Three Square Bistro’s "serving 3 meals" claim to fame may not exactly ring true (except on the busier Fridays and Saturdays when it does stay open all day), but this strip mall anomaly makes its ritzier OC and LA brethren wilt in comparison. After all, where can you get a hearty, well-crafted breakfast and lunch for less than a Hamilton? Definitely not at your local neighborhood IHOP, or any chain store cookie cutter imitation for that matter.
Opened since September 2006, Three Square Bistro is located in the hinterlands at the Corona-Norco border, next to a sushi restaurant and fast-food Hawaiian barbecue joint. It’s easy to think of Three Square as just another blasé, hole-in-the-wall coffeehouse. Yet when you walk in, take a seat in the one of the stylish black booths and finally notice the French bistro-like airiness of the place, with its burnt orange and green walls, cherry wood chairs, Formica tables and jazzy prints—well, only then would you have an inkling of the sheer impossibility of its upscale existence in this part of suburbia. Need to impress the wife or woo a romantic interest? Forget the stuffier Napa 29 just up the road . . . bring her here and still have enough greenbacks next day to blow on that new $50 Wii game you’ve been dreaming about. Sweet!
Word of mouth about the late breakfast (served daily until 2pm) was what drew me here one Sunday afternoon. I’d been aching to try the house specialty, a German/Dutch oven baby known simply as: The Bistro Pancake. Before Three Square existed, only the Original Pancake House offered this sugary monstrosity, and that necessitated the uneasy nightmare of driving the 91 west towards the OC or traversing that long stretch south down to Temecula. Well, not anymore. Three Square Bistro served not one, but two varieties—the Bistro with powdered sugar and lemon wedges, and the Baked Apple swimming in pools of cinnamon sugar. They also serve a whole slew of fruity pancakes and waffles—nutty and chewy pancakes or berry French toast anyone?—that vastly outnumbered the regular lunch and dinner selections (chicken and sausage gumbo and blackened salmon with Cajun sauce, to name a couple of the fancier ones). It didn’t matter what other juicy tidbit I might discover; the Bistro Pancake reeled me in by my salivating lips.
Christina, our server, warned me of an impeding 20-minute wait, which I didn’t really mind since I was listening to Amy Winehouse’s "Rehab" over a strong cup of joe—which whittled the time away nicely. Maybe 15 minutes, and a couple of warm-ups later, the monster arrived: flaky and crisp around the edges, powdered sugar melting into the buttery and custard-like center. My baby was absolutely perfect, a not too sweet and not too heavy eye opener that I devoured until only a small pie-shaped wedge remained. It beat out my partner’s Belgian waffle combo (seeming so ordinary in comparison), and it squashed the Original Pancake House down to oompa-loompa proportions. The biggest surprise came at the end, when I learned that the masterminds behind the pancake (which may have originated in Germany, but is now a pure American breakfast house specialty) were 100% pure-blooded Asians. Just goes to prove that a book can’t be judged by its cover.
Three Square Bistro has usurped the Cowgirl Café just north on Hamner as my favorite breakfast house in the Inland Empire. My next mission—to avail myself of the Baked Apple Pancake and braised short ribs, which I’m told are all the rage. Give Norco’s best kept secret a sampling before word finally gets around and you miss out. You won’t regret it.
Three Square Bistro, 140 Hidden Valley Parkway (at Hamner), Norco, (951) 272-9888. Breakfast for two including coffee and tips, under $20. Open daily for breakfast and lunch; dinner on Friday and Saturday.