California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Alhambra, the Gateway to the San Gabriel Valley

California Fool's Gold

I had to go to Alhambra to see a man about a horse at the bidding of the always radiant Ngoc Nguyen.


Alhambra is on the western edge of the San Gabriel Valley between posh San Marino, trendy South Pasadena, historic San Gabriel, blue-collar Rosemead, and the most Chinese city in the US, Monterey Park.

Map of Alhambra, available on a variety of merchandise and art prints

The center of Alhambra is the intersection of Garfield and Main, which has functioned as the hub of town at least since 1895.

My favorite historical site, however, isn’t really too historical. There’s a great shopping center (that most recently housed a Von‘s before it was replaced by the Asian 168 Market in 2006). It’s one of those many, amazing Los Angeles simulacra that make what would normally be a boring strip mall feel a bit like a visit to Disneyland. This shopping center is, much more successfully than the Cerritos Auto Mile, going for a New Orleans French Quarter vibe with a gazebo, faux wrought-iron street lamps and balconies, and a cupola containing a liberty bell.  It originally opened around 1965 as Crawford’s Corner, which used to feature Dixieland bands on the gazebo but that steamboat sailed long ago and today the music is more likely to emanate from the speakers inside and be pop music sung in Chinese.

New Valley Shopping Center


In the 1950s, Garfield and Main was the hippest place in the San Gabriel Valley and was predominantly populated mostly by Italian-Americans. The following decade saw an influx of Latinos from surrounding areas and Anglos moving to other suburbs. In the late 1960s, Alhambra was a hotbed of anti-Vietnam War protests and Brown Beret activity. By the mid-1970s, tensions rose between the predominantly Anglo “surfers” and Mexican-American “cholos.” In the 1980s, many Taiwanese began to move to the neighborhood, followed by waves of Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and other Asians. Today the population is roughly 53% Asian (mostly Chinese and Vietnamese), 34% Latino (mostly Mexicans of any race), and 10% white Anglo.


The San Gabriel Valley is widely recognized for having the best collection of restaurants in Los Angeles County. Being the gateway to the SGV and entering Alhambra on bike, I was always hit with a blast of delicious fragrances emanating from Alhambra’s kitchens and restaurants. Even though they make up a very small percentage of Los Angeles’s Asian-American population, Los Angeles being the great city of the Pacific Rim it should be no surprise that the highest population of Indonesians is in Los Angeles County and the highest concentration within Los Angeles County is in Alhambra. I mention this first because Indonesian cuisine is one of the world’s greatest and Alhambra boasts a few places to get it: Borneo Kalimantan Cuisine, Indo Kitchen, and Wong Java House. One can also get Indonesian and/or Indonesian-inspired dishes at Garden Café, Savoy Kitchen, and maybe Noodle World. That being said, there’s no place in Alhambra that I’ve eaten more than Yazmin Malaysian Restaurant — representing the cuisine of Indonesia’s neighbor to the north — Malaysia, of course. I’m also a fan of Banh Mi Che Cali, the Alhambra Lee’s Sandwiches (don’t hate!), Thai Purple, and at least the fried zucchini at Rick’s.

In addition to the aforementioned cuisines and restaurants, Alhambra boasts a number of American, Cajun, Chinese, Dim Sum, Hawaiian, Hu, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants including the following:

A&J Bakery, ACC Chinese Fast Food, Albert Mexican Food, Alley Restaurant, Aloha Food Factory, Alondra Hot Wings, Angelo’s, Ba Le, Baccali Café & Rotisseries, Bamboo Garden, Bamboo House, Banh Mi My To, Bao Bao Bistro, Belly Buster Sandwich Shoppe, Big 3 Seafood, Birdie’s, BoatHouse, Boteco, Bun-N Burger, Burgers and MoreBurrito Kingdom, Caffe ItalianoCafé Spot, Café on 2D, Caramba Mexican Food & Cocktails, Casa Fong, Cha Cha ChiliCha for Tea, Charlie’s Trio Café, The Chicken Place, Chonitos, Chou’s Restaurant, The Congee, Corner House, Cotton Candy, Court House Snack Bar, Crane Sushi, Crazy SushiTofu Village, Crepe Luv, Diner on MainDog Huas, Dojo, Dong Nguyen, El Patio Tepeyac, El Ranchero, El Tepeyac No 2, El Vaquero, Face Café, Flame Broiler, Flavor Garden, Fortune No 1, Fronteras Mexican Grill & Cantina, Gen Korean BBQ House, Genovese’s PizzaGolden Coast, Golden Shanghai Restaurant, The Granada LA, Green Chopsticks, Green Papaya, Grill ‘em AllHai Nam Saigon, Hanashima, Happy Garden, Happy Harbor, The Hat, Honey Badger Café, Hot Red Bus, Jayson’s Noodle House, Just Grillin’, Kang Kang Food Court, Kim Chuy, Kim Kee Noodle Café, Kim Ky, King Hua, The Kitchen, Kofftea, Kosuke, Kuan Xuan Men Dimsum, La Cafeina Café & Deli, La Parilla, Las Cunadas, Lee’s Garden, Leo’s Fast Food, Lobster King, Los Tacos Grill, Lovebirds Café, Loving Hut, Lunasia, Lupita’s, MPV BBQ & Dim Sum, MPV Seafood Restaurant, Mahan, Make In Kitchen, Mama’s Kitchen, Manny’s Tacos, Mateos, Mei Lin Tou Chiang, Mei Lin Tou Chiang, Ming Wa, My Way Hot Pot, Nem Nuong Khank Hoa, New Bay Seafood, New Chong QingNew England Fish & Chips & Chinese Food, New Noodle City, Nina’s Kitchen, Noodle GuyNoodle King, Noodle Young, Old Country Café, 101 Bakery & Café, 101 Noodle Express, 101 Teahouse Café, Ono Hawaiian BBQ, Palace Burgers, Pepe’s, Pharo’s Burgers, Pho 79, Pho Sahee Hao, Pho Saigon Noodle House, Pho Super BowlPhoenix Dessert, Phoenix Food Boutique, Phoenix Inn, Pick Up Stix Fresh Asian Flavor, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Quick Shabu-Shabu, Quickly, Raymond’s Asian Gourmet, Ray’s Feeder, Rice Garden, Rico Corner CaféSahee, Salad Farm, Sam Woo Barbecue, Sea Dragon, Señor Fish, Shakas Hawaiian Flavors, Shanghai Village, Shanghai Yau FatShiao May, Sizzling King, Spice Basil, The Square Dot, Sub Station II, Sunday Bistro, Taco Makers, Tamaya, Tasty Garden, 38 Degrees Ale House & Grill, Top Island, Tops Jr, Toros, Twohey’s Restaurant, U2 Café, Vino at Trios, Vittoria Pizza Ristorante Italiano, Wahib’s, Wing Tin BBQ, Yama, Yellowcard Café, Z Sushi, and Zoe Café.

And finally (on the food subject), Alhambra is home to Green Menu — a non-profit organization that promotes vegetarian and/or vegan dining. They’re a great resource for identifying vegan, vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly dining — especially in the San Gabriel Valley. They offer members all sorts of offers and additionally offer cooking courses!

I first visited Alhambra to buy a copy of the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet from a Penny Lane managed by Danny Lee, who later came to Amoeba and oversaw the no-longer-existent Hong Kong section (now split between Martial Arts and Asian Cinema).

In 2001, the historic Garfield Theater which had exclusively shown Chinese films closed.

Meanwhile, a few blocks north, you can see mainstream American movies (but sometimes with Chinese subtitles) at the Edwards Cinema.

This statue marks the spot where, on weekends, a lot of people come to hang out, break dance and eat. Benjamin Wilson was a fur trader who was trying to go to China. When he moved to the San Gabriel Valley (then part of Mexico) he was denied passage. He ended up becoming a Mexican citizen and bought considerable tracts of land in the area. Supposedly due to his kindness to the Tongva they nicknamed him “Don Benito” (at least to his face).


The duo, Going Home, was formed by Hope Sandoval and Sylvia Gomez whilst the two were attending Alhambra’s Mark Keppel High School. Malefic (Scott Conner to his parents) is the creative force behind the Alhambra band, Xasthur. Alhambra’s most commercially successful musician, however, is Kenneth Clark “Kenny” Loggins, seen by some as America’s Bryan Adams.


Alhambra is the birthplace of actors Duane Allen and Mitch Vogel.

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.
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