counter, it seems, although a staffer came to our table to take our order based on the menu behind the counter. Hey, it’s a family-run place, they can make their own rules. Menu board is below; click on the photo for a more readable view.

I got a sope (with pastor) and a mulita (with asada), each $4. I think I’d had a sope once, which is pictured at top below, but not a mulita, foreground. A mulita is somewhere between a taco and a quesadilla. I liked it. It turns out I’m not a fan of sopes, which are hard to pick up and eat, and have crumbled cheese and other toppings that fall off, but there was nothing wrong with this version.

One friend got the chile relleno and enchilada combo ($9) with beans, rice and a wee salad. “Esta muy rica,” he said, practicing his Spanish. “Very delicious. I liked it very much.”

The other two friends each got three-taco combos ($7), one with bean tacos — “Tasty. I really liked the salsa,” she said — and one with chicken. After much thought as to a pithy comment, he settled for: “The tacos were excellent.” Posterity thanks him.

Chuy’s seats about 30. The staff was helpful, even if their English is lacking. When the vegan in our group had a question about the preparation, the chef came out to answer. When our complimentary chips were finished, they brought out more, and also refilled our drinks.

The friend whose idea it was to meet there mused aloud, “My thought was, how could a place so small be a restaurant? In the inside, it’s a lot larger than it looks from the outside.”

“Like the Tardis,” said another.

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Restaurant of the Week: Carnitas al Estilo Michoacan

Carnitas al Estilo Michoacan, 818 S. Mountain Ave. (at Mission), Ontario; open daily

Ontario doesn’t show up as often in these Restaurant of the Week posts as some cities. So when a friend suggested meeting at a carnitas specialist in south Ontario, I was all for it. Carnitas al Estilo Michoacan is in the shopping plaza on the southwest corner of Mountain and Mission.

You order at the counter, by a steam table of meats. Here’s the menu; click for a larger view. As befits the restaurant’s name, it’s pork-intensive: pork, stomach, skin and the carnitas mix, pork with brains.

But they also have beef. My friend got the two-taco combo: one pork, one birria, which is stewed beef, with rice and beans (about $9, below); I got the same, except both birria. This wasn’t on purpose. I can get a little tongue-tied at unfamiliar and ethnic restaurants.

Their tacos are large and meaty; I ate about half the beef with a fork before picking up the remainder. We both thought the tacos were quite good. She bought a bag of housemade pork rinds for her parents.

A couple of weeks later, I returned for two carnitas tacos, again as a plate. Couldn’t very well write about Carnitas al Estilo Michoacan without trying the carnitas. It was tender and flavorful.

Next door there’s a La Michoacana Ice Cream shop in case you’d like to continue the theme and maybe cool off the spicy salsa.

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Restaurant of the Week: Alex’s Tacos

Alex’s Tacos, 941 E. Mission Blvd. (at San Antonio), Pomona; open daily 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

In Pomona, Mission and Holt are prime taqueria corridors. On Holt, I like Tijuana’s Tacos; on Mission, Taqueria Guadalupana is a winner. But there are others. Lured by reviews on Yelp, I’ve been trying Alex’s Tacos, in a small, battered building a couple of blocks east of Towne Avenue.

Entrance is through the back, from a parking lot that has been full the couple of times I’ve tried it. Might be better to park on the street or a block over on Caswell. There’s a popular boba shop in the building next door, by the way.

Alex’s has a half-dozen booths, often full, and a counter where you can sit to eat or await a takeout order. The menu is tacos, burritos and quesadillas, with a variety of meats, including one I hadn’t seen on a menu before, sessos. I googled it. Let’s say zombies would go right for it. But there’s pork, chicken and beef as well as tongue, stomach and more.

They specialize in birria, the stew that you can get as either beef or goat, and that you can get in taco form. My first visit I got three birria tacos: two goat, one beef ($1.85 each). They came double-wrapped in flaky tortillas, with red and green salsas on the side. The meat was tender, and while my nod would go to the beef, my mind might change by next time.

My next visit, I got an al pastor burrito with everything ($6.10), delicious, the pork nice and crisp.

Realizing they had hard-shell tacos (tacos dorados), I ordered three al pastor tacos on my most recent visit ($1.85 each). The outer tortilla came crisped lightly, but still flexible; the inner tortilla was warm. I prefer soft shell, but these were good.

Alex’s also has menudo on weekends and based on Yelp reviews has a consomme for $1 that people seem to like.

Service is brisk but polite and you’ll probably have to wait a bit for your food due to demand. Be patient, it’s worth it.

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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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