Suburban Sophistication

(Another of my long-ago archive posts, from 2005 – the California that once was, and that I remember when I think of growing up there.)

When JP and Pip and Sander and I were all growing up, the contiguous suburb of Sunland and Tujunga, untouched by the 210 Freeway was a terribly blue-collar, gloriously low-rent sort of rural suburb. It was if anything, an extension of the San Fernando Valley, and not the wealthier part of it either. It was particularly unscathed by any sort of higher cultural offerings, and the main drag of Foothill Boulevard was attended on either side by a straggle of small storefront businesses, a drive-in theater, a discouraged local grocery store, a used car lot, the usual fast food burger or pizza places, a place with an enormous concrete chicken in front which advertised something called “broast” chicken, Laundromats, and a great variety of very drab little bars. There were no bookstores, unless you counted the little Christian bookstore across from the library and fire station.

The local phone book used to include the profession in each personal listing; lots of clerks, truck drivers, construction workers, mechanics, and police officers, leavened with welfare recipients, transients and others with no visible means of support. In the late 1960ies, the city fathers discovered to their great horror that the average per capita income for Sunland and Tujunga was equal to that of Watts. (The editor of the local newspaper at the time, a reactionary and repellent little toad whom my mother loathed with especial ferocity, nearly died of chagrin at that. Several years later a local resident with deep pockets and a particularly satiric bent created a parody of the newspaper, pitch perfect in every respect, down to the logo, called the “Wrecker-Ledger” and had a copy of the parody delivered to every house in town. The whole town roared with laughter, while the editor breathed fire and threatened lawsuits.)

Mom preferred going to Pasadena for serious shopping, and to the Valley for groceries and the occasional restaurant meal. The one notable big restaurant had once been very well thought of, when it was a family-run steak house on Fenwick, established in an old converted bungalow under pepper trees. Then they ripped down the old house and the pepper trees, and put up an ugly big building with banqueting rooms, and descended into a culinary hell of buffet tables laden with square pans of mystery meat in sludgy brown gravy, vats of O.D. green beans, and fruit cocktail emptied out of industrial sized cans.

No, Sunland-Tujunga was not the place you thought about when you heard the words “gastronomic adventure”… but there were three little places in town which did seriously good food, although you wouldn’t think it to look at any of them at all.

Mom found the Mexican place first: Los Amigos, which used to be in a tiny sliver of storefront on Commerce, before moving to and embellishing a larger premise on Foothill with sombreros and serapes, painted plaster sculpture, fountains, painted tile and exuberantly excessive quantities of elaborate ironwork. It was owned and run by a three generations and extensions of a local family: Grandma was from Mexico City and cooked with a delicate touch; this was not the brash, greasy border Tex-Mex. We loved the chili rellanos at Los Amigos; they were a delicately eggy soufflé, folded around a cheese-stuffed chili pepper, not the battered and deep-fried version so popular everywhere else. The wait-staff and busboys were always country cousins, just up from Mexico on a green card and polishing their English before moving on.

The second gastronomic bright spot was, believe it or not, an authentic Rumanian restaurant called “Bucharesti”, a tiny place run by an energetic gentleman from Rumania who cooked and waited tables himself during the day. How he contrived to get out from behind the Iron Curtain and finish up in Tujunga, I have no idea. His specialty was authentic home-made sausage, and lovely soups; a pristine clear broth in which floated perfectly cooked slips of vegetable and meat.

I regret to say we put off even setting foot in the third place for years, even though we were very well aware of it: a tiny, ramshackle building on Foothill, next to the Jack-In-The-Box, seemingly on the verge of falling down entirely. The roof sagged ominously, the batten-boards of the exterior walls were split from age, and the paint was faded where it hadn’t flaked off entirely. It honestly looked like the sort of place where you could get ptomaine poisoning just from drinking out of the water glasses. We had lived at Hilltop House for a couple of years before we ever ventured in. A number of Mom’s friends insisted that it was the best, simply the very best Chinese restaurant around, and finally the rapturous chorus drove us to set aside our considerable misgivings and venture inside.

The inside was immaculately clean: Spartan, with worn old industrial linoleum and old dinette tables and chairs, very plain, but scoured clean. The only ornaments were the posted menu and some small mementos and pictures associated with General Chennault and the Flying Tigers over the cash register. An elderly Chinese couple ran this restaurant; they were the only ones we ever saw staffing the place. I used to see the wife on the bus from downtown, lugging two huge grocery bags full of vegetables and comestibles back from Chinatown. (This was before exotic groceries were commonly available.) I think most patrons took the generous take-out meals, and if you remembered to bring a covered jug or Thermos, you could have soup as well.

It was all delicious— all Mom’s friends were correct on that— and it met the highest criteria for take-out Chinese in that it was excellent when warmed over on the next day. The old couple were quite taken with my little brother, who radiated cute and looked like Adam Rich on the TV show 8 is Enough. They always slipped in extra almond cookies for him in our take-out order, and the portions were so generous we almost always had enough for dinner the next day. I often wondered what the Flying Tiger connection was, but they had so little English it would have been hard to get an answer.

Chinese, Rumanian and Mexican food, all within a couple of miles on Foothill Boulevard— not bad, for a blue-collar sort of town. I wish, though, that I could have gotten the recipe for Los Amigos chili rellanos… and that clear beef and vegetable soup… and those Chinese almond cookies!

9 thoughts on “Suburban Sophistication”

  1. I started college at USC in 1956. Los Angeles was a paradise. We used to roll down to Rand’s Roundup at Wilshire and Figueroa on Sunday when the fraternity house had no meals. At Rands you had an eat all you want option and boy did the manager hate to see us roll in.

    Almost next door was a drive in with real roller skating waitresses. I have forgotten the name.

    Bullocks Wilshire was a few blocks west then the Ambassador Hotel with the Coconut Grove restaurant. I went there a few times in later years before it was all torn down.

    It was no big deal to drive to UCLA, which would take a couple of hours today. A lot of us dated UCLA girls.

    Lots of favorite places that are gone forever. I enjoy the novels of Raymond Chandler, and the movies made from them, because they are a history of Los Angeles, just as those of Dashiell Hammett are a history of San Francisco.

    When I was at USC, family friends lived in Canoga Park. They invited me to visit but I rarely did because getting there on Sepulveda was a chore. I never made it as far as Tujunga. Freeways ended at the mountains. The Hollywood Freeway ended at Lankershim Blvd.

  2. Is there anywhere in the country that people would agree is a “better” place to live now compared to 50 years ago?

  3. I started college at USC in 1956. Los Angeles was a paradise. We used to roll down to Rand’s Roundup at Wilshire and Figueroa on Sunday when the fraternity house had no meals. At Rands you had an eat all you want option and boy did the manager hate to see us roll in.

    Lately I am enjoying watching episodes of Perry Mason on Amazon. You see the Los Angeles I grew up in the late 50s.

    Plus the writing is good. But the title names? Sometimes hilarious!

    “The Case of the Perjured Parrot”????

  4. Regarding titles on Perry Mason TV episodes — they either were lifted directly from, or were created in homage to, the titles of the original Perry Mason novels. The tone was set with Erle Stanley Gardner’s first professional sale — “The Shrieking Skeleton”.

    The TV show was by Paisano Productions — a TV company unusually owned by an author. It no doubt helped that the author was also a lawyer. Gardner, again.

    The novels and TV shows are interesting now for the historical look back at an era where fortunes were made and fought for by small family run enterprises. Clients, for example: polishing better ball bearings; culturing pearls; prospecting for uranium in played out gold mines; or manufacturing un-counterfeit-able poker chips for Nevada casinos. MAKING stuff. And killing to keep it. It seems to me very much in contrast to the now ubiquitous Hitchcock “MacGuffin” ideas about stuff the “bad guys want and the audience don’t care”.

  5. AC can make a place livable (looking at you, South Texas) but not a better place to live. The Rust Belt has microwaves and internet but that doesn’t make towns there any less desolate.

  6. My family stayed at my grandparents house in Pasadena for a bit when my father finished getting his degree at Cal Tech on the GI bill. That would have been about 1950. It was a small house on a short quiet street, with a tiny store on the corner a few houses down. I recall the memorable moment when an airplane without propellers flew overhead. I was so astonished that I ran into the house to tell everyone about it. We left California shortly afterwards.

    Later in 1969 I visited a home in Tujunga Canyon with people I had met in NM, one of whom had family there. He was the grandson of Alexander Kerensky. It’s a small world.

  7. I lived in Tujunga 2014-2015 (I think we spoke briefly about it back then) and it’s still much better than the rest of Los Angeles. But the continuation of the 210 Freeway and the natural march of progress have eliminated a lot of its older charm.

    There was, though, a very tiny Chinese restaurant owned by an elderly couple. Takeout only, the lobby hadn’t changed since the 60s.while I was living there they decided to retire and none of their kids wanted to place. Turned into a chicken wing joint.

  8. Oh, yeah – finishing the 210 quite ruined the out-of-the-way rural charm of the place. The Chinese restaurant that you remember was probably the same one that I wrote about, if it was on Foothill, within a block or two of the intersection with Commerce.
    I’m surprised that it was turned into another eatery – the building looked ready to fall down of it’s own weight in the 1970s.

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