(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!