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'Money fell from the sky': At the doughnut shop across from the Americana, the mall workers rest and dream big

Martin Mendiola believes that if he tries hard enough, the doughnut shop across the street from his job will bring him luck.

A few months ago, another fellow who works at the Americana at Brand mall bought a lottery scratch card for $10 and won $10,000.

“Just like that,” said Mendiola, who makes dumplings at Din Tai Fung. “The guy came in here and money fell from the sky.”

People with money come to the Americana to relax, shop, eat and watch the big fountain dance. Mendiola takes his breaks at Christina Donuts, in a little strip mall across Colorado Boulevard.

When word of the $10,000 scratch-card win spread to the Americana’s kitchen workers, busboys, janitors and valet parkers, more and more began to drop by Christina’s. They arrive every day in their uniform white shirts, black pants and black shoes, and head straight to the glass case packed with more than 20 different scratch cards, because scratch cards have brought others luck.

Mendiola never used to bother with the lottery. Now he tries his luck two or three times a week.

He likes to think that one day, life will reward him.

Eleven years ago, he left his family in Tomelopitos, a small town deep in the belly of Mexico.

Since then, he’s seen his wife and three kids only on Facebook.

At Din Tai Fung, Land Rovers and Porsches roll up to the valet and diners wait up to two hours for the famous soup dumplings.

Martin Mendiola leaves Christina Donuts after playing the California Lottery game, Scratchers. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Chefs prepare dumplings at Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese restaurant located at the Americana at Brand shopping center in Glendale. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Left, Martin Mendiola leaves Christina Donuts after buying scratchers lottery tickets. Right, chefs prepare dumplings at Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese restaurant in the Americana at Brand shopping center in Glendale. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Mendiola, 36, spends his shifts on display, in a glass-walled room, where the cooks look like surgeons. They wear white face masks and white hats, and as diners watch, they roll, weigh and cut dough into pieces, and make at least 18 delicate folds in each dumpling.

He goes home to a studio apartment that he shares with his brother in South L.A. He sends most of his paycheck to his wife to buy school supplies, clothes and food.

Every year, he vows to go home.

“But after so much time,” he says, “I can’t go back with empty hands.”

So he finds himself, as many do, hunched over in one of the yellow booths at Christina, scraping the silver ink off each lottery ticket with a quarter.

Most spend $5 to $15 a day. If the tips have been good, maybe they’ll drop up to $50.

They don’t talk about the losses or the long odds. Only the wins and what they’ll do when they hit it big.

Francisco Lopez, a Guatemalan cook, would go on a shopping spree at the Americana’s most expensive stores, the ones where sunglasses cost $200.

“I would buy pants, shirts, tennis shoes, everything,” he said.

Francisco Gonzalez, 58, a janitor at the Glendale Galleria, would open the best Mexican restaurant in Glendale.

Aron Selis, 25, who cooks alongside Mendiola at Din Tai Fung, would make himself a manager.

Of what?

“Of anything,” he said. “I just want to be in charge.”

At the doughnut shop, one of the few unglitzy places left nearby, the workers say they feel at ease. Ten bucks buys a smoothie and a sandwich, and the owner, Srim Chhun, is always nice.

Srim Chhun, owner of Christina Donuts, fills a customer's order.
Srim Chhun, owner of Christina Donuts, fills a customer's order. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

She says, “Hello, amigo” and “Como esta?,” and when she hands over a scratcher, she always says good luck.

Chhun, who goes by Ana, left Cambodia nine years ago. Her husband arrived first and got into the doughnut business, as many a Cambodian newcomer has done. He learned to make rings and rolls, glazes and creams.

In 2010, the couple bought Christina Donuts from a fellow Cambodian. They keep the doors open 24 hours a day, with help from cousins and Chhun’s brother, and sell soda, chips, cigarettes, Advil and Cup Noodles soups. Not long ago, Chhun painted the walls a warm peach and banana yellow to brighten up the place and “keep everybody happy.”

Regulars include a big, loud man named Albert Babakian, who chases away loiterers when they’re rude to Chhun, and Marina Lopez, an 83-year-old who comes to sip coffee three times a week after church, wearing white lace shirts and patent leather shoes.

An Armenian man, whose name Chhun doesn’t know, spends $300 to $500 on lottery tickets — every day.

“I think he very, very rich,” Chhun said.

The mother of three worked a double shift recently, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. As she raced around the shop blending a boba drink for one customer and ringing up scratchers for another, she wore a gray T-shirt that read, in capital letters, “Make your dreams happen.”

The Americana workers admire her success and independence.

“The Asian families come here and they work together,” Mendiola said. “They open businesses and get things done. No one tells them what to do.”

Latinos, he said, are different.

Many who visit the doughnut shop spend most of their waking hours inside the Americana. Some work two or three restaurant jobs.

Retail tycoon Rick Caruso’s development in the heart of Glendale opened in 2008. It cost $400 million and features 15 acres of stores, restaurants and luxury apartments.

The dancing fountain puts on a show every hour, like the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. A trolley shuttles shoppers around the main square. A concierge arranges dinner reservations. Bellmen carry shopping bags. Winter brings a 100-foot Christmas tree and fake snow drizzling from the sky.

Michael Luna waits on customers at Frida, a Mexican restaurant located at the Americana at Brand shopping center in Glendale. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel Arcos heads back to work at Bourbon Steak restaurant located at the Americana at Brand shopping center in Glendale after visiting Christina Donuts. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
A custodian sweeps near one of the fountains at the Americana at Brand shopping center in Glendale. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Martin Mendiola buys a Scratchers Lottery ticket from at Christina Donuts. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Clockwise from top left: Mike Luna waits on customers at Frida, a Mexican restaurant in the Americana at Brand shopping center in Glendale; Miguel Arcos heads back to work at Bourbon Steak restaurant in the Americana after visiting Christina Donuts; Martin Mendiola buys a scratchers lottery ticket at Christina Donuts; custodian sweeps near one of the fountains at the Americana at Brand mall. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s very beautiful, very clean,” said Gonzalez, the mall janitor, who keeps the floors outside of Bloomingdale’s shiny and new. He also works a second job at the Galleria’s food court, preparing, among other things, falafels and beef kabob.

The native of Guadalajara rarely wanders into the Americana’s stores. He doesn’t feel comfortable.

“I feel like they see me and they don’t see a person,” he said. “They see a rancho.”

He often feels as if he’s being watched.

One day, when he cut through Nordstrom on his way from the doughnut shop to the mall, a woman followed him.

He stopped, looked her in the eye and worked up the courage to ask in Spanish: “Why are you chasing me?”

It turned out she was selling perfume on commission and was just trying to get his attention.

The most Gonzalez has ever won off the scratchers was $200. It happened earlier this summer, and he mostly kept the news to himself.

Some of the guys aren’t as reserved. If they win anything over $100, they like to talk about their good fortune.

They’ll snap a photo of the winning ticket and send it to co-workers as proof.

“It’s like a competition,” said Mike Luna, a server at the Mexican restaurant Frida. “And if you don’t send a photo, chances are they won’t believe you.”

A few weeks ago, Luis Netro, a cook at Din Tai Fung, won $500.

Shoppers stroll the grounds of the Americana at Brand shopping center in Glendale.
Shoppers stroll the grounds of the Americana at Brand shopping center in Glendale. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

He took his three children, ages 7, 6 and 3, to Universal Studios. He let them pick out toys: a big dinosaur, a Minnie Mouse, Minions.

Netro, 33, knows he could have been more prudent. But he wanted to give his kids a day when he wasn’t worrying about money.

“A day they’ll always remember,” Netro said.

Rumor has it that the worker who won $10,000 five months ago went on vacation to Hawaii, though some say he put it in his savings.

The truth is the lucky winner, who works as a manager at Frida, gave the money to his wife.

“She didn’t say a word for like five minutes,” said Antonio, who asked to be identified only by his middle name because he’d rather not get more attention.

After taxes, the couple got $7,600, he said. They took the family to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun.

When they returned from the trip, Antonio went back to his routine — to 60-hour work weeks, to his six kids, to the home whose mortgage he chips away at every month.

“Those are the things that truly make me happy,” he said. “My kids, my house, my career.”

Still, every Sunday morning, on the off chance, he stops at the doughnut shop before work.

He buys a doughnut, some coffee ... and, of course, another chance at the big time.

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

@LATBermudez

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