"Let's take a trip down Whittier Boulevard!" my dad would exclaim when we cruised through his old neighborhood. He was quoting Thee Midniters; the statement is the title, and opening line, of a primarily instrumental 1965 song from the East L.A. band.
I think about that song often while traveling Whittier Boulevard. Much of that is because it's a reminder of my late father, who grew up in East L.A. in the 1960s. There are echoes of that decade throughout this long, winding boulevard. It's in the now-retro signs for drive-thru restaurants and diners. It's in the record store where The Beatles were blasting, and at Montebello City Park, where I saw groups of guys hanging out with their really cool lowriders, and in the antique mall booth filled with Munsters merchandise.
Whittier Boulevard seems made for a time when car culture and suburbia were flourishing. The street starts at the eastern base of the Sixth Street Bridge in Boyle Heights. It continues into East Los Angeles before running through Montebello, Pico Rivera, Whittier and La Habra. Shortly after you cross Harbor Boulevard in La Habra, it turns into the residential Whittier Avenue, which dead-ends in Brea. You will cross the county line without even realizing it.
It's a quintessentially L.A. street marked by big shopping centers and red lights that always seem timed to slow you down. And, like other major thoroughfares across the metropolitan area, amidst the Targets and Trader Joe's, you'll find some cool places. Here's what I found on Whittier Boulevard.
1. Spruce up your tiki bar at Oceanic Arts.
Oceanic Arts is easy to miss; there's a big, grassy divider between the street and the warehouse area it inhabits. Pay close attention when you're driving here because, if you're a tiki fan, you don't want to miss out on this place.
The tiki emporium has been around since 1956 and its stock goes far beyond mugs. It's packed with hulking statues, big bamboo rods and light fixtures galore. From seashells to masks to poster-sized photos of surfers, there's everything you need to turn an interior room or patio into a mid–20th-century–style tiki paradise. Even if you're not on a redecoration mission, there's plenty to entice you here, including small pieces of jewelry and tiki-themed books and magazines. Oceanic Arts, 12414 Whittier Blvd., Whittier. (562) 698-6950, oceanicarts.net.
2. Explore King Richard's Antiques.
There are a few antique and vintage stores on Whittier Boulevard, particularly when you're in the city of Whittier, but King Richard's is the one you won't be able to miss when driving down the street. It's massive — 57,000 square feet — and while the size of the market is obvious from the street, you won't realize just how big it is until you comb through the stalls and realize there are so many more corners you've left untouched.
King Richard's sells both vintage and antique items, and the finds range from large pieces of furniture to Barbie doll carrying cases. There's really a lot here to see; you should dedicate a few hours to roaming the aisles. On a recent trip I came across a goth room, where a 125-year-old priest's robe was on display, along with merchandise related to The Munsters and The Addams Family. King Richard's Antique Center, 12301 Whittier Blvd., Whittier. (562) 698-5974, kingrichardsantiques.com.
3. Sift through the music at Record Jungle.
I didn't know what I wanted when I walked into Record Jungle, but I just had a good feeling that there was vinyl for me inside the shop. When I saw a 45 from Thee Midniters on the wall, the good vibes increased.
There isn't much organization in the store. The records are divided into general categories, like rock and soul, and you have to dig from there. You're better off giving yourself an hour or two to dive into the vinyl and a good spending budget, because you will find good music here. I had only 15 or 20 minutes and a very small shopping budget but still came out with four records for myself and one for my husband. Prices are reasonable, with a lot of the selection falling between $5 and $10. There's also a bounty of 45s here. Record Jungle, 2459 W. Whittier Blvd., Montebello. (323) 725-0940, recordjungle.com.
4. Eat at a drive-thru or diner.
Thank goodness Whittier Boulevard hasn't been overrun by foodies. There's a lot to eat here, and much of it is old-school L.A. Think taquerias denoted by a number, drive-thrus with big signs declaring that this guy or that guy is famous for burgers or pastrami, and 1950s-style diners. As I drove, the urge to bite into a pastrami sandwich grew. I tried to squash it. I even stopped at a health food store, thinking I should get some dried fruit or seeds. Then I realized that was a really stupid idea.
Eventually, I ended up at a place called Golden Ox in Montebello and got my pastrami sandwich. The lady behind the counter gave me a fork and said I would need it. She was right. This beast of a sandwich was packed with meat. I could barely get through half of it in one sitting. It was a simple sandwich, just pastrami, mustard and pickles, but it hit the spot. Now I might have to make it a mission to eat my way down a very long street. Golden Ox, 902 W. Whittier Blvd., Montebello. (323) 722-2865.
5. Visit Ruben Salazar Park.
Ruben Salazar Park isn't the only park on Whittier Boulevard, but its backstory makes it stand out among the others. Salazar, the park's namesake, was a journalist for the Los Angeles Times in the 1960s. After working as a foreign correspondent, he returned to Los Angeles, where he covered the struggle for civil rights within the city's Chicano community. He continued this work after moving to television station KMEX. In 1970, he attended the Chicano Moratorium, a Vietnam War protest that happened right around here. In the end, police and protesters clashed and Salazar was killed when a Sheriff's Department officer fired tear gas into a nearby bar. Not long after his death, the park was renamed in Salazar's memory. Watch the PBS documentary Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle before checking out the park to get more insight into his life and the mystery surrounding his death. Ruben Salazar Park, 3864 Whittier Blvd., East Los Angeles. (323) 260-2360, parks.lacounty.gov.
6. Check out Pio Pico's old ranch.
Pio Pico had a lot of property in the Los Angeles area. You'll spot one former residence, called El Ranchito, off Whittier Boulevard right around the point where the cities of Pico Rivera and Whittier meet. As the name indicates, El Ranchito was a small ranch and it was marked by an adobe home that is available to tour on Saturdays and Sundays. Time and earthquakes have taken their toll on the structure, but it's been restored. Today, you'll see rooms filled with archaeological finds and other odds and ends that give some insight into how Pico, who served as governor of California when the area was Mexico, and his family lived. Pio Pico State Park hosts events as well, including days dedicated to plein air painting and gardening. Stop by on June 11 for the Fiesta de Pio Pico, a free party that will include entertainment and educational activities. Pio Pico State Historic Park, 6003 Pioneer Blvd., Whittier. (562) 695-1217, piopico.org.
7. Listen to live mariachi music during brunch.
Montebello restaurant Fiesta Mexicana knows how to do a good brunch. It's not just about the food here, although an all-you-can-eat buffet filled with everything from pozole to rice pudding provides a meal that can last you for the day. The highlight here, though, is the mariachi show, which you will be able to watch while you dine. The restaurant, which also has a bar, hosts music events regularly. Check the Facebook page. 1105 Whittier Blvd., Montebello. (323) 728-3097, fiestamexicanabarandgrill.com.
8. Shop for crafts and vintage finds in La Habra.
Magnolia Vintage Home & Gift is a sizable, multivendor treasure hunt with a strong shabby-chic vibe. Some of the furniture pieces here have already been spruced up with new spring paint jobs; others are waiting for your personal touch. If you're looking for tea sets or decorative perfume bottles, this is a good place to search. There is a smattering of toys and clothing here, but most of what you'll find are home-decor items. I love the layout of the store because it feels homey despite being packed with stuff. Out in the yard, there's a small, gardenlike area where you can find potted herbs and succulents, as well as a shed filled with vintage tools. Aside from the vintage finds, there are plenty of crafts on sale here too, like aprons made out of fun, retro-looking fabrics and jewelry. Magnolia Vintage Home & Gift, 310 E. Whittier Blvd., La Habra; (562) 694-5901; facebook.com/magnolia-vintage-home-gift-in-la-habra-107397389302473.
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9. Explore the graves of East L.A.
Calvary Cemetery and Home of Peace Memorial Park sit across from each other on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles. They are two cemeteries that come from different traditions; Calvary is Catholic and Home of Peace is Jewish. Both, however, are filled with the history of Los Angeles. This isn't the first location of Calvary — the cemetery originally resided where Cathedral High School stands now — but it's been in operation on this site since the late 1800s. Similarly, Home of Peace came into being when the city's original Jewish burial site, in Chavez Ravine, turned out to be too small. Both cemeteries are the sort of places where you'll want to refer to Find a Grave to see who is here, as both are the burial sites of some people who were pretty famous in life. Calvary Cemetery, 4201 Whittier Blvd., East Los Angeles. (323) 261-3106, catholiccemeteriesla.org/location/calvary-cemetery-la. Home of Peace Memorial Park, 4334 Whittier Blvd., East Los Angeles. (323) 261-6135, homeofpeacememorialpark.com.
10. Chill at Vees Cafe.
One of three locations in Los Angeles, the Boyle Heights outpost of Vees Cafe is tiny, friendly and features indoor and sidewalk seating. The beverage menu is extensive, featuring a slew of coffee, tea and juice concoctions, and the lunch menu is focused on salads and sandwiches. I got the ice blended banana, made with espresso, when I was here and would recommend that to anyone who wants a pick-me-up that tastes like dessert. Vees also features art made by Boyle Heights locals, including a couple of people who work at the cafe. Vees Cafe, 2310 Whittier Blvd., Boyle Heights. (855) 863-9980, veescafe.net.