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Las Tunas: The Neighborhood of the Future

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

There are better streets for walking, for peering into shop windows; the stretch of Las Tunas Drive that begins just west of the Alhambra-San Gabriel border and ends a couple blocks shy of San Gabriel Boulevard, has little significant architecture, and nothing like tree-lined beauty. On the sidewalks, nobody jostles, nobody nods a friendly hello . . . nobody seems to walk by at all, except for the occasional early morning exercise freak on his way to a coffee shop.

And yet, within a few blocks, there are food shops and restaurants from 13 different ethnic groups. And at least five of these restaurants may be worth a 20-mile detour. There may be few pedestrians out because everyone is eating or shopping, taking care of business, and then getting back in their cars.

They may be heading to other parts of Las Tunas, perhaps 10 minutes west to Temple City, where the street is lined with ‘40s- and ‘50s-era shops and restaurants--a lamp and lampshade store fronted by a giant lamp, a radio-repair shop where most of the beautifully restored stock is at least 30 years old, an old-fashioned pharmacy, a chop-suey house with a Chinatown-pagoda look and a fine Dutch-Indonesian import shop where you can pick up fiery sambals , good Dutch chocolate and a pair of wooden shoes.

To the east, in Alhambra, Las Tunas is called Main Street and actually looks the part. There are bakeries and bookstores and a good Indian market. But more than a few of the storefronts are empty, no doubt marked for redevelopment.

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It’s only when Las Tunas begins to look like any other major traffic artery that things get really interesting for a hungry person. It’s true, there are a couple of traditional-looking, even picturesque businesses on this stretch. Bun ‘n Burger, a diner with fantastic animated neon, looks like something out of Roger Rabbit.

But the heart of the Las Tunas eating district is made up of essentially two mini-malls, cater-corner from each other on each side of Las Tunas at Mission Drive. Mini-malls may be ugly and undistinguished, strings of small business that have little in common with each other, but they are attractive compared to the alternative--a city becoming a “revitalized” theme-park version of itself, stuffed with chain stores.

At their best, mini-malls can make dreams come true: an opportunity for the undercapitalized businessman with a knack for shish kebab or Hainanese chicken rice, an opportunity for neighborhood residents to explore a world of cuisines.

Inside the self-contained world of the Las Tunas Plaza, for instance, its parking lot almost always filled to capacity, three excellent restaurants, one right after the other, serve the food of Indonesia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

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Saturday afternoons, the line spills out the door of the Golden Deli, the Vietnamese noodle shop where regulars know the pho dac biet is worth the 15-minute wait for a table. Almost everybody in the place has a bowl or plate of noodles set before them, slurping and working the strands with chopsticks as Vietnamese pop songs--possibly an English-Viet version of The Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes"--blare over the sound system.

Next door, at the Taiwanese restaurant Sun Shine, bright-orange paper good-luck lanterns, flutter in the breeze of the doorway. The mostly Chinese customers come for soothing bowls of warm tofu and twists of wonderful Chinese fry bread for breakfasts; at lunch and dinner there’s wonderfully intense red-cooked chicken with ginger, which the waitress, fearing you won’t like the bones, may discourage you from ordering (the dish is worth the trouble), and also terrific seafood. At almost any hour, you might see fireballs explode from the wok of chef-owner Chi Chou Chen.

Late afternoons, Borobudur Garden becomes something of an Indonesian malt-shop, filled with teen-agers nursing sweet, alien-looking grass-jelly drinks and slurping down big bowls of curried laksa noodles; on weekends, the fine chile-fried chicken is popular with families.

It doesn’t seem fair that this same mini-mall is also home to a Thai restaurant and a Chinese barbecue joint that would probably stand out in most other neighborhoods. It’s especially unfair when you factor in the mini-mall across the street.

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There’s the Malaysian restaurant Yazmin where rojak’s the thing--a refreshing tropical salad drizzled with a thick, inky soy dressing. Beef is what you get at the Vietnamese restaurant Pagode--seven wonderful courses of it. At the sweet-looking bento shop, Kintaro, Japanese kids from the area stop in for a California roll and a cold can of Kirin Afternoon Tea, the way high-schoolers a generation before them might have gone for a burger and cherry soda at the local diner.

But more than interesting restaurants and markets, this neighborhood, like any traditional small town, gets its character from the people who work and shop there. Walk this apparently unwalkable neighborhood, talk to the people and you’ll meet shopkeepers as warm and friendly as any small town has to offer.

You’ll meet Kenzo Yamada, owner of the Japanese grocery Yama Seafood, his voice a friendly rasp. From his station behind the fish-and-meat counter he counsels customers and makes sure they go away happy. “Try these,” he says to one woman, handing a pile of the tiniest white fish over for inspection. She leans down and shows the sample to her baby sitting in its stroller; the baby coos approval.

“I’m very lucky,” Yamada says, “the customers are good here. That lady, she’s been coming here seven years.”

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Maarten and Joan Keller have only been in business six years, but as Joan Keller says, “What we found is a niche in the wall.” Their business: lace curtains, lace tablecloths and a line of British food imports. “People are looking for something from home,” Keller says, “so we get what we can.” There are tins of shortbread, jars of marmalade, bottles of brown malt vinegar and a few things like marmite and creamed semolina pudding that only the British could love.

Back home for the Kellers, however, is not Britain, but Holland. And so there are blue-and-white Dutch creamer sets and windmill-patterned salt and pepper shakers. No Dutch food though, the Kellers didn’t want to compete with the import shop in Temple City. Besides, the heart of this business is lace.

“My curtains come in unlimited lengths and widths,” says Keller. “It’s not like a department store where you’re stuck with what they give you.” All of the lace for both curtains and tablecloths is imported from Europe, mostly Holland, Austria, Germany, Scotland and Britain. But don’t ask Keller to get you lace curtains in blue or pink or some other non-lace color. “I sell only white and beige,” Keller says. And don’t ask about non-lace curtains: “Heavy drapes I do not do,” Keller will say. “I stay with my lace.”


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