California Fool’s Gold — Exploring San Gabriel, A City with a Mission

California Fool's Gold


San Gabriel Postcard from the early 1900s

For this blog entry, I ventured to the city of San Gabriel. Accompanying me were veteran three traveling companions. Cheryl Anne, a designer, hadn’t appeared since her Season 4, episode 10 debut, “Gardena – The South Bay’s city of opportunity.” Artist Chris Urias made his debut appearance and regular audiences are well acquainted with Club Underground‘s DJ Modernbrit, aka Tim Shimbles, who has appeared in numerous episodes, debuting back in Season 2, episode 4, “Morningside Circle” in which we first discovered South LA’s Westside.

Pedobear rape kidnap van
Why are there so many creepy vans in San Gabriel?

It was good that I had such a large posse. San Gabriel was a familiar destination for me and my first traveling companion, whose name shall never again be uttered since she (literally, not figuratively) violently ripped my still-beating heart from my chest in Season 3. Also, there seemed to be a very large number of windowless white kidnap vans circling us so a four deep crew and our keeping our wits about us was fundamental.


Pendersleigh & Sons' Map of the San Gabriel ValleyPendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s map of the San Gabriel Valley


San Gabriel is a small city in the western end of the San Gabriel Valley. It’s named after the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel. Due to its large Chinese-American population (the fourth largest in the Far East Side after Arcadia, Rosemead and Monterey Park), it’s commonly referred to as “Chan Gabriel.”


61% of San Gabriel‘s population is Asian-American although, after Chinese and Taiwanese, there is an almost equally large Vietnamese population (“Tran Gabriel,” anyone?) 25% of the population self-identifies as white (26% of the population is Latino of any race).


San Gabriel‘s neighbors are San Marino to the north, the unincorporated area of East San Gabriel to the northeast, Temple City to the east, Rosemead to the south, Monterey Park to the southwest, and Alhambra to the west.

Tongva woman and children in the San Gabriel Mission - 1781
Tongva woman and children in the Mission

For thousands of years, the area that now makes up San Gabriel was known to its Tongva inhabitants asShevaa. Their local village, Sibangna, was located within the boundaries of modern-day San Gabriel and was probably home to about 150 people.

Mission San Gabriel
The Mission with a sweet ride in the foreground

After the Spanish Conquest, the Tongva were subjugated and forcibly converted to Catholicism at the aforementioned Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, which was actually established in the nearby Whittier Narrows flood plain (genius!) in 1771. Five years later it was moved to higher ground, where it remains today.

Founding of Los Angeles


It was from the mission that a small group of 44 pobladores ventured in 1781, where they journeyed over the hills and founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porcincula (better known as Los Angeles ). For that reason, San Gabriel also sometimes claims to be the birthplace of Los Angeles. Every September, the walk is reenacted.


In 1801, at the mission, Pio de Jesus Pico was born. He went on to be California‘s last Mexican governor. In 1804, the first oranges were planted there. In 1834, Pío Pico secularized the mission.

Ferdinand Deppe's Mission San Gabriel


Mission San Gabriel, painted in 1832 at the height of its prosperity by the German Ferdinand Deppe —the only known painting of a California mission from so early a date.


After the US defeated Mexico and claimed California, the San Gabriel Township was established in 1852 – the first in the county. By 1860, the population had only grown to 586 residents.


Grapevine Park
Grapevine Park and Arbor

San Gabriel’s oldest park, Grapevine Park – is home to the Grape Vine Arbor. It was planted in 1861 as a cutting taken from the Mission’s mother vine. Author Helen Hunt Jackson wrote Ramona about real-life resident Ramona Shorb whilst staying at the old Grapevine Inn, now known as the Padilla Room, but also known as “the Birthplace of Ramona” and “Ramona’s Home.”


Plaza Park Tiles
Plaza Park

Plaza Park Tiles

Other parks include Vincent Lugo Park, named (presumably) after someone named Vincent Lugo where, every November, they have the annual Turkey TrotSmith Park (which is dedicated to the Tongva) and Roosevelt Park are two other small city parks. Plaza Park is the green space that sits in front of the Mission. On it stands an attractive fountain dedicated by the people of San Gabriel on the US’s bicentennial.

Guy Rose  San Gabriel Road 1919 Guy Rose
Guy Rose and San Gabriel Road (1919)


A fews later, in 1867, future artist Guy Rose (for whom Rosemead is named) was born in San Gabriel.

In 1885, the township’s most famous resident, George “Old Blood and Guts” Patton was born there. He was later, in 1970, the subject of the film Patton.


San Gabriel became a city in name when it was incorporated in 1913. Like most of the San Gabriel Valley, San Gabriel remained largely agricultural until the mid-20th century. One of San Gabriel’s most-treasured reminders of that past is the huge, Japanese family-owned and operated San Gabriel Nursery & Florist, founded in 1923.

Following the end of World War II, large numbers of Italians began to move from the Eastside (especiallyLincoln Heights), as well as Latinos (especially from East LA), began to settle in the western San Gabriel Valley cities of Alhambra, Rosemead, Montebello, Temple City as well as San Gabriel.

In 1948, future Manson family member and murderer Susan Atkins was born there. In 1969 she would participate in the Tate/LaBianca murders in Los Feliz. So notorious were the Manson Family murders that Amoeba has a Manson Family section for all of the films they inspired.

In 1954, actor/musician Charles William “Bill” Mumy, Jr was born there. As a youth, he gained fame as Will Robinson on the TV series Lost in Space.


Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church San Gabriel
Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church

Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox is the oldest, organized Orthodox Christian church in SoCal. The Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church of Los Angeles was founded in 1910. In that era, around 2,000 Serbsemigrated from Boka, Hercegovina, Montenegro and Vojvodina. The roots of St. Sava begin in 1903, when Serbian immigrants organized Jedinstvo, a Serbian benevolent society. They purchased land for a Serbian cemetery in East LA in 1908. In 1956, church member Charles S. Barzut donated a house and adjoining land in San Gabriel for the construction of a new St Sava church. The church was completed in 1963. A new church building was completed on the land in 1984.


Chua Dieu Phap San Gabriel
Chua Dieu Phap Temple

The local Chua Dieu Phap Temple is another somewhat attractive Viet-Spanish-style house of worship, built in 1991.


The first significant population of Asian-Americans, as in many agricultural areas of LA County, were of Japanese origin in the early 20th century. However, a much larger wave of Asian-Americans arrived in the vicinity in the starting in the late 1970s, when many Taiwanese families settled in the western part of the San Gabriel Valley. Much of this could be attributed to realtor Frederic Hsieh, who somewhat exaggeratedly promoted neighboring Monterey Park in Taiwan and Hong Kong as “The Chinese Beverly Hills.” In the 1980s, large numbers of Mainland Chinese and Vietnamese also moved to the area.

After Monterey Park passed an ordinance that all signs had to be written in English (despite neither the USA nor California having no official language). Chinese-speaking business owners responded by packing up and relocating to friendlier climates of Alhambra and San Gabriel. (It didn’t take long for Monterey Park to reverse their position, encouraging more Asian-Americans to move there so that in 1990 it became the first Asian-majority city on the US mainland).


On September 15, 48-year-old Coptic Christian Adel Karas was shot and killed at a convenience store, most likely because some ignorant, psychotic dumbass was taking his misguided post 9-11 anger out on a random innocent. The crime remains unsolved.

On well-known Taiwanese-American San Gabriel resident, Joanna Wang (王若琳), was born in Tapei in 1988 but moved with her family to San Gabriel when she was sixteen. Her stated mix of primary influences (The Beatles, Koji Kondo, and Oingo Bongo) resulted in a Taiwanese number one in 2008, Start from here. In 2013 she released an album, Galaxy Crisis: The Strangest Midnight Broadcast, that saw her make a stylistic shift into Picopop.

Monterey Park, nor San Gabriel for that matter, ever really developed into a Chinese Beverly Hills and in the 1990s, many of the area’s wealthier Chinese-Americans moved to “old money” places like Arcadia and San Marino, nearby Temple City, and the farther off, “new money” suburbs of Diamond Bar, Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, and Walnut.


San Gabriel is a mecca of Asian markets for the Southland. Taiwanese-American oriented (but Little Saigon founded) 99 Ranch Market is the second-largest employer in the city (after the San Gabriel Valley Medical Center) founded in Little Saigon. Markets are a huge part of San Gabriel… San Gabrielinos love to eat! There’s also Shun Fat (the fourth largest employer in the city), Hawaii (the sixth-largest employer in town), Howie’s Ranch Market, Mitsuwa Marketplace, Yama Seafood, Claro’s Italian Market, Alexander’s Prime Meats and Catering, Shanghai Food & Groceries Co and H K Supermarket.

Rear of Asian Car  Picke air fresheners
                           Not Clay’s car…              OK, I also bought the rubber duck in a sea of lime

We stopped in a car accessories shop. Not a Pep Boys or Auto Zone-style one, rather one where you can church up an old beater with a big line of Hello Kitty products, stuffed animals, cute air fresheners, &c. Since I was borrowing someone else’s car, I only hung a violet-scented ornament containing a penguin floating in fake slush.


San Gabriel Super Store


Special mention has to go to the San Gabriel Superstore, which – to convey its size and power – deposed a Target.

Another DVD store inside the San Gabriel Super Store
Two of the SG Superstore stalls selling DVDs and CDs
San Gabriel Super Store Cognac selection
Lots of cognacs (even the lanterns are Martell)
Inside San Gabriel Super Store
One can actually see the curvature of the earth occurring

More than just a large Chinese/Vietnamese/Hoa market, it’s almost like a massive Vietnamese swap meet with restaurants, clothing stores, DVD stores, CDs, gift shops, a cafeteria, jewelry stores, &c.
DVD stall in San Gabriel Super Store

Outside it’s usually kind of a scene too. I’ve been there numerous times and it seems like there’s always this woman at the entrance making these fresh, hot cream custard-filled pastries that are really delicious – does anyone know what they’re called? They seem Vietnamese but what do I know? The parking lot also seems to be the preferred hang out for San Gabriel’s homeless population.


Huy Fong
Photo by Robert Yager

Whilst we’re on the subject of food, I should mention that the beloved Huy Fong, the makers of famously addictive Rooster Sauce, is based in San Gabriel. Huy Fong was founded in Chinatown by Hoa immigrant David Tran, (born 1945 – the year of the rooster). Until he came to the US in the late ’70s, he farmed and sold chili sauce in and around Long Binh. Have you ever seen an advertisement for Rooster Sauce? No – that’s because word-of-mouth is more than adequate. In the mid-’80s they relocated to a larger facility in Rosemead. Now they’ve outgrown that and moved to an even larger facility in San Gabriel.

Girl in Rooster Sauce costume


It has to be mentioned, although Huy Fong’s rooster sauce is the most popular sriracha in the US (Thai brand Flying Goose is more popular overseas), sriracha is a Thai invention, not an American one. Sriracha is named after the coastal town Si Racha, Thailand. Thai sriracha tends to be tangier, sweeter and runnier than non-Thai versions. My advice? Try as many kinds as you like and put copious amounts on everything — it’s ok to have more than one type.


Saigon Flavor - San Gabriel
Outside Saigon Flavor
Banh Mi Che Cali interior San Gabriel
Banh Me Che Cali
Breakfast at Macho Cafe - San Gabriel
Our tasty (and gut-busting) desayuno
Macho Cafe - San Gabriel
Rolling up to Macho Cafe

Eateries in San Gabriel reflect both the city’s past and present. There are still a significant number of Italian restaurants (and one market – founded in 1948). There are also many long-established Mexican restaurants. One the day of our visit, we ate at the original Macho Cafe, an old fashioned Cal-Mex joint established in 1979. If you like Cal-Mex, it delivers the goods.

San Gabriel is also home to a large number of Vietnamese restaurants. I’ve eaten at Banh Mi Che Calif many times. For my ex’s family, Saigon Flavor is practically a home away from home. I used to eat at the local Ajisen Ramen pretty regularly but that’s an international chain so I won’t go into it further. So, even though San Gabriel has a fair amount of variety, Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants absolutely abound. (It should also be noted that San Gabriel seemingly has foot spas, hair places, and nail salons on every block… but here are the rest of the restaurants, cafes, tea houses, &c).

A Ri Rang Tofu House, AU79 Tea Spirit, Aqua Treasure, Armando’s, Ay Chung Flour Rice Noodle, BJ Tofu House, B Open Kitchen, Babita Restaurant, Banh Cuon Tay Ho, Battambang Seafood Restaurant, Beijing Restaurant, Bella Italia Restaurant, Beto’s Grill, Bhanu Indian Grocery & Cuisine, Bin Bin Konjac, Boba Boba Milk Tea, Boba Corner, Boulangerie Pierre, Cafe Waiting, Cafe Window – Cafe Nhac, Cafe de Bangkok, Cal-Mex Organic Kitchen, Captain Crab, Casa Calderon, Cathy’s Bakery,

Chanos Drive-In, Chaus Kitchen, Chuan Xiang Tower Restaurant, Clearman’s Gallery, Clearman’s North Woods Inn, Coffee Hanh Hoa, Com Tam Thuan Kieu, Da Han Fei Yang – Han Fat Sheep Hot Pot, Dandan’s Guilin Rice Noodle, Dandi’s Family Restaurant, Dong Ting Chun, Donut King, Ducks Restaurant, 88 Tofu House, 818 Shaokao, El Pavo Bakeries, Embassy Kitchen, Factory Tea Bar, Fine Gargen Vegetarian Restaurant, Fishermen’s Wharf, Fortune Bakery, Fortune Bistro,

Four Sea Restaurant, Fresh Roast, Genki Bistro, Gino’s Primo Pizza, Golden Deli, Golden Wing Wah Seafood, Gourmet Vegetarian Restaurant, Green Zone, Habanero Mexican Grill, Half & Half Tea House, Hao’s Kitchen, Happy Eating, Happy Bakery, Happy Donut, Happy Eating, Happy Kitchen, Happy Sheep, Happy Tea, Hi Pie Corporation, Hodoori Korean Restaurant, Hong Kong Kitchen, Hong Yei Restaurant, Hot Stuff Cafe, Hsin Hsin Shau May Deli, Hunan Chili King,

Hunan Style Restaurant, Hwa Ro Korean BBQ & Tofu, I Fu Tang Bakery, JJ Tea House, JN Kitchen, J R Cafe, JZ Restaurant, Jade Ocean Seafood Restaurant, Jazz Cat Restaurant, Jian Jian Restaurant, Kai’s Restaurant, Kee Wah Bakery, King’s Palace Restaurant, King Kho Bo, Kingsburg Kitchen, Ko Hyang Tofu House, Lao Bian Dumpling, Li Jiang, Liang’s Kitchen, Life Plaza, Lilac Bakery, Little Hut, Liu Xiang Yuan, Lollicup Tea Zone, Los Tacos, Love To Go, Lu’s Garden, Lu Gi Restaurant,

Luscious Dumplings, Lucky Burgers, Lucky Noodle King, Lunas Restaurant, Luong Ky Food, MPV BBQ Seafood Restaurant, M X Restaurant, Mama’s Kitchen, Masei Masei, May Chieu Coffee Shop, May Restaurant, Mei Long Village, Mike’s Pizza & Cosi Cafe, Mission 261 Restaurant, Mission De Las Flores, Mon Land Hot Pot City, Monterey Palace BBQ Fast Food, My Hanh Restaurant, My Ngoc, NRN Cafe, Nanjing Kitchen, Nature Pagoda, New Bamboo Garden, New Capital Seafood Restaurant,

New Chong Qing, New Kingswood Teppan Steak House, New Taste Dumpling House, Newport Tan Cang Seafood Restaurant, Nha Trang, Nubi Yogurt, Oh My Pan Bakery & Tea, Omar’s Xinjiang Hala Restaurant, 101 Hot Pot Cafe, 168 Garden, Oriental Express Cafe, Oriental Pearl Restaurant, Oshan Island, Pa Pa Walk, Peacock, Peking Cuisine, Petrillo’s Pizza Restaurant, Pho Bac Golden, Pho Ga, Pho Le Loi, Phoenix Food Boutique, Piece of Cake Cafe, Platos Peruvian Food & Catering,

Pulciano’s Deli & Cafe, Quickly, Railroad Bento, Red Corner Restaurant, Saigon’s Sandwich & Bakery, Saigon Eden, Salathai Restaurant, Sam Woo BBQ, Sam Woo Sea Food Restaurant, Sampan Thai Cuisine, Shabu House, Shanghai Restaurant, Shen Yang, Sheng Ji Noodle House, Si Hai Restaurant, Snack, Southern Mini Town, Spring Wave, Stuffed Sandwich, Sugar Spice Cafe, Sunny Bakery, Tacos La Doña, Tapioca Express, Taste of Chonqing, Tasty, Tasty Choice, Tasty Dessert, Tasty Duck,

Tasty Noodle House, Tasty Village, Tea Station, Tea Time, Teaser Jungle, Thai Cove, Thai Paradise, The Hot Pots, Thousand Tasty Restaurant, Thuan Kieu Restaurant, Tokyo Lobby Restaurant, Ton Chan Ramen, Uncle Joe’s Donuts, Uncle Yu’s Indian Theme Restaurant, Van’s Bakery, Vietnam House, Vietnam Restaurant, Vua Kho Bo, Wan Chun Taiwanese Food, Wang Jia Restaurant, Wonderful Restaurant, Xian Wei Lou, Yi-Mei Restaurant, Yes Cafe, Yi Gee Cart, Yoshino Sushi, Young Dong Tofu, Yu Garden Chinese Restaurant, Yu Nan 168, Yu Pin, Yum Cha Cafe, and Yunnan Garden.


Hilton Plaza


The aforementioned Ajisen is located in the large Hilton Plaza… which also houses many restaurants as well as the 54,000 square foot Hilton Plaza, a popular site for weddings – especially amongst Chinese-Americans. Across the street is the even bigger (60,000 square foot) Life Plaza Center.

Inside the Emerald City - San Gabriel Square
San Gabriel Square

Next to that is the 220,000 square foot San Gabriel Square. Locals have nicknamed it “The Chinese Disneyland” as well as “The Emerald City.” The LA Times dubbed it “The Great Mall of China.” Even though those nicknames are clever and whilst most of the mall’s patrons are Chinese or Taiwanese, the focus of the stores tends to be broadly pan-East Asian. DVD, VCD, and CD stores carry mixes of Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese titles.

Focus - San Gabriel
Riding the escalotor at SG Plaza

The mall is anchored by Focus Department Store, Focus Jewelry Center, Sam Woo Seafood Restaurant, and 99 Ranch Market.


The many liquor stores and vast cognac selections at local markets suggest that San Gabriel is no dry town. However, the small number of establishments dedicated to drinking suggests that bars aren’t the locale of choice for most locals. There’s only Al’s Cocktails, B’s Land, Elite Cocktail Lounge and  Sharky’s Sports Bar. For those that enjoy having fun that doesn’t (necessarily) center around getting drunk, there’s also Embassy Billiards Club and the ever-popular Cue Studio, which specialize in Japanese sticker booths.


I couldn’t find any films that were shot in San Gabriel… yet! There are several independent movie stores with formidable selections of Asian Cinema. Firelink sells various video formats, mostly of Asian films.

Gily Books - San Gabriel

Gily Bookstore - San Gabriel

Gily Bookstore sells Asian movies, music, Chinese books and other knickknacks (although they were out of Japanese film Confessions. King Hua has a large selection of cheap CDs and DVDs (especially Karaokeones). Super Star Video rents and sells videos and games. Y2K DVD is a large, prepaid Asian video rental store. The San Gabriel Super Store has several stalls that sell DVDs, mostly of Vietnamese films.

San Gabriel video place
Anyone know the name of this video place?


San Gabriel is home to several cultural institutions. The San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, now the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium, is located in the Mission District. It was constructed for John Steven McGroarty and dedicated on 5 March 1927 as a stage for McGroarty’s Mission Play.

Mission Hand Car Wash - San Gabriel

Another Mission District institution is the Mission Hand Car Wash, which was established in 1979.

There are several shops are housed in a building named Temple Block, including the Ramona Museum of California History and the Fine Arts Association on MissionThe First National Bank was built in 1913 as the Bank of San Gabriel. It’s been used since 1969 by the San Gabriel Fine Arts Association for art shows, exhibitions, and classes. The Historical Association Museum includes the old jail and the Hayes House, built in 1887 by the future Chancellor of USC, George Findley Bovard. The jail was a small stone milk house that served as a makeshift jail until prisoners could be transported to the Los Angeles County Jail.

San Gabriel scene - prawn head and cigarette butt

To vote for any communities you’d like to see covered in California Fool’s Gold, name them in the comments. If you’d like a bit of inspiration, there are primers for:

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 KCRWWhich 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.

Art Prints


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