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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Downtown Pomona fountain

Five fountains were installed by Pomona in 1962 as part of the 2nd Street makeover for a pedestrian mall, and four have survived. (The fifth, at Thomas and 2nd, was removed circa 1999 to make way for the Thomas Street Plaza.) All have art by prominent local artists thanks to Millard Sheets, the artist, teacher and designer who laid out the pedestrian mall and wanted to add beauty to people’s lives.

Here’s one of the fountains, produced by mosaic artists Jean and Arthur Ames and featuring the Goddess Pomona. It’s at 409 W. 2nd St., north side of the street.

City Hall is requesting proposals to clean and repair missing or broken elements of the four fountains at a cost of up to $230,000 total, as my colleague Liset Marquez recently reported. It’ll be nice to see them get some TLC.

This post has been updated to reflect the fifth fountain.

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Mural at Mosaic Apartments, Pomona

I’ve admired the tile mural at Pomona’s Mosaic Apartments (1680 S. Garey Ave.) while eating next door at DeAnda Taqueria. It’s a panoramic aerial view, complete with birds, and includes the fairgrounds, the Fox Theater and more. The mural is so long it’s impossible to capture in one photo. So here are three views, shot one night after dinner, and a rather dim view of the pleasant exterior of the three-story complex, which has 46 units classified as affordable.

Update: Cultural Arts Commissioner Joshua Swodeck reports: “Such a great mural. Designed by local artist Jason LaMotte and the mosaic production work was led by Alba Cisneros. It’s a beautiful public mural in District 3 right on Garey Avenue put up in 2017.” I didn’t know who had produced the mural, so I’m pleased to be able to give credit.

Swodeck also provides the handy guide to the scene, below. I’ll have to open this blog post on my phone at the mural some time and follow along.

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Column: For some, Aranda’s hometown shows are a pilgrimage

“American Idol” runner-up Alejandro Aranda ended his modest national tour of a half-dozen small venues with shows Wednesday and Thursday at the Glass House in his native Pomona. I was there for Wednesday’s concert and collected show tidbits and anecdotes from concertgoers, some of whom came a loooong way to see him. The result is Friday’s column.

Stats corner: Of my Top 5 most-read columns online in 2019, four are about Aranda. No. 4 is about Golden Spur in Glendora.

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Column: Ontario couple traded up by moving one house over

I write about Pat and Virginia King, who gave up their Ontario home 39 years ago to buy the house next door. After that come a bunch of items from Pomona involving Mexico Lindo, the redwood grove, an art exhibit, two Big Boys and the 1956 Pomona High fire, plus a plug for my next author talk and a note that I’m leaving for vacation, all in Sunday’s column.

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Column: It was ‘Idol’ finalist, crew, Ben Harper and one columnist

Prior to Alejandro Aranda’s Pomona activities, he stopped in Claremont at the Folk Music Center. And (intoning gravely) I was there. This fly on the wall saw the “American Idol” finalist reunite with store owner/musician Ben Harper, tour the store, talk and jam, with the store staff and the TV crew the only witnesses. Get the inside scoop in Sunday’s column. And yes, I know I’ve written three straight columns on Aranda. Don’t worry, Sunday will be something different. After that I’m on vacation so you’ll get a break from both of us.

 

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Column: Triumphant homecoming for Pomona’s ‘Idol’ finalist

I was there Tuesday for Alejandro Aranda’s return to Pomona for his “American Idol” “hometown visit,” which comes with being in the Top 3. And so were thousands of others. “Idol” had said to expect 8,000 to 10,000 and that seemed possible based on what I saw. That segment will air during Sunday’s finale.

It was a fun day, culminating in a free concert. It was also a stressful day for yours truly, as when the concert was over, at 7:30, I had until 8:30 to finish my column, partly written earlier in the day but with lots to add and adjust. I made it. Read about the day in my Wednesday column. And look for a sequel on Friday, as I had an inside view of Aranda’s low-key visit to Claremont earlier Tuesday.

Above, Aranda tunes his guitar while speaking from the stage in front of the Fox.

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