Ever wish a restaurant had that certain something that would make them perfect? Or, more directly, have you ever contemplated ordering something off a menu that was just a little too different or unfamiliar to try? We have. In fact, to follow is a collection of items from menus that we just couldn’t resist trying, from restaurants both known and relatively unknown, from specialties to delicacies to goat tacos. Our discovery? The essences.
Bonello’s New York Pizza
A real American pizza connoisseur looks for the main ingredient to set it apart from the others . . . that ingredient—the sauce! At Bonello’s New York Pizza you are not disappointed. The fresh oregano and tomato sauce stands above the rest in the IE. Sure you have heard of the great crust here or the extra cheese there and even the place that puts on so many toppings you need a fork. But they all fail to meet the test of tests, the sauce! Owned and operated by Gus and Victor Garcia, the brothers who bought the pizza palace from the founder Tony Bonello just a year ago, there’s an emphasis on keeping the genuine techniques in place. These pies are assembled the way any true New York pie should be, with the finesse of a stretched crust on a wooden pizza peel, carefully covered with hefty toppings, all of that—but it’s the perfectly simmered sauce that creates an explosion of goodness in your mouth. The place is just like the corner pizza joint we would visit in Brooklyn, counter service with a no-nonsense approach to quality, meaning they spend the money on the product not the ambiance. Everything is from scratch at Bonello’s, not the local food supplier. So if you’re truly looking for the pie of pies visit Bonello’s New York Pizza in Grand Terrace, and be sure to tell them we sent you.
Bonello’s New York Pizza, 22413 Barton Road, Grand Terrace, (909) 825-9852. AE, D, MC, V
Casa Maya is one of the best all-around Mexican restaurants in the Inland Empire, regardless of style or district. That Maya concentrates on Yucatan-themed dishes is instructive, but we’d wager they could serve up some kicking fish tacos if the mood struck them. Fortunately, the mood over at Casa Maya is more geared towards something that used to kick. That’s because one . . . that’s one . . . choice option on the menu is the goat tacos. For people who usually feed the animals at a petting zoo rather than eat them, this may seem startling at first. But you haven’t lived until you try them. The meat on these bad boys is spicy yet sweet, and after the first bite you’ll forget all about the fact you’re munching on hollow-hooved goat (most of you can put all the bad things out of your mind while eating a hot dog, so what’s the diff?). Slapped on top of the former Billy Goat Gruff are red pickled onions and a tangy red sauce, all encased in a homemade corn tortilla. The menu at Casa Maya offers up a ton of healthy choices, and they don’t use lard in any of their cooking. Even their kid’s menus features a fruit bowl (and the fruits are actually fresh) option. In other words, bovidae can’t be all that bad for you. With a goat taco, a Margarita or two, and a patio to sit and get slowly ossified, one could do far worse on a warm spring night.
Casa Maya 1839 Mentone Blvd, Mentone, (909) 794-7458. AE, D, MC, V
Claro’s Italian Market
In a corner of the Upland Market Place sits an Italian market that is more bona fide than all of the Soprano’s, Mario, Luigi, and Good Fella’s combined. Claro’s has been around longer than most can or even care to remember, but it quietly serves up authentic Italian food using very indigenous ingredients. A lot of the patronage comes around lunchtime to hit the deli for sandwiches, sesame breadsticks, a large selection of meats and cheeses and Italian sodas. For the Rabelaisian among us with fiercer appetites, there’s no better place to select the finest, freshest items to make a feast of your own. There’s plenty of pre-made pasta salad and sauces, beans, herbs, spices, seafood choices and a wide variety of Italian desserts. It’s a little Italy, but it’s all Italy.
Claro’s Italian Market, 1655 North Mountain Ave., Upland, (909) 946-2689, http://store.claros.com/index.htm. AE, D, MC, V
Costco Hot Dogs
Just like in that scary, prophetic movie, Idiocracy, the American consumer has become a virtual slave to gigantic warehouse grocery stores. But who can blame us when superchains like Costco not only add food courts to the mix, but then do the unthinkable: create the messiah of all smoke-flavored franks? Yes, we mean the Costco Hot Dog—or, as we like to call it: Hella Dog. While the hand-twisted churro drops crumbs down your cleavage, and the chicken bake sandwich (with bacon and Caesar dressing!) sits in your stomach like a brick, the 1/4-pound Hebrew National all-beef frank is juicy, thick, and bursting—and we don’t care how bad it is for us. Adored by millions—not just blue-hairs on pensions and teenaged parents spending welfare checks—the $1.50 dog (which includes a 20oz. drink!) crosses age, ethnic and economic barriers (there’s a Lexus or two in the parking lot at noon, and not that gangsta cheap kind, either). And don’t even start me on the ingenious “Costco Condiment Counter”—with spinning relish and onion dispensers, and mustard and ketchup squirters that are never empty. It’s like magic! It’s like Disneyland! It’s like a water-packed, salty beef Hebrew Heaven!
Various locations through the Empire. Visit www.costco.com for the cheap wieners in your area
Desperate 4 Dinner
This is the greatest home-cooked meal to fall under the DIY mantra. Unlike similar national chains, this Mom and Pop meal assembly joint doesn’t try to turn you into the French chef you never wanted to be. You can, however, put together a meal and take it home to cook, freeze, or whatever you wish with it. The menu changes monthly and it’s just like Mom would make, or Grandma if your Mom was a lousy cook. The selections are simple yet delectable. You pick and choose from fresh healthy ingredients to customize your meal to your tastes, and their schedule is your schedule (talk about flexibility) allowing you to book the time you want to put on the chef hat. The knowledgeable staff is always on hand to assist or answer nutritional questions you may have about your meatloaf or buttermilk oven baked chicken (running about $17-$25 for six servings). Check out the website at www.desperate4dinner.com to see the latest menus or book a session to do your best Emeril impersonation. And all you hunter-gatherers out there, here’s an advantage to your game—chicks dig guys that can cook. This is a proven scientific fact. So make an appointment and bring a date! Besides, doesn’t this concept get you and your sweetie back to the crib a lot faster than waiting for a table at a traditional restaurant? Think about it, Chef.
Desperate For Dinner, 7223 Church Street, Highland, (909) 864-0912. Make reservations at www.desperate4dinner.com.
Portuguese food—say it ain’t so! Yep, the only place between LA proper and the Mexican border that dishes up the real McCoy sits in Claremont, a no frills, intimate café owned and operated by the Medeiros family. You might notice the spattering of Paninis and other Italian favorites on the regular menu, but those in the know bypass this and ask for the daily specials. It’s here that the real pride and joy of Portugal lies, and $10 buys a satisfying home-cooked meal. Don’t believe us? Try Wednesday night’s carne estufada, a tender sirloin steak topped with a sweet red pepper sauce and served with rice and side salad for only $8.50. Or sample Thursday nights’ fill of feijoada, a traditional white bean stew of choriço de carne (homemade linguiça sausage), pork cabbage, onions, and carrots served over rice. Bacalhau (cod, baked with potatoes and carrots), the Portuguese national favorite, appears Friday nights, and freshly baked sweet breads (massa sovada) and donuts (malassadas) put in brief appearances Saturday mornings while they last (which isn’t long). Don’t forget to save room for the mouth-watering flan-topped chocolate cake.
Euro Café, 546 E. Baseline, Claremont, CA; (909) 621-4666. Open Mon.–Fri., 7AM–8:30PM; Sat., 8AM–8:30PM; Sun., 8AM–3PM. AE, D, MC, V
Inland Empire 66ers Concessions
Peanuts and Cracker Jacks, yeah, yeah. If you’ve been to Chavez Ravine and tried the fabled Dodger Dog, then you know there’s something (almost spooky) about chewing that particular beefstuff that makes sense to the crackling air of Los Angeles summer. Here’s a secret: The IE 66ers Class-A baseball team may be chock full of aspiring Dodgers, but the hot dogs are already ten times better than the Big League dog. The mustard is better, the relish is better, the ketchup is better, the buns are lighter and softer, the wiener itself is just better. And for no particular reason, other than the mysteriousness of the Route 66 all-American aridity has more in common with a casual tubesteak. The 66ers call theirs a “Dodger Dog” as well, but this is just lip service for the parent club. For those in the know, the 66ers Dog has all the plump hissiness that men in Sheboygan get out of their Johnsonville’s. The 66ers Roadhouse Cheddar Burger is a nice alternative, but the hot dog—the exact same Dodger Dog as in LA—is a phenomena because it’s the exact same Dodger Dog as in LA. We know . . . spookier than Vin Skully in leotards.
The Inland Empire 66ers at Arrowhead Credit Union Park, 280 S. East Street, San Bernardino, (909) 888-9922, www.ie66ers.com.
The sign over the old manual cash register says it all: “The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” Serving up the best biscuits and gravy in the Empire for nearly 50 years, Kays Café often runs out before the crowds dissipate. Come early because you will wait for a table, guaranteed—especially on the weekends. Located just off the old Norton Air Base property, Kays has served service men and women from WWII through the Gulf War. A landmark in Highland, it occupies a space that at one time was popular market area in the middle of California Orange Country, circa 1940. The friendly staff is always very attentive as the owner bounces from table to table to ensure your satisfaction. The décor is a definite flash from the past with the ’50s-style checkerboard floor, deep vinyl booths and era signage on the walls—you’ll half expect the Stray Cats to strut in at any moment. But you know you’ve found a winner when the no nonsense blue-collar workingmen and women stand patiently at 6AM waiting for these doors to open. Why? Because who better to fuel their bodies for another productive day in the trenches than a local independently owned slice of small-town America? Open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week.
Kays Café, 27245 Baseline Street, Highland, (909) 862-1131; www.kayscafe.com. AE, D, MC, V
Tired of paying an entrance fee to restaurants to watch the big fight of the weekend? There’s nothing more obnoxious than having to pay five or ten dollars on top of the money you’ll be spending for food and drink, but, just as with ATM charges, when options are limited people are willing. Well, problem solved. The chain-joint Lamppost Pizza in Upland shows the biggest boxing and MMA fights without charging a door. That is, they will show pay-per-view events if there’s enough demand to make it worth the owner’s while. In other words, the easiest way to catch a fight, eat a pizza pie, drink some beer and still have elbowroom is at Lamppost Pizza. In still other words, bring friends and family, tell local sport fanatics about the local pizza shop that isn’t out to gouge you. The Lamppost chain has a great selection of pizzas, appetizers, and salads—and what goes better with bloodthirsty Muy Thai action that beer? Lamppost offers a pitcher called the “Big Unit.” It’s not Randy Johnson in liquid form, it’s one gallon of beer for $18 aimed at honchos who are up for a challenge. Now if they can just add the equivalent in pizza, something like the “Kimbo Slice,” which is a whole pizza in one triangular unit.
Lamppost Pizza, 907 W. Foothill Blvd., Upland, CA 91786, (909) 946-0941, www.lamppostpizza.com
Imagine this . . . a flat bed of greasy fries, topped by a layer of tender carne asada beef, guacamole, sour cream, tomatoes, and sprinkled with a generous layering of shredded mozzarella and jack cheeses. It’s messy, likely to invoke a mad case of heartburn or the runs, and capable of arterial blockage so severe that you’d think twice before the next stop at the drive-through. We’re talking about the famous and oh-so-delicious carne asada fries at Los Jilbertos, a local Mexican food dive serving as the typical Riverside college student’s orgasmic dream and ultimate fast food fix. It’s everything one with little money and a big appetite could conceivably desire. Let’s not forget the grown-ups willing to drive 45 miles just to mollify the hankering for high-cal junk food. Carne asada fries come in half-sized (single serving) or normal-sized (big enough for two moderately hungry souls) proportions. Eat civilly with a fork, or roll up your sleeves and eat as hollow-legged college savages do, with pinched fingers. Add in a few jalapenos and pickled carrots and you have a meal satisfying three of the four basic food groups. Don’t you love it when people rationalize things like that?
Los Jilbertos, 1635 University Ave., Riverside; (951) 683-6748. Open daily, 7AM–12AM
Mexicali Bar & Grill
You looking for essential fare? Corn, mayonnaise, chile powder, and a bit of salt—that’s the traditional Mexican street dish elote in a nutshell. Simple, easy, and at the Mexicali Bar and Grill in Riverside it’s the dish to get while you pound a brew or two and enjoy one Riverside’s more underrated food and booze joints. Mexicali, previous site of the Bossa Nova Grill, is usually hopping, but you can always get a table or a place at the bar, where an order of elote and some chips can make for the just-what-the-doctor-ordered snack while you watch a game on one of the televisions. Elote as a dish is rather homely to behold; it smells, and not necessarily in a pleasant way. The first time we laid eyes on it we wanted to give it our spare change. But then we took a bite, the mariachis in heaven lit into a blazing rendition of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and we wept with glee. Suddenly our Pacifico tasted better and my endorphins raced—elote heaven. There continues to be truth in the old adage: Never judge a book by its cover. Same could go for this: never judge a dish by its odor. Elote, te quiero!
Mexicali Bar & Grill, 1690 Spruce Street Riverside, (951) 781-6682
The Rotten Oak Inn
So you are coming down the mountain from a long day of snowboarding and are ravenous. Here’s what to do—just off of the 210 (formerly know as the 30) at 5th in Highland you’ll find the Rotten Oak Inn, and it’s the place to hit on the way down. This part-time sports bar/full-time suds-n-grill joint serves up the best burgers in the IE. With 15 televisions, two pool tables and lots of video games you’ll find plenty of distractions for the kiddies while you throw back a few cold ones and enjoy the all-female wait staff. From the poppers to tacos and everything in between there’s something on the menu to re-energize the sore muscles from your weekend warrior mountain activities. Don’t let the motto fool you—warm beer and lousy food are not on the menu, but 20-plus beers on tap and an unlimited music library on the juke will satisfy. Be sure to check out the weekly specials including our favorite Steak Night every Wednesday and Thursday . . . and what SoCal joint would be complete without a $.99 Taco Tuesday? Have we mentioned the waitresses? You won’t be disappointed.
The Rotten Oak Inn, 7955 Webster Street, Highland, (909) 425-8733. AE, D, MC, V
The Royal Falconer
“Authentic” is an overused word in the restaurant game, but not in the case of the Royal Falconer. If you’ve ever been to England, you’ll know that this Authentic English Pub has been serving up the best (and closest to a yeomen’s taste) fish & chips in the IE for years. An hey, there’s something to be said about a pint of Tetleys or Guinness getting slid down the bar to you by a Brit who not only plays rugby, but wears his scars with pride. With dark woods and trim covering the walls and a collection of British pub wares it definitely transports the soul to jolly old England. The Falconer, like any good pub worth its salt, has its regulars—only here the patrons are commonly transplanted (or exiled) Brits and sundry Europeans whose accents go hand-in-hand with a pint. Though the fish & chips (offered as cod or halibut instead of the traditional haddock) are a standout, the bangers & mash is excellent, and you won’t find a Scotch egg any better than you’ll find here. The Falconer recently remodeled its second floor, and it’s become a comfortable spot with a ancillary bar and pool table in a less-crowded area. Greatest thing? Location, location, location—this pub sits in historic downtown Redlands, walking distance to other bars, shops and boutiques, which only adds to the charm.
The Royal Falconer, 106 Orange St, Redlands, (909) 307-8913, www.royalfalconerca.com. AE, MC, V
Tartan of Redlands
If you’re in the market for prime rib, Redlands is the city and the Tartan is the place. Served only on Saturday evenings from 5PM to 9:30PM you won’t find a more mouth-watering cut of prime rib if you try. Whether you’re eating in the plush red vinyl booths or enjoying the great outdoors on the spacious patio it’s all about the meat. The Tartan is as much a landmark to the historic downtown area as the 150-year-old section of brick sidewalk around the corner from the restaurant. The tender-as-butter cuts run $16.50 and for the extra cut (our favorite) $18.50, all-inclusive. But the food isn’t the only draw, no, Tartan also has a comfortable (if retro) atmosphere. Diners will find this haunt to be a veritable throwback to the ’50s and ’60s, back when a steak was steak. The wood-paneling and long service bar along with the wait staff—some of whom have been here for 25-plus years, sort of like those at Musso and Frank’s—gives you that warm fuzzy feeling as you sip your cocktail and gnaw on that tender juicy slab. Besides, having served the very best American cuisine for four decades is all you need to remember to realize you’re in good hands at Tartan.
Tartan of Redlands, 24 E. Redlands Blvd., Redlands, (909) 792-9919. Open Tues.–Sun., 11AM–9:30PM; Mon., 11AM–9PM. AE, D, MC, V