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Asians and Asian Americans swarm to thriving Diamond Jamboree, Irvine's cultural hot spot

For Kayla Chai, fresh from posing with her college diploma, there's only one spot to rush to for a treat — Diamond Jamboree.

At the bustling shopping and dining destination, she entered 85°C Bakery Cafe one Friday and, grabbing a tray and tongs, moved through the display to satisfy her cravings with garlic and cheese bread, washed it down with pick-me-up sea salt coffee.

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"It's my favorite," said the newly minted UC Irvine graduate, a psychology major. "This is one of those places that you come to every chance you get."

Others share the same idea. Countless families at the Irvine hotspot say they're regulars, even if on many weekends, every parking space — all 747 — are full.

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Diamond Jamboree spokeswoman Suzie Won says customers constantly ask her: " 'What time of day is best to visit for best parking?' "

As for business owners, they clamor to hear about restaurant vacancies.

"We're so lucky people come back again and again," says Diamond Jamboree owner Alethea Hsu. "We exist to give the consumer a taste of Asia. And since Irvine has changed to be so much like Asia, we're meeting the need, but we never knew it would be so crowded."

Hsu, who also owns Diamond Plaza in Rowland Heights, bought the 12-acre Jamboree property in 2003, opening it in 2009 with tenants who now sell tempting bites from taro balls and gogi sliders to amberjack and bluefin toru. Folks head upstairs for laser skin treatments while downstairs, every manner of service from Asian banks to jewelers to wig and hair restoration is on offer.

Anchoring the center is H Mart, a Korean grocer that's home to fresh ingredients needed for beef seaweed soup, along with favorites such as dragon fruit, Thai desserts and Japanese green tea cake.

Thai Phi and Kenny Cheng from Toronto select their food from an electronic menu at the Kula Revolving Sushi Bar restaurant at Diamond Jamboree.
Thai Phi and Kenny Cheng from Toronto select their food from an electronic menu at the Kula Revolving Sushi Bar restaurant at Diamond Jamboree. (Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot)

In Irvine, boasting a population of more than 262,000, with 45% Asians, Hsu doesn't worry about future sales. She walks around the center weekly, taking photos of areas that could use touch-ups and sending them to her staff.

"A city needs a gathering spot," says James Zarsadiaz, an assistant professor of history at the University of San Francisco whose research involves ethnic enclaves. "This is that for Irvine, which has transformed in ways that are similar to how San Gabriel Valley transformed. It's now solidly on the map for communities of Asians to venture to because it's set up to offer them everything."

And, he adds, "people come back to a place that fills their longing, and it's a longing of what they've experienced, what they used to have, or what they once treasured where they came from."

The multicultural center has become so popular that visitors from across the globe say whenever they mention Irvine, friends ask if they want to meet up at Diamond Jamboree.

Toronto tourists Kenny Cheng and Thai Phi, both information technology consultants, squeezed in a recent stop, noshing on sashimi at the revolving Kula Sushi, where dishes slide on a conveyor belt, allowing guests to pick the plate they want.

"Totally, I couldn't miss it," says Cheng, 31, of the cuisine, before heading to an Angels game.

"We've only been here half an hour, and we couldn't believe how crowded it is," adds Phi, 27.

A few doors down, Alex Hy, 85°C Bakery supervisor, says his staff sells more than 1,500 loaves of tender, fragrant brioche a week, each for $2.25 — an item almost as popular as "berrytale," a blueberry and cream cheese pastry at $1.50 a pop. The store touts "85-cent Mondays," when its famed sea salt coffee is heavily discounted to that price, sparking lines as long as an hour.

"Sweets just draw people," he said, grinning.

Julian Lai, 8, and his mom, Fiona Kwei, look at the pastries at 85°C Bakery Cafe at Diamond Jamboree.
Julian Lai, 8, and his mom, Fiona Kwei, look at the pastries at 85°C Bakery Cafe at Diamond Jamboree. (Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot)

The nook to the left of the bakery houses Lollicup, a beverage vendor selling the "peachee lychee" and the "anteater," a concoction of milk tea and Thai tea mixed in honor of the mascot at nearby UC Irvine.

The top businesses at the center, aside from the bakery, include Tokyo Table, Kula Sushi, Ajisen Ramen and Capital Seafood, tied for fifth with the 24-hour BCD Tofu.

"This is a city known for housing, but now it has more attractions," says Barry Payne, an advertising executive in his 40s whose office is a short drive from the center and who stops by weekly for a sushi lunch. "In the beginning, I saw all these Asians and since I'm not, I thought I would stick out. I found that actually, everyone comes for the food. They pay more attention to flavor."

Iranian Monica Shrif, a UC Irvine business major, says she too can't resist swinging by for sushi. "Everyone talks about waiting for a 'quiet time' — but there's hardly quiet time," adds the 28-year-old. "This is a like a downtown."

Palace Beauty owner Jay Bae says foot traffic convinced him to stay open every day of the year. "You never know who will show up," he said. "People celebrate during the holidays, and they're ready to eat and spend."

Rita Bai, shopping for skin potions one evening at Bae's store, pops in whenever she's in town. At 24, she's studying for a master's degree in fashion management at England's University of Southampton and misses the lures her Irvine hometown has to offer.

"This place is really central and it has all the products from Asia — and by that, I mean everything you need for daily life from karaoke to groceries to cosmetics," she says. "I feel like, why don't people go to other plazas? Why do they all come here?"

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