Angelo’s owners set to take revised offer, make way for rail line

Angelo's Drive-In, a Fresno institution, is set to close as the state acquires land for the high-speed rail line.
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

FRESNO -- After the Monday lunch rush at Angelo’s Drive-In, a man in a blue work shirt came in and laid a thick manila envelope on the counter, asking for the owners’ signatures.

Kay Lim and Ken Chea thought they were signing the papers to sell the 1950s diner to the state to make way for high-speed rail. They agreed to accept an offer of $160,000 for a burger joint that opened in 1954 and holds nostalgic appeal for generations of Central Valley families.

Later, they realized the deal was not yet final: The papers represented a second, state-authorized appraisal, boosting the price for their restaurant’s land and building to $140,000, from $100,000. They expect to sign the final papers for the larger figure this week.

The offer for the business remains $20,000, bringing the total to $160,000. The couple bought the restaurant for $300,000 nine years ago. They said it makes about $50,000 a year.

Experts said the couple have a good case for contesting the estimated value of the business, but Lim and Chea, Cambodian immigrants, are unwilling to fight the state.

“When you’re a little guy, you can’t pay for lawyers,” Lim said. “What can we do? I came to this country with nothing, so hey, we can do it again.”

She said the mayor of Fresno had called and wanted to talk. The local television stations were sending news vans. A circle of longtime customers were urging the couple not to sign anything.


“Everyone wants to talk-talk-talk,” said their son Peter Chea, a 24-year-old economics major at Fresno State. “But they don’t understand how stressful this is on our family. My parents just want it to be finished.”

A judge ruled on Friday that the state had violated the high-speed rail initiative passed by voters five years ago. Experts said California’s biggest public works project could be delayed for years. Peter Chea wondered if that meant they might be notified that the restaurant did not have to close by Sept. 15.

But on Monday, three men eating lunch at Angelo’s told him that they were the demolition crew who would be taking down the building. He recognized one of them as a regular lunch customer during the time they were dismantling the old DMV building across the street.

After signing the appraisal papers, Ken Chea went back to cooking.

“I’ve been through so much worse in life,” he said with a shrug. “I don’t want to let this thing go on and on.”

Out front, at one of the vinyl booths, customer Bill Henry told Lim the family wasn’t being offered enough for their livelihood.

Lim told him the story of her family’s escape from Cambodia into Thailand when members of their group were shot and killed.

“My mom always told me, ‘If you’re alive, if your eyes can see and your legs can walk, you can go on.’ We’re going to move on.”


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