How did the most mundane and utilitarian form of American architecture come to pulse with such vitality in Los Angeles? Because the multicultural restaurants that anchor them are like nowhere else.
One day, not so long ago, I was out on a somewhat random errand—to get some free mulch for my garden—and traveling through a part of town where I don’t normally travel, when my phone pinged. I quickly looked at it. There on the screen was a reminder, from my Reminders app. “Baja Subs Market & Deli” it said, rather cryptically. It took me a moment before I remembered the reason for this reminder: I’d once loaded the app up with a list of restaurants, and set the reminder of each to occur when I was within a few blocks of a given spot. I’d now passed by Baja Subs Market & Deli and—ping.
It was close enough to lunch time that this new stop did not seem unreasonable. And so, at the next red light, I changed my destination to what I imagined would be, as its name suggested, a Mexican corner market, which it was, for the most part, except there in the back, written on a chalkboard, was a menu for kottu roti, hoppers, dosas, and biryani—staples of Sri Lankan cuisine. I ordered the biryani.
When my order was up I took the to-go box outside and popped it open on the hood of my car and stood there for a moment in a state of unbridled wonderment as the aromas of the dish—cinnamon and saffron rice, a glorious pile of caramelized onions and pineapple chutney beside it—wafted upward and into the whole scene. The L.A. sky (bright, too bright, nearly always), the faux-Spanish tile edifice in front of the roof, and the signage of the place itself: two cartoon palms framing the word “Baja” and the word “Sub,” with a red chili pepper separating the two. Just beyond the sign above the store was the vertical one, closer to the street, that listed all the businesses in the strip mall: a print shop called Printer Tek, Kim’s Salon and Barber, R.A.M.A. Karate.
The strip mall is the most basic and ubiquitous form of commercial real estate in Los Angeles. Maybe it was because this biryani I was enjoying during a random errand was so unexpectedly wonderful but, at the time, it struck me that strip malls, and strip malls in L.A. in particular, are the greatest, most democratic, magical, important, vital form for understanding not just food in the region, but everything: the people, the place, all of it. The biryani was really good. But even long after its taste is but a memory, I still believe all this to be true of the L.A. strip mall.
Two seemingly unrelated but sweeping global events collided that made the strip mall in Los Angeles what it is today, which is a place where a maligned and ultra-utilitarian piece of typically drab architecture pulses with vitality and some of the best food in America, if not the world. The first event was the passage, in 1965, of the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act, which lifted what were often tremendous restrictions on immigration to the U.S. from Asian countries. Waves of Koreans and Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese, Indians and Sri Lankans and Cambodians and many, many others began arriving—not all at once, of course, but just as many of these new arrivals were arriving, an oil crisis struck.
What does this have to do with that? Bear with me a beat. Before the 1970s, L.A. was chockablock with gas stations. The oil shocks of the 70s caused a huge number of these stations to go bankrupt. What often cropped up in their place was the strip mall as we know it today. Thousands of these strip malls were built in Southern California, resulting in a real-estate glut. Into that glut landed many of these new arrivals from Asia—and elsewhere, too—who went about setting up shop. Many opened the restaurants that became the anchor of so many of L.A.’s strip malls; some are still, while subsequent waves of immigrants, and the children of immigrants, opened their own spots. This solar system of global cuisine surrounds the blocky low-slung sun that is the form of the strip mall.
I have this ongoing thing with a friend where we send each other the signage of strip malls we happen to visit. Not the sign above the shop, but the one close to the street, listing everything. It’s the collision of businesses that delights. A dentist next to a pet shop next to a laundromat next to a liquor store. But always, always, at the heart of the place lies a restaurant. Sometimes two. Occasionally more. If it’s practically all restaurants this strip mall is more a dining destination type mall and, one might argue, an entirely different category; but I’m not here to be snooty about the strip mall or try and come up with some kind of classification system or taxonomy. I’m just saying that in this tired old world where everything is mapped and Googled and known, a strip mall, particularly a strip mall in the greater Los Angeles area, still surprises.
Recently I have taken to walking down to my local strip malls. There are a lot of them, lining the main boulevard in the corner of L.A. where I live, and each has its own feel, a specific vibe that seems to emanate mainly from the restaurant, specialty import grocery, or donut shop that anchors it. The one with Colorado Donuts, run by a Filipino family, is where my three-year-old son and I walk to get him his favorite—an electric purple ube donut; the one with our dry cleaners is, most importantly, home to Green Dragon, the best Chinese food close by, and also my favorite vegan Thai place called, maybe too aptly, My Vegan Thai. Farther down it gets trendier. The blocks just past the strip mall where I go to get our old grouchy cat her insanely expensive prescription cat food, has been playing home to a rotating cast of progressively sleeker seeming restaurants that, while surprising in their own way, would almost certainly not exist without the Hawaiian poke place next to the pet shop or, for that matter, the taco truck or the ramen joint across the street. Inevitably a story about real estate in Los Angeles would begin with a glut, a sort of imagined halcyon age, and end with another sort of crisis, this one brought on by the lack of space, the ever rising rents, gentrification, and an unwillingness to reimagine what our constructed world might be. Strip malls didn’t start in the 1970s, they just exploded into a void left by all the bankrupt gas stations. Strip malls started in the 1920s, with the idea of a market you could drive to, park in front of. The most hopeful thing you can see about strip malls today is a new sort of explosion into the void, a reclaiming of those parking spaces as a place not for cars to park, but for people to eat and hang and enjoy, a sort of mini town square for the mini village of the strip mall.
Another day, just a few weeks back, I was on another random errand. This one, too, was garden related: I was picking up bags of gravel. Again my phone pinged a reminder, this time for a Chinese and Vietnamese place in the San Gabriel Valley, Golden Delight, which serves pho in thick clay bowls. As I buried my face in the steaming hot bowl and inhaled, I thought back to that last random strip mall side trek, how remarkable that biryani had been, how I needed to go back. Briefly, very briefly, a thought flashed—had I even ended up getting that mulch?
Reader: I had not.