Restaurant of the Week: Portillo’s Hot Dogs

Portillo’s Hot Dogs, 12480 Day St. (at Gateway), Moreno Valley; open daily, 10:30 a.m. to midnight

I’d never heard of Portillo’s until a reader, and then my editor, both brought it up to me as a place that sells Chicago-style hot dogs. They were referring to the Portillo’s in Riverside County; there’s another in SoCal in Buena Park. Buena Park is slightly closer to my home, but showing a little Inland Empire pride, I ventured to the one in Moreno Valley.

The exterior looks like an old brick building on three sides and like a chrome diner on the fourth. Those are Chicago-ish scenes in the murals. An employee at the door greeted me, asked if I’d been there before, explained where to order and handed me a menu. That’s unusual in my experience, but welcome.

The interior is pretty large and has lots of Chicago-ish tin signs, maps, photos, etc. Jazz and pop from the prewar period played. Apparently only old Chicago is iconic.

The menu has hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, beef and sausage sandwiches, salads and baby back ribs. There were promotional signs for an apple walnut salad. Fine if you’re a regular, but not what you’d order as a first-timer.

Faced with a choice of two iconic items, the Chicago hot dog and the Italian beef sandwich, I decided to go big and get both. After all, I’d made a 45-minute drive, and who knew if I would ever return.

So: hot dog ($3), Italian beef sandwich ($6), fries ($2.09) and chocolate cake shake ($4.19), small size. That’s about 2,000 calories, by the way.

Frankly, haha, Chicago dogs have never been my thing, laden as they are with a veritable salad of pickle slice, tomato slices, onions, relish and sport peppers, but this was a good version of something I’m not a fan of.

I’ve had Italian beef only once or twice, at the former Nancy’s Pizza in La Verne, which was served on garlic bread. The Portillo’s version, on french bread, is probably more traditional. You can get mozzarella and sweet or hot peppers, or get it dipped, but I just got it as it comes. The roast beef was very soft, as gravy is involved, and so was the bread. It was like a softer version of a Philippe french dip. I liked it, although I could see how mozzarella and/or peppers could spice it up. (The photo on the website looks good.)

The crinkle cut fries, an afterthought (I’d decided not to order them, but found myself ordering them) were crispy and very good. Portillo’s sells chocolate cake, but seeing chocolate cake shake on the menu was intriguing. At first, as I was eating it with a spoon, it was simply a chocolate cake with flecks. Then, suddenly, here was a chunk of cake. And there were more where that came from. That was fun.

This Illinois (but not Chicago) expat enjoyed the experience. And having gone big, I went home. And napped.

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Restaurant of the Week: Tasty Pot, Rancho Cucamonga

Tasty Pot, 11540 4th St. (at Richmond Place), Rancho Cucamonga; open daily, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

The influx of Asian Americans into Rancho Cucamonga continues to pay benefits, probably in somewhat invisible cultural ways, but visibly in more dining choices. A friend and I tried out the fairly new (open since May) Tasty Pot, a Taiwanese hot pot restaurant across from Ontario Mills.

Tasty Pot is a national chain, sort of, with 15 locations, most in California but with a few random states, like Ohio, having one lone locale. (Trivia note: There’s one in Ontario, Canada.) Ours is in the Signature Center, a few steps from a Panera and in what I believe used to be a bridal shop.

Inside, there’s a wall-length photo mural of what is presumably the Taipei skyline. The place was about two-thirds full when we arrived. We were the only white people, a good sign.

Soup is the thing to get. Each soup had around a dozen ingredients listed, many of them duplicated from one to the next. You could probably spend a lunch hour reading them all and trying to differentiate one from the next. They all appeared to have at least one type of seafood, if not several.

We just went with ones with appealing main ingredients: kimchi dumpling ($13, above) and lamb with noodle ($13, below), sharing them. We got the small size and mild spice level.

The pots arrived and were placed on a portable stovetop, burners turned on to keep the soup hot. A pitcher of broth would be brought by now and then for a refill.

We liked our soups, with the dumplings being a nice addition. The kitchen was generous with the ingredients, whether noodles, tofu, shrimp, cabbage, mussels, mushrooms or more.

One welcome touch was that our lunches came with complimentary iced tea. When have you ever seen that? We also got milk tea ($5-$5.50).

Neither of us is really a hot pot enthusiast, but sharing two made for a light, filling lunch.

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Restaurant of the Week: Tokyo Joe’s

Tokyo Joe’s, 10877 Foothill Blvd. (at Spruce), Rancho Cucamonga; open daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Tokyo Joe’s is a small chain of fast-casual Japanese(-ish) restaurants with California locations only in Riverside and Rancho Cucamonga. The latter opened in 2017 in a strip of restaurants near the office buildings east of Haven Avenue that has Luna Mediterranean Grill, The Habit, Cafe Rio and Jersey Mike’s.

I ate at Joe’s recently for the first time, meeting a friend for lunch on a weekday. Their main items are bowls, although they also have salads, poke bowls and some made-to-order sushi. See their menu here.

I got the MoJoe Bowl ($9, above), with chicken, pineapple, carrots, egg, onion, green and red peppers and rice, substituting brown for white at no extra charge, which was welcome. My friend got the Mahi-Mahi Bowl ($11.25, below), with wild mahi-mahi, tropical salsa, lemongrass aioli, teriyaki sauce, macadamia nuts and cilantro.

“It was a bowlish bowl,” my friend said with an implied shrug, “with a nice piece of mahi-mahi.”

I wasn’t dissatisfied with my bowl either, but neither of us walked away with any particular enthusiasm. You can order a larger bowl for $2 more, which would be good only if you want to take some home. We could barely finish ours as it was and before mine was done I was tired of eating it.

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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: Rad Coffee

Rad Coffee, 232 N. 2nd Ave. (at 9th), Upland; open 6 a.m. to midnight daily

This is a sequel of sorts to last week’s no doubt thrilling Restaurant of the Week post about Daddy O’s, in that Rad Coffee is immediately next door to Daddy O’s and was visited after my fine burger and fries there. Put both posts together and you have a complete two-hour experience (that will take five minutes to enjoy).

I was aware of Rad Coffee, which after all has been written up in LA Weekly and elsewhere, but that write-up, while positive, had not been enticing somehow. It focused on Rad’s unusual drink combinations that use colored whipped cream and breakfast cereal. Shortly afterward, an Upland friend said something dismissive to me about the place, to the effect that it was great if you like cereal in your coffee.

That was a couple of years ago. After Daddy O’s, the friend with whom I had dinner suggested we go next door for Rad, telling me it was a good spot. And as I try to keep an open mind, I was game, because I remained curious about the place.

The first surprise was that one of the baristas is a friend whom I had lost track of after he’d left a Claremont restaurant I frequented. So immediately I felt welcome.

Rad does have some crazy drinks in its “specialty blended” category, some of which, yes, have cereal. They also serve espresso shots in cold brew with ice cream ($10), for you big spenders.

But they serve standard espresso and coffee drinks, made with Verve Coffee from Santa Cruz, as well as tea and lemonade. I got a sea salt caramel iced coffee ($5.50 for 12 oz.) and liked it.

Notable is the decor and vibe. The walls are papered in punk rock photos and concert fliers, horror movie posters and the like. Its mascots, male and female, are cartoonish skulls with ’50s hair. Halloween will be big for Rad with various horror-themed specialty drinks and events this month.

Among the wall art that typifies the irreverent tone is the Lee Harvey Oswald-Jack Ruby doctored photo below. Some will say it’s in bad taste. Well, it IS in bad taste, but it makes me laugh.

Most impressive is how busy Rad was and how many young people were there. Can you believe a business in downtown Upland (that’s not a bar) is open until midnight? Can you believe a business in downtown Upland is cool? I can barely believe it myself.

Rad may or may not be for you, but I liked it, hope to return and wish them continued success on their fourth anniversary. It always pays to keep an open mind. You never know what you’ll find.

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Restaurant of the Week: Daddy O’s Rockin’ Cafe

Daddy O’s Rockin’ Cafe, 228 N. 2nd Ave. (at 9th), Upland; open noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday

I had heard of Daddy O’s, in business in downtown Upland since 2014, but had not eaten there. In fact, I was skeptical that it was as good as Yelp reviews would lead us to believe; it currently has 5 stars. But a friend whom I trust raved about it and invited me for an early dinner (Daddy O’s closes at 7), so I showed up with optimism. Spoiler alert: Even my sense of optimism underrated Daddy O’s.

The interior is narrow and kitschy, with some midcentury-style memorabilia and modest, two-person wooden booths. It looks like an actual business from the 1950s rather than the gleaming, overdone, Marilyn and Elvis-decorated diners around us today.

We ordered off the limited menu — hamburgers with or without cheese, a hot dog and deli sandwiches were about it — and took a seat at a sidewalk table on a warm late afternoon.

The owner, who appeared to be running the place by herself, said our food would take a few minutes since everything is made fresh, and that was fine. Some 15 or 20 minutes later, she brought out our plastic baskets.

My cheeseburger, cooked medium rare as requested, was made from hand-pressed Angus beef, with a sheaf of lettuce, tomato, onion and thousand island dressing. It was the best burger I’d had in some time. The crinkle-cut fries were crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. The combo with a soda: $10.50.

My friend’s hot dog, fries and soda ($7.50) were declared very good, with the grilled onions a good choice. “I’ve always liked crinkle-cut fries,” she said. “They remind me of high school.”

Daddy O’s also sells Thrifty ice cream and has since added vegetarian burgers. It’s small, but it’s mighty. Five stars is about right.

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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: Kiku Sushi

Kiku Sushi, 3090 Chino Ave. (at Emerald Way), Chino Hills; open 11:30 to 10 p.m. daily

Chino Hills has more good Japanese restaurants than any other Inland Valley city. I tried Kiku Sushi recently; it’s in the same center that has a Harkins 18 cinema and a few so-so restaurants. Kiku means “chrysanthemum.”

A friend and I arrived just as the place opened for lunch, which I say to explain the photo below of a seemingly empty dining room. The restaurant was nearing capacity by the time we left.

Apparently Kiku is known for its all you can eat sushi, but that’s how I (crunch) roll. I just ordered off the sushi menu.

I had albacore ($6.50) and yellowtail ($7.50) nigiri sushi, with large pieces of fish. Unusually, besides the two pieces each on rice, a third piece of each fish was provided. That was new to me, but a nice bonus.

I also got my standby, the salmon skin cut roll ($6). (As the tuna melt is my baseline sandwich, the salmon skin cut roll is my baseline sushi.) Not the best version I’ve had by any means, but acceptable.

My friend got the tonkatsu bowl ($7), a fried pork cutlet over rice. No Japanese food enthusiast, she liked it.

Service via an English-language server was helpful. A giant video screen played YouTube music videos, which was a little tacky. A better touch were the slatted screens over the windows, which muted the light coming in from outside. It’s hard to block out an ocean of asphalt, blinding noontime sun and throngs of people headed for the multiplex a few yards away, but the screens did a commendable job of creating a cozy atmosphere.

Kiku is fairly average as far as Japanese restaurants go in Chino Hills (and some on Yelp say it’s really gone downhill after an ownership change), but I’d go there again for a semi-civilized meal before or after a movie. It’s got to beat Buffalo Wild Wings.

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Restaurant of the Week: Maniac Mike’s Cafe

Maniac Mike’s Cafe, 1749 W 13th St. (at Benson), Upland; open daily, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Cable Airport has had a restaurant going back at least to the 1970s, gaining the name Maniac Mike’s in 1999 under new owner Mike Stewart. Like most restaurants at general aviation airports, there’s the food and then there’s the chance to see small planes take off and land, or to just enjoy the ambiance of a low-key airport.

Mike’s closed after a fire and the owner’s death in 2018, as I’ve recounted; it’s reopened in the same family but with a new look. At this writing it’s still in the soft opening phase until the patio can be completed. A friend and I ate lunch there two weeks ago and I may as well file a report on it.

The menu is largely the same as before, with hot and cold sandwiches, pancakes and such. My friend (whose name is Mike, but who is no maniac) ordered the “biplane,” a half-sandwich and soup or chili ($10). He got roast beef, piled four layers high, and chili, which as you can see came with cheese and onions. He washed it all down with a Runway IPA, one of the beers on tap ($6). “It was good diner food,” he said.

I got my baseline sandwich, the tuna melt ($8.55), the one by which I judge a diner. This tuna melt was above the baseline, tasting fresh. I got steak fries as my side; they were OK, but boring, and I left most of them behind.

The airplane kitsch is gone, replaced by handcrafted tables of reclaimed wood, teak paneling, tile and hanging copper lamps. The staff described it as “modern chic.” It’s almost a gastropub look. The patio will triple the seating and should be a popular spot.

The only disappointment, unless the fries count, is that during an hour lunch, only one plane was seen in action. C’mon, pilots, step it up.

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Restaurant of the Week: Doner & Gyros

At Montclair Place mall last month for a morning event, I decided to eat lunch before leaving. A trip up the escalator to the Moreno St. Market food court revealed a new-ish spot, Doner & Gyros.

Gyros are a longtime favorite; it’s typically a mix of lamb and beef, cut from a spit and placed in pita bread. It’s the Greek version of the Turkish doner kebab, which is likewise sliced from a vertical rotisserie. Doner really has been popularized by Berlin, which has a lot of Turkish immigrants and which turned doner into go-to fast-food meal.

Upland had SpireWorks, which didn’t last. Montclair may be the only other Inland Valley city with doner. Intriguingly, Doner & Gyros is based in Dubai, where it has multiple locations, and just two so far in the U.S., with Montclair being the first and Houston the second. (Reader DebB left a comment nine months ago on my SpireWorks writeup saying she’d just been to Doner & Gyros. She is far ahead of me.)

Styles are Chicago gyro, Berlin doner or classic wrap, with beef, chicken or falafel as choices. They also sell salads and bowls.

I got the Doner Grand ($9), which was the Berlin style, as a combo ($3.25) with fries and a soda. The food was ready after a moderate wait.

The pocket-like bread was similar to SpireWorks but otherwise unlike any pita bread I’ve ever had, thicker and chewier with rough edges. The gyro meat came alongside lettuce, tomatoes and onions. It was perfectly acceptable, although to be honest I ate it without really thinking about it. The flavors just didn’t stand out to me. It’s possible the halal meat didn’t have a lot of flavor or simply that I was too hungry to care. But give the sandwich this, it disappeared soon enough. The double-fried fries were crispy and pretty good.

Unusually, an employee (the manager?) came out to the communal seating area and checked her customers. She asked me what I thought and if I had any recommendations. I didn’t have any ideas, but as a customer I was a little surprised to be asked.

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