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Big Boy with a side of bok choy

The customers pour in daily at Noodle World in Alhambra, usually expecting nothing more than a heaping plate of Thai pad see-ew or a steaming bowl of Vietnamese pho.

But on occasion, they react the way Martin Moreno did when entering the restaurant for the first time.

“Oh my God, there’s a Bob’s Big Boy,” the furniture seller said, staring at a statue of a boy in checkered overalls. “In an Asian restaurant?”

The statue is a curiosity that has endured for 12 years, puzzling and delighting patrons who either remember eating double-decker cheeseburgers or wouldn’t know Pappy Parker fried chicken if it landed in their wonton soup.

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For Thai American owner John Mekpongsatorn, the statue is an essential part of his bustling business -- a perfect symbol of the Southern California melting pot he wanted his chain to reflect. The result is a restaurant many affectionately call the “Asian Denny’s” for its no-fuss diner decor and a menu that spans Japan to Malaysia.

And in this fiberglass figure, this symbol of mid-20th century kitsch, is the story of how Noodle World settled into its place as a cross-cultural success -- and won over a changing community.

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Before Noodle World became a stalwart on Valley Boulevard’s ethnic restaurant row, battling rival noodle houses that could pass for ones in Saigon or Taipei, it was one of hundreds of Bob’s Big Boy restaurants that flourished across the nation.

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By the 1980s, the hamburger chain, founded in 1936 in Glendale, was beginning to fall out of favor and closed dozens of locations. Along with a national shift away from burger joints came a huge demographic change in the largely white and Latino San Gabriel Valley. Between 1980 and 1996 -- the year that this Bob’s Big Boy closed -- Alhambra’s Asian population nearly quadrupled, to 47% of residents.

The 37-year-old Mekpongsatorn, who was born and raised in North Hollywood and now lives in Monterey Park, loved Bob’s Big Boy as a child. He liked trying to reach up and touch the statue’s hamburger when he wasn’t quite tall enough.

When he heard the restaurant was up for sale, he was overcome with nostalgia. Mekpongsatorn quickly made an offer and considered the possibilities. Noodle World could be an Asian riff on an American classic, he thought.

But not all went according to plan. When Mekpongsatorn was in escrow for the property, Bob’s Big Boy corporate offices had movers reclaim some of the company’s decorations, most notably the statue.

Mekpongsatorn was crestfallen. He’d lost his prized mascot. At the same time, it was becoming clear that, symbolically, the neighborhood had lost something too. As much as the area’s new residents might welcome a noodle house, for some old-timers the disappearance of Bob’s Big Boy -- the burger joint as well as the statue -- was an uncomfortable reminder that the community had changed. Some could not accept that the ketchup and mustard on the tables were gone, replaced with chili oil and jalapeno-spiked vinegar.

“I remember older ladies coming in thinking it was still a Bob’s Big Boy, putting the menu down and asking, ‘What’s going on here?” Mekpongsatorn said. “They’d get up and walk out.”

Mekpongsatorn was troubled. He did not feel the need to apologize for the community’s changes, but he also did not want to erase some of its fonder memories.

As the months passed, Mekpongsatorn gained more Asian clientele, but he did not see much of the non-Asians who had filled the place when it was a Big Boy.

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Then Mekpongsatorn stumbled upon a slightly smaller Bob’s Big Boy statue at the Rose Bowl Flea Market. Perhaps this would do the trick, he thought, and reach out to those who felt left out as the community changed. He paid $200 and lugged it onto his pickup truck. It was installed above a divider between the kitchen and the dining room.

The chubby figure was a hit. People heard about it through the neighborhood grapevine, as one old-timer told another that a Big Boy statue had taken up residence inside the noodle house.

Mekpongsatorn started seeing more whites and Latinos venture in.

“The families started coming back,” Mekpongsatorn said.

One of those longtime patrons was Nora Escobar, who has lived in Alhambra since 1979. For years, she would cozy up to the counter and order hash browns, bacon and black coffee.

Breakfast would often stretch to lunch as she bantered for hours about finances and city politics with the regulars. When she heard that the restaurant had been converted into a noodle house, Escobar felt a slight disbelief.

“I decided to drop by and see if the statue was still outside,” she said. “I was sad to see it was no longer there. I thought, ‘The immigrants are taking over.’ Then I walked in and I saw the boy up there.”

“There’s so many different places now it’s hard to reminisce,” said Escobar, 55. “Everything is new now. Nobody has any respect for what’s old. But they didn’t forget what the boy represents.”

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Several years passed and Mekpongsatorn’s business continued to grow. He opened locations on the Westside and in Pasadena. He fended off imitators. He dabbled in Thai-Western fusion but never found a strong enough following for curiosities like bratwurst with tamarind.

Then in 2002, a Times food critic, Max Jacobson, wrote a 728-word review lauding Noodle World’s Thai dishes and the statue. A week after it was published, Mekpongsatorn received a letter from Big Boy Restaurants International in Warren, Mich., saying he was violating the company’s trademark.

“We demand that you immediately cease and desist your use of the character and words,” the letter said.

Fearing a lawsuit, Mekpongsatorn removed the statue.

“The next week, there was madness,” he said. “I had so many people say, ‘Where’s the statue? My kid wants to see the statue.’ Then people would come up to me and tell me how their aunt used to work at the Big Boy’s and how they used to take their son’s basketball team to the Big Boy’s. It was all these stories about how the restaurant was a pillar. I had to get the statue back.”

He decided to write a letter to Big Boy Restaurants. Mekpongsatorn described visiting the chain as a child, always asking for a coloring book and looking at statuettes in the glass case by the cashier.

“I chose to display the statue in my restaurant for nostalgic reasons,” Mekpongsatorn wrote. “I just wanted others to recall the fond events of their childhood as well; and I felt that seeing the statue would bring back the memories of happiness and joy that Bob’s Big Boy brought to them.”

He did not know whether his plea would work. He flirted with the idea of starting a petition drive. He even considered modifying the statue by replacing the hamburger with a bowl of noodles and putting chopsticks in the other hand.

A month later, Mekpongsatorn got his answer.

“In light of your personal history with Big Boy,” the letter started, “we would be willing to offer you a license agreement to allow for your continued use of the Big Boy statue. The fee under the license agreement would be $1 per year.”

Mekpongsatorn was instructed to put a plaque under the statue explaining the agreement. The letter signed off, “We hope that this arrangement will allow your continued use of our icon without too much trouble.”

“It was a good feeling dusting off the statue,” said Mekpongsatorn, who had kept the boy warehoused.

People were touched by Mekpongsatorn’s persistence, and today the statue remains integral to the restaurant’s identity -- even if founder Bob Wian could never have imagined that his legacy would live on in an Asian noodle house.

“He’s a very good businessman,” said Owen Guenthard, executive director of the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce. “He keeps a symbol of a bygone era.”

Jerry Munoz, a regular customer, likes to plant himself in a booth by a window. There’s a sense of comfort looking up at the statue that reminds him of earlier times. Munoz came to Bob’s Big Boy as a child with his parents. He took dates there, and when his own kids were young they loved to order malts and poke the statue in the stomach.

“It’s very important to people that he recognized the Bob’s Big Boy,” said Munoz, 60, lunching on pad Thai. “It shows they understand the history.”

Escobar said she has come to embrace both Noodle World and her city’s change.

“I didn’t know what to order in the beginning,” said Escobar, a social worker. “So I ordered what every Latino orders, chicken fried rice.”

She loved the big portions and came back every weekend to try something new.

“Now I go all the time and order shrimp or soup. I love the Thai iced tea,” she said. “Change is change, and we like what we have now.”

For the younger generation, Noodle World’s appeal is not the nostalgia but the food and atmosphere.

On a table in the center of the dining room sat friends Trun Phan, 21; Shubo Jiang, 20; and Hearing Choy, 20. As it was for the generation before them who came to Bob’s Big Boy, the three Asian Americans said Noodle World was a destination after high school football games and dances. But instead of burgers and shakes, they came for boba tea and fried noodles.

“It’s always lively, and it’s open late,” said Choy, an Alhambra resident, naming two of the key ingredients for any successful restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley.

The statue, however, was meaningless.

“I have no idea what that is,” Jiang said.

“Maybe this used to be a hamburger place,” Phan said.

Recently Mekpongsatorn completed a new year’s ritual -- making his annual payment to use the statue, due on the first of every year.

“A nice, crisp dollar bill,” he said. “Certified mail.”

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david.pierson@latimes.com


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