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: McKinley’s Grille

McKinley’s Grille, 601 W. McKinley Drive (at White), Pomona; open daily 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.

McKinley’s is the restaurant in the Sheraton Fairplex hotel at the Pomona fairgrounds. I’d been there a couple of times for fair-related lunches, and a few times more for service club lunches. Once I met Jon Provost and his wife for an interview over iced teas. But it had not occurred to me to go there for a Restaurant of the Week.

That is, until reader Ken Haerr contacted me to rave about the place. “If you haven’t already reviewed McKinley’s Grille at the Fairplex Sheraton, you must. There is a 5-acre farm to table plot at the LA County Fairgrounds that is dedicated to this restaurant,” Haerr wrote. “There is no reason that this restaurant should not be packed during off-event hotel times. My wife and I ate here tonight in an empty restaurant and the food was utterly spectacular.”

After Haerr’s email I was looking for an excuse to try out McKinley’s when a colleague’s farewell dinner was scheduled there. Bingo.

McKinley’s has a long main dining room with a bar, plus a private room, which is where our dinner was. The decor is all earth tones, comfortable but a little dull. But it’s swankier than a hotel coffee shop, that’s for sure.

The dinner menu has starters, salads, sandwiches and entrees, the latter ranging from $12 to $32. I opted against circling the table to photograph everyone’s food, especially since most people got sandwiches.

But the friend to my right had the Szechuan stir-fry ($12) with chicken ($6). She said the vegetables were fresh and likely from Fairplex’s farm and that the sauce had a pleasant kick to it. She took home half.

Meanwhile, yours truly splurged on the seared rare yellowfin tuna ($28), crusted with yuzu miso and served atop wild rice pilaf with wasabi cream and farm vegetables. This was a winner, light and delicious.

Our dearly departed was given a free dessert, a scoop of vanilla ice cream with berries. I don’t know if it’s on the menu as such, but it was enjoyed by the table. I didn’t poll the table, as I would at a lunch or dinner that was primarily about the food rather than a farewell, but everyone seemed to like what they ordered.

The restaurant also serves breakfast and lunch (the $16 burgers are made with ground brisket and short rib), with a mid-afternoon break in service, and has a wine list.

McKinley’s exists primarily for hotel guests and to provide catering for community group events on the premises, and thus perhaps doesn’t live or die by attracting regular folks in for meals. But I can see why the reader was excited about it, because the food is superior, the atmosphere serene and, at least on that Thursday, there was plenty of elbow room.

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Restaurant of the Week: Cross Court Cafe

Cross Court Cafe, 3410 Pomona Blvd. (at Temple), Pomona; open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Pomona is home to many wonders, among them the San Gabriel Valley Badminton Club, which contains the Cross Court Cafe, a rare spot for Indonesian food. I wouldn’t have known any of this if LA Weekly, of all places, hadn’t written a restaurant review about it that was forwarded to me by a reader.

Looking for a place to meet a Chino Hills friend (everyone should have a Chino Hills friend), I picked the cafe near Cal Poly Pomona. Once through the doors, non-members have to be buzzed in — just say “restaurant” or “cafe” — and the cafe is down the hall. It’s an unprepossessing place, a few tables embossed with the club log, a paper menu taped to the wall and an order window. The couple who runs the cafe will probably be found seated in the dining area but will scurry to assist you.

Indonesian fried rice is the item to get ($7.50), a melange of sausage, pork and fried egg in a crispy rice with bits of garlic, shrimp paste and fish sauce. This was hearty and very tasty. We also had stir fry noodle ($6), not bad, and steamed egg custard buns ($3), a dessert we liked. I had a taro smoothie ($4) and she had a passion fruit green tea ($2.25).

Three weeks later, I had to be at Cal Poly for an interview about its mariachi ensembles and used that as an excuse to go back to Cross Court Cafe. This time I had pad see ew ($8), or maybe an Indonesian dish similar to pad see ew — it wasn’t clear and it wasn’t on the menu. That was good too, and I got a milk tea with boba ($2.75). But if I return, it will be for the Indonesian fried rice.

The cafe seems to be open much of the day and into the evening, except for a break in the afternoon. I was there past closing without realizing it and the cafe owner let me out.

It’s possible, I think, to rent a court as a non-member, but we didn’t try. It was fun to watch people play for a few moments who know what they’re doing.

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Restaurant of the Week: Nuno’s Bistro

Nuno’s Bistro, 2440 W. Arrow Route (at Monte Vista), Upland; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Monday

Nuno’s is Claremont-adjacent, and probably considered Claremont by most who visit and Montclair by many of the rest; it’s in the College Park center that also has a Legends, Bakers, Juancho’s and Noodle World Jr.

Nuno’s is an offshoot of the definitely-Claremont Euro Cafe up on Base Line, which specializes in Portuguese food. Nuno’s, run by the family’s son, is a more elegant version with table service. Pronunciation note: There’s no tilde in the name, which should be pronounced “noo-nose.”

I’d seen it and heard good things, but on my occasional cheap, solo dinners in the center, I would look in at the dimly lighted Nuno’s, see couples and groups drinking wine and being convivial, and decide it was not for the likes of me. A convivial friend who’s been there a few times with his wife said my sense of the scene was accurate. But he and I recently met up there for lunch, which is more my speed.

It’s a modernist space, all high ceilings, bare floors and art on the walls, with a three-sided bar and light pouring in during the day. The menu, which doesn’t seem to be on the Nuno’s website no matter how many times you click on the “menu” tab, has a sort of generalized European fare, with breakfast, tapas, pizzas, salads and sandwiches. Lunch specials range from $25 to $36, so prepare yourself accordingly.

But there is lower-priced fare for the wage-slave budget. I had the crepe marieke ($11), with crimini mushrooms, spinach and cheese inside a buckwheat crepe, a fried egg on top and truffle oil drizzle. I liked how it sounded and liked how it tasted. This came with a side of fruit: grapes, strawberries, blackberries and melon, a refreshing accompaniment.

My friend had the BLAT ($14), with applewood-smoked bacon, tomato relish and levain bread, not to mention L and A. He liked it, singling out the “hot snap” of the piri piri aioli. (“Piri piri aioli” is so fun to type I’m doing it again.)

Of the dinners, he said he’s liked the patatas bravas, thought the charcuterie was OK and didn’t like the paella.

Let me note, too, that the service was of the friendly but low-key quality one rarely encounters in these parts.

I’m glad I gave Nuno’s a try. It’s one of the better local restaurants. And lunch is relaxed enough that your casual, low-budget and not so convivial columnist may return.

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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: Mes Amis, Upland

Mes Amis, 1386 E. Foothill Blvd. (at Alta), Upland; open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily except Sunday, closed

I was a fan of Mes Amis, which opened in 2010 in Chino Hills and, famously, has a second location in London, England. That was almost an in-joke for the two Elias brothers, each of whom ran one of the Mes Amis and put both cities on their menus and business cards.

There was an ill-starred attempt at an Upland location as well — maybe Shanghai or Rio de Janeiro proved impractical — but that didn’t work out. And the Chino Hills restaurant closed last August when its lease was up.

But Mes Amis, and Sammy Elias, have resurfaced in Upland, where he took over the former Claire’s Mediterranean Food and Pastry, using the Mes Amis name but keeping on Claire, a distant relative, and her pastry-making.

I went in for lunch a few weeks back and was greeted like an old friend, which I believe I am. More on that at the end.

The restaurant is at the west end of the center on the south side of Foothill Boulevard and west of Grove Avenue. The center has a few restaurants, a nightclub and a Firestone shop. Not upscale in any sense. Mes Amis’ interior is one big room rather than having a kitchen in the middle as before, but the decor is largely the same as in Chino Hills.

The menu has many familiar items but more plates and sandwiches, and supposedly the goal is to get you out quicker than they did at the leisurely placed Chino Hills location. As my lunch lasted probably 90 minutes, Sammy’s quicker pace isn’t exactly Zankou level, but Mes Amis is more casual than before, it’s true.

I got an order of cheese sambousek ($5, above), a rosewater iced tea ($2.75) and a chicken kabab plate ($14). The knife-and-fork sambousek, a warm pastry with cheese, diced tomatoes and parsley, lives up to the word “appetizer,” as it made me anticipate the meal, and the addition of rosewater to my standard iced tea was a pleasant upgrade. The kabab plate had rice, hummus, zucchini and five pieces of grilled chicken on a bed of cabbage and onions, plus an excellent small salad.

It was all delicious. This was an awful lot of food, though, enough that I took home half my plate. The amount of food seems out of character with what is a fairly nice restaurant with sitdown service. (A friend felt a similar disconnect on his and his wife’s lone visit to the earlier Upland location and never returned.) Still, the remainder made for prime leftovers. You might consider sharing a plate.

Because I wasn’t anonymous and the owner waited on me personally, then insisted on treating me, this isn’t a totally objective view. For what it’s worth, I’d say Mes Amis is a good addition to the Upland dining scene. Also, that Chino Hills fans would want to give the new version a try, even though it’s a schlep to Upland and the ambience is a little less atmospheric. But you can look at the photos and make up your own mind.

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Restaurant of the Week: Tamsui River

Tamsui River Taiwanese Cuisine, 2855 Foothill Blvd. (at Fulton), La Verne; open daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Tamsui River is on the old Person Ford site in La Verne, now apartments with some restaurants and retail facing Foothill Boulevard. The restaurant has gotten high marks, but I hadn’t been there until just before Christmas, when a Chinese food-lovin’ friend was in town and I suggested we try it out.

The L-shaped dining room is moderately sized, with an area separated by glass for a larger party. We were seated in a booth and examined the expansive menu of more than 100 items: soups, dumplings, noodles, seafood, etc.

We got sauteed lamb with scallions ($14, above), smoked duck noodle ($11) and pork soup dumplings ($9).

The lamb, similar to the cumin lamb that I’ve had elsewhere, was my favorite. We liked the XLB dumplings (below), even if they wouldn’t make me forget Din Tai Fung’s. We were surprised that smoked duck noodle came as a soup (bottom), since it wasn’t listed under soups, but there was nothing wrong with it.

The menu didn’t have photos of any dishes, so the names weren’t always a great help for two non-experts. And a few of the names were both puzzling and amusing, like “modeling dessert.”

Kidding aside, we liked the food. I wouldn’t say it’s San Gabriel Valley level, but for local Chinese, it’s in the upper ranks. As a foodie acquaintance who was leaving said as he passed our table, “This is a good place.”

Also, you know a Chinese restaurant is authentic when the menu isn’t online and they can’t be bothered to even have a Facebook page.

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Restaurant of the Week: The State

The State, 7900 Kew Ave. (in Victoria Gardens), Rancho Cucamonga; open daily

The Redlands gastropub The State (it’s on State Street) has expanded west to Victoria Gardens, where it took over the old Ra Pour space. Three friends and I had lunch there in December.

It’s a large spot with an oblong main dining room and then a patio. (It was a cold afternoon and we didn’t investigate the option when asked “would you like to eat outside?”) There’s a full, elaborate bar with cocktails and more. The motto: Kitchen * Beer * Whisk(e)y.”

Between the concrete floor and the cranked-up music, one friend said: “My first comment: ‘loud.'” We could hear him, though. And as at that point they were playing such soul oldies as “I’m Your Puppet,” “Try a Little Tenderness” and “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” it wasn’t in me to object.

The menu has upscale versions of classic comfort food, but other items too: starters, salads, burgers, sandwiches, main courses and desserts. (One unappealingly named entree is Airline Chicken — although surely it’s a better version.)

Two got the portabella sandwich ($12), one with a salad as the side (free), the other with fries ($1). Both called it “average.” The bread looks great.

Another got steak and egg tacos ($8), which the server cautioned would be small as a main course. The warming proved accurate, although they were enjoyed.

I got the apple harvest salad with chicken ($11 + $4), light and tasty, and some of us shared the poutine ($13), the Canadian comfort food of fries topped with cheese curds, braised short ribs and gravy. That was a real winner. “I would definitely come back” and “delicious” were the comments.

Meanwhile, TVs silently played “Casablanca” — easy enough to fill in the dialogue on that — and other old movies or clips. Nice backdrop. The state of The State is strong.

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Restaurant of the Week: 85 Degrees C Bakery Cafe, Claremont

85 Degrees C Bakery Cafe, 428 Auto Center Drive (at Indian Hill), Claremont; open daily

I’ve been to the Chinese bakery chain 85 Degrees (Celsius) in Chino Hills a few times, which will tell you I like it. One opened up in Claremont last fall, in the Super King center.

Even though I live in Claremont, my lone visit so far was not on my way to work or on a weekend but rather for a workday meal. I was headed to an interview in Claremont at 4 p.m. one day from our Rancho Cucamonga office and needed a quick lunch. It occurred to me that 85 Degrees was right off the freeway and wouldn’t take long.

It’s in a space in the middle of the center that previously housed a couple of Mediterranean restaurants in succession. I was skeptical of how this would work, given that the Chino Hills space is probably four times larger, and with a patio. But the selection of serve-yourself items is about the same size as in Chino Hills. There’s no cake display and far less seating.

I grabbed a tray and tongs and picked up, in clockwise order below, a wheat mushroom roll ($1.65), apple danish ($1.80), pork sung bun ($1.80) and spinach danish ($2), plus a sea salt jasmine tea ($3, not pictured because it arrived after I started eating), paid and took the lone table available. I felt bad taking a table for four, but it was that or eat standing up, and besides, I wasn’t there long.

As always, I liked my items, with the wheat mushroom roll my favorite and the pork sung bun the least. If there were more seating, I would visit more often.

An 85 Degrees opened in December in Rancho Cucamonga. Suddenly, they’re everywhere!

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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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