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Derailed by the bullet train

Angelo’s Drive-In didn’t change, even when its slice of the city -- by the train tracks and the highway -- turned gritty.

Customers moved to nicer neighborhoods. But they still flocked to the 1950s burger joint because of all the things that stayed the same: the chili, the Thousand Island dressing, the red-vinyl booths faded to orange.

Angelo didn’t own it anymore, of course. He’d sold it to his nephew Jim Karos, a Greek immigrant who ran it with his son Junior. In 2004, Junior sold it to Kay Lim and Ken Chea, Cambodian immigrants.

That meant there were still owners who worked six days a week. The few customers the couple didn’t know by name, they knew by their orders: more onions, burn hamburger, triple cheese.

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Then, this month, a woman from the California High Speed Rail Authority came with a big stack of papers. “So sorry ... just doing my job ... here’s a number to call,” she said.

Lim and Chea are supposed to be out by Sept. 15. Angelo’s, born of car culture, is giving way to California’s long-awaited bullet train. The state’s acquisition offer is $100,000 for the building and land, and $20,000 for the business. If the family wants to take the big neon hamburger, it will cost them $1,000.

The first segment of the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco rail line is planned to be built from downtown Fresno to Madera. The 130-mile stretch through rural towns and farmland is expected to cost $6 billion and must be completed by 2018 to receive federal funds.

Construction was slated to begin in 2012 but had been delayed, possibly until next year. Then on Friday a judge ruled that the state broke environmental and financial requirements imposed by voters five years ago when they approved the initiative -- a decision that could halt the project for far longer.

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The High Speed Rail Authority has vowed to stay on course as the case makes its way through further hearings, and this month the state put out the first 106 notices to buy land within 90 days -- Angelo’s among them. The diner sits in the way of a planned overpass.

Brent Norman, 38, who said he’d been coming to Angelo’s “since I was born,” waved a French fry dipped in Thousand Island as he asked Lim for the details.

“A hundred thou? I’ll follow you anywhere, but you can’t even buy a house, much less a restaurant, for that,” he said.

Norman works in construction and said he knows how precious those jobs can be.

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“I’m all for new construction,” he told Lim. “But not like this.”

On those evenings when Lim turns on the neon hamburger floating above the low-slung diner, she imagines, she said, a parking lot full of shiny roadsters, like in the old photographs her customers give her.

In the harsh light of an August lunch hour, however, it was possible to see why a second appraiser told the family they weren’t going to find someone who could give them a higher property value estimate.

“But where do we go?” asked Lim. “It isn’t enough money to begin again.”

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A crowd filled the well-worn booths. Regulars who once came with their grandparents now come with their children, and the lines at a nearby DMV office ensure a steady supply of new drop-ins.

Lim is the waitress and Chea the cook. She came to this country at 17, he at 19, both fleeing the Pol Pot regime when more than a million Cambodians were slain by the Khmer Rouge.

Chea’s first American job was delivering newspapers in North Dakota.

“It was so brutal. So cold,” he said. Even back then, he saved his money to buy a business.

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Their families arranged the couple’s courtship. From their first meeting they agreed it was a fine idea. They have two sons: Timothy, 19, a community college student who hopes to go to medical school, and Peter, 24, an economics major at Cal State Fresno. Both work at the restaurant.

The first business the family owned was an ice cream parlor in San Mateo, bought with savings from working in doughnut shops and other jobs. They sold it to buy a restaurant in San Leandro, then sold that place and their house in the Bay Area to buy Angelo’s.

“My heart, my soul and all my money I ever make is in this. It’s all I got,” Chea said. “I have no education. My English isn’t good. Someone isn’t going to hire me.”

He said he should not say anything else -- “I come from a place where you know not to talk about the government.”

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Each Thursday morning, a group of people who have been friends for seven decades gather at Angelo’s for breakfast. They grew up in Easton, a small farm town south of Fresno. They don’t approve of jelly in tiny plastic tubs with peel-back foil, so they keep their homemade preserves in the diner’s refrigerator.

On a recent morning, Lim showed them the papers from the state.

“We’re going to have to help you find a new place, that’s what we’re going to have to do,” said Nadine Goodenough, 86, still in tennis clothes from a morning game. “But that doesn’t seem like much money, does it?”

Goodenough has ridden high-speed rail in other countries. She was sad to see the end of a place where she and her friends have gathered since their youth, “But I do think the time has come for this project,” she said.

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“Baloney,” said her lifelong friend Elaine Mason, 87. “If they build it, I’ll be on it. But making the first stretch Fresno to Madera? That’s nonsense. They’re going to take Central Valley homes, farms and businesses, and then they’re not going to have the finances and never complete the thing.”

Bill Henry, 70, a former restaurant owner and consultant who eats lunch at Angelo’s four times a week, volunteered to research properties for Lim.

He told Lim that it was going to be impossible to find a stand-alone restaurant in Fresno for the amount the state was offering. He estimated she would need three times as much cash. What’s more, he advised, a mom-and-pop dine-in restaurant without Angelo’s nostalgic pull would struggle to compete with the chains in the Central Valley.

He told her the family should rent a small takeout place in a beach town.

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“The trick would be to put food like this out the window fast-fast-fast,” he said.

Lim and Chea could appeal the acquisition offer, but if negotiations drag on, the state could take the property and pay the judgment later. It’s a chance Chea is not willing to take.

“This is my job,” he said. “Where would I work while we wait?”

The family has already taken down the photos of classic cars. But the plastic menu board reading “Welcome to Angelo’s where time has stood still” is still on the wall.

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Peter Chea, the elder son, said it should be the last thing they pack. He is worried about how he will now pay his tuition yet comforts himself with his belief that California must stop depending on cars.

“We need high-speed rail for sustainable growth. But my parents, they’re always here, you know? They give so much. So there’s frustration, confusion, even anger. But this is the way things have always worked,” he said.

“It’s for the public good. Someone has to sacrifice, right?”

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diana.marcum@latimes.com


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