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.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Restaurant of the Week: Popular Cafe

Popular Cafe, 9637 Central Ave. (at San Bernardino), Montclair; open daily 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For years I drove past the sign for Popular Cafe and chuckled at the immodest but charming name without ever really considering going in. Last spring a source who’s a regular suggested meeting there for a lunch interview. Well, why not?

After the bland exterior, the inside has some homey touches: a hutch behind the greeter station, kitchen-style cabinets visible in the kitchen. It’s family owned by a Chinese American couple, with the wife waiting tables and the husband cooking the food, at least on my visit.

Serving breakfast and lunch only, Popular Cafe has been around for some 25 years — see, it must be popular — starting off down the street and later relocating a few blocks north. The couple’s children, I’m told, used to help set tables when they were shorter than the tables. Awww.

I had the meatloaf sandwich ($7.29), which came with lettuce, tomato and mayo, and got slaw as my side. Not a lot of places have meatloaf sandwiches (sigh), and even fewer serve it as an actual sandwich rather than open-faced with gravy and mashed potatoes. But not only does Popular Cafe get points for trying, they get points for succeeding, as this was a solid version.

Three months later, I went back for another lunch. They’re known for omelets and pancakes and I believe serve breakfast all day. (Why not, when it’s essentially a two-person operation? There’s not a lot of red tape to cut through.) For lunch they have hot and cold sandwiches and some $7 lunch specials, including a few Chinese American dishes like kung pao chicken and egg foo young.

I got the mushroom swiss burger ($8), lured by the menu’s promise of a hand-formed patty. Indeed, it was a better than average burger. The bun, however, wasn’t quite up to the job of holding everything together. A sturdier bun is recommended.

So, this is a decent option for all-American food. My second lunch came on a slow day in which I was the only customer the whole hour. C’mon, people, it’s the Popular Cafe. Don’t make liars out of them.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

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.”

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Restaurant of the Week: Szechuwan Garden

szech1

Szechuwan Garden, 8851 Central Ave. (at Arrow), Montclair; open daily

This ’80s strip mall has had a Chinese restaurant of one name or another for 30 years: first Royal China, then Golden Buddha and then, since 1998, Golden China. When it closed in 2014, after a long run, its replacement was yet another Chinese restaurant, Szechuwan Garden.

Thankfully, they made the place over, ditching some of the dated touches that left you wondering if A Flock of Seagulls might drop in for a pu-pu platter. The dining room is more industrial now, the lighting is focused and the atmosphere less tacky.

The menu is slightly more interesting than your typical Chinese American restaurant — shredded pork with dry bean curd, chow fun — but largely has familiar dishes, even moo goo gai pan, and cream cheese wontons, but no orange chicken at least.

szech3

I had lunch there last month with a friend. He got tangerine chicken off the lunch menu ($7), while I got one of the chef’s specialties, Mao braised pork belly ($13). His came with soup, salad and egg roll. They gave me a soup to be nice.

szech4

He liked his lunch, and mine was pretty good too, soft chunks of pork belly atop sauteed spinach, with brown rice on the side. Inland Empire had named it to its 10 Dishes to Die For list, a display at the entrance had boasted.

This isn’t San Gabriel-style authentic Chinese food, and thus I wouldn’t recommend driving across the valley to eat here. That said, it’s clean and comfortable, a small step up from Golden China, and in a time when decent sitdown places for traditional Chinese food are becoming scarce, I wish them luck.

szech2

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Restaurant of the Week: Cafe Moderno

cafemoderno4

Cafe Moderno, 9197 Central Ave. (at Moreno), Montclair

The former Theo’s Cafe in the Montclair East center east of Montclair Plaza was, if memory serves, a Greek-owned coffee shop in fairly traditional mold but with a few specialties. It closed after a long run in 2014 and was overhauled to become Cafe Moderno.

It’s gone pretty much all Greek, with gyros, spanakopita, dolmades, souvlaki and baklava, plus a few Lebanese items such as hummus, falafel and baba ghanoush. (They also have a few spaghettis and a hamburger.)

A friend and I met there for lunch. The menu has wraps, salads, sandwiches and entrees, plus beer and espresso. You order at the counter. Our food arrived within minutes.

I got chicken souvlaki ($10), skewered cuts of seasoned chicken with bell peppers and onions. This came with two sides; I chose rice pilaf and grilled vegetables. The result was tasty and filling, not to mention relatively healthy.

My friend got a Caesar salad ($5), which he liked as is; you can add items like chicken or salmon for another $3 to $4.

The interior is, dare I say it, modern, and possibly moderno. It’s nothing fancy, but the booths are comfortable and the hanging lights chic. A steady crowd came and went at lunchtime. “I like the environment,” my friend said. “It’s nice and clean. The food came out quick. I’d come back.”

Me too. In fact, two days later I was back for lunch. (I needed a photo of the exterior because on my first visit it was pouring rain. And since I was going to be there anyway…) I got the gyro wrap ($6.65) with chicken orzo soup ($2). As a gyro fan, I liked this version; the tzatziki sauce was especially minty. The restaurant was nearly full this time.

There aren’t enough Greek restaurants in the area. It’s good to have one — and freeway-close, too.

cafemoderno2

cafemoderno3cafemoderno1

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Restaurant of the Week: Taco Man

tacoman1

Taco Man, 9617 Central Ave. (at San Bernardino), Montclair

It’s a new restaurant — well, it opened in 2013 — but it’s in a vintage building, a Tastee Freez that dates to 1961, which in Montclair is practically the Paleolithic period. After a string of taquerias and other businesses in that spot, Taco Man spiffed it up and moved in. It was, and remains, a catering business that now has a brick and mortar location. (They produced a cute video prior to their opening.)

There’s no interior seating, but there is dining in the covered breezeway, where there are four picnic-style benches and a counter with seating for 10. And of course they have takeout.

I had lunch there on a hot day back in February and returned this week for a second meal and more photos.

The first time, I had three tacos ($1.49 each, bottom): carnitas, al pastor and cube, a mixture of chicken and chorizo. Really good street taco-style tacos, with the pineapple atop the al pastor a welcome touch. It didn’t surprise me to learn that owner Israel Miranda is a native of Mexico City as those are the type of tacos I had on my visit there in 2011.

This week I tried an al pastor burrito ($6.50, middle), which also has the pineapple, as well as finely shredded cabbage (the effect was like slaw) as well as onions, beans, cilantro, sour cream and salsa. A little different, but tasty, and also large and filling. They also have a double burrito named The Big Donk, plus quesadillas and a couple of healthier options, a protein bowl and low-carb tacos. They have vegetarian and vegan options too not reflected on the menu.

Its website has the restaurant’s menu, story and more. Alas, the former Tastee Freez doesn’t have ice cream cones.

tacoman2

tacoman3

tacoman4

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Restaurant of the Week: Korean BBQ

55739-koreanbbq 001.jpg

Korean BBQ, 4232 Holt Blvd. (at Amherst), Montclair

In the Inland Valley, where Korean restaurants are rare, Korean BBQ is the venerable granddaddy of them all. It’s located in a strip mall next to a laundromat along Holt Boulevard. Yes, it’s an unpromising location, but Korean BBQ has been there since sometime around 1990, so it must work for them. It used to have a giant yellow pole sign out front until a makeover to the center required a more modest sign.

My friends Meg and K. (of the M-M-M-My Pomona blog) highly recommend the place, and since they used to live in L.A.’s Koreatown neighborhood, their advice was heeded. The three of us met for dinner there on a recent Sunday.

The interior is dated, especially the paneling, but it’s clean and pleasant enough, and Korean restaurants generally are utilitarian. The staff brought out the usual array appetizers in small dishes: kimchi, fish cake, bean sprouts, etc.

We ordered short ribs ($25) and beef ($18) off the barbecue menu, plus a bowl of bibimbap (forgot the price, sorry) to share. The barbecue items are cooked on a grill in the middle of your table. The staff fires up the grill, puts the meat on and returns to turn it or serve pieces that are done.

Korean barbecue is even rarer than Korean restaurants out here; I’ve tried two Korean places in Rancho Cucamonga and one in Chino Hills, and none of them had tabletop barbecue. The food in Montclair didn’t impress me as much as my one previous experience with Korean barbecue, at the highly regarded Park’s in L.A. — the meat wasn’t of as high a quality — but I liked the meal, the staff was nice and Montclair is a lot closer than Wilshire Boulevard.

The restaurant gets 4 stars on Yelp, where they have the name as Arirang. The menu and sign say Korean BBQ (as did the old sign), but the strip mall’s name is Arirang Plaza, and for all I know that’s the restaurant’s secret name.

55740-koreanbbq 004.jpg
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Restaurant of the Week: Shakey’s Pizza, Montclair

38871-shakeysmont.jpg

Photo: Marc Campos

Shakey’s Pizza, 5639 Holt Ave. (at Benson), Montclair

A few weeks back I wrote about the new Shakey’s in Rancho Cucamonga and promised I’d revisit the one in Montclair. Pretty much the same food, obviously, but the Montclair Shakey’s holds a small place in my heart.

After all, it’s the oldest chain restaurant location in the Inland Valley still in operation. The Montclair location has been serving up pizza since 1961, nearly 50 years, without a break. Any other chains that arrived earlier have closed.

The enormous paddle-like sign out front is clearly original, as sign codes today would never allow a sign as large as a tennis court, and the exterior is basically unchanged too. The interior is revamped, however, other than a few lamps.

But I like this Shakey’s anyway. The food’s fine and they do the Bunch of Lunch all-you-can-eat special from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays ($7.50, drink extra). There may only be two pizzas out, not 10 as in Rancho Cucamonga, but this is a smaller operation.

Assistant manager Gina Amir is one of the friendliest restaurant employees you’ll meet and it’s her personal touch that keeps customers coming back. Frankly, this Shakey’s could use your business, so if you’re in the area and you like Shakey’s, check ’em out.

I wrote a column about the place in 2006 that you can find by clicking below. In it I listed runnerups in the chain-restaurant longevity derby and at least two of them — Wienerschnitzel on Mountain in Ontario and Sizzler across Holt from Shakey’s, have folded since then.
Continue reading “Restaurant of the Week: Shakey’s Pizza, Montclair” »

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email

Restaurant of the Week: Los Portales

29581-losportales2.jpg

Los Portales, 10244 Central Ave. (at Kingsley), Montclair

I’d seen Los Portales for ages in the strip center behind the estimable Cafe Montclair, but hadn’t yet gone in. That is, until looking for a new place to eat before Monday’s Montclair council meeting and finding most restaurants on Central closed, Mondays being what they are. Los Portales it is!

I was pleasantly surprised how large the interior is and how nice it looked. There were at least four dining rooms and the one where I was seated had banquette seating, those wooden booths with high backs. Chips, salsa and a menu were quickly delivered. The place was moderately busy.

The menu has plenty of seafood and steak dishes in the $10 to $15 range. Not having time to linger, I opted for the fish taco plate, grilled ($9.95). The two tacos had at least an entire filet between them, more fish than Rubio’s would put in a half-dozen tacos, plus some cabbage, diced tomatoes and cilantro on corn tortillas. Double tortillas would have made the tacos easier to eat, but I felt like I got my money’s worth. The plate also came with beans and rice. A horchata ($2.25) washed it down well.

My first impression of Los Portales is positive and it may be one of the valley’s better Mexican restaurants. Anyone else been there? Do any of you know the location’s history?

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Tumblr Email