Photos by Michael PowersLast month, San Fernando hosted its seventh annual Menudo Festival, a four-day
event of cheap carny rides, warm churros and kettle corn, street merchants
peddling everything from fake Mayan artwork to silver jewelry to handout sheets
of homes for sale in the neighborhood (even in this largely working-class, Latino
city of 23,000, the median price for a house has risen above $500,000), and, of
course, samples of the hearty soup.
At the same time, the adjacent San Fernando Mall (the tiny two-block heart of the city’s downtown area) sat calmly and quietly, almost oblivious to the buzzing activity just next door. It’s like this every weekend: a steady stream of customers and passersby strolling up and down San Fernando Road between Brand and San Fernando Mission boulevards, where the only crowds you’ll see are kids surrounding the sliced-fruit and corn-on-the-cob carts, and the only loud noise you’ll hear is the norteño polka beats thumping out of a low-rider truck. And the parking — just as in any part of Southern California that’s not the Westside, Hollywood or downtown L.A. — is plentiful and free.This “Mission City” — home of the San Fernando Mission, built by Franciscans in 1797, not long after the founding of Los Angeles — is one of those diamonds in the rough (that being the very gray and industrial East San Fernando Valley) you’ll probably discover only by accident while driving through North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Pacoima or Mission Hills. Think of it as a microscopic, cleaner and commuter-friendly version of downtown L.A. (the area even prints its own Spanish-language rag, the San-Fer), comprising mostly swap-meet-style shopping, furniture and shoe stores displaying their sale items on the sidewalk, quick-stop eateries, a bar or two, and a lone Chinese restaurant.
San Fernando Road
If you’re looking for authentic cowboy gear, walk into Jim’s Western Wear, and you’ll practically see the tumbleweeds roll across your path: typical vaquero fashions, such as Opry-style suits from leather to fringed suede to gunmetal gray, and shirts adorned with embroidered roses, decks of cards, Southwestern designs, and serape colors of red, yellow and blue. There’s an entire wall of felt and straw Stetsons (Los Tigres del Norte have their own line) that go for more than $200, and cowboy boots, conveniently located next to the reptile conditioners and leather and saddle soap, that sell for up to $500. And what would this look be without a Lone Star–size belt buckle emblazoned with “Cowboy Till Death” or “Texan Pride”? When in Rome, also listen as the Romans do: Mi Musica has Latin and South American musical selections from Mexican regional to Andean flute, in addition to rock, metal and, depending on what’s in the CD player, bad new wave blaring from the speakers. This place is as funky as anything you’d find on Melrose, what with all the Che paraphernalia, punk rock T’s, patches, bumper stickers and, get this, clocks. (Who better to tell time to than Bob Marley smoking herb?)The only recognizable stores are the Payless and Ritmo Latino, in addition to the Dollar Tree and the one-level JC Penney, with the saddest cosmetics-perfume counter you’ll ever see, which bookend the mall. It’s convenient shopping for the locals, but if you’re a visitor checking out the area for the first time, you’ll no doubt notice the abundance of bridal boutiques. Eleven of them. With names like “Fantasy” and “Romance.” That’s a lot of tulle for such a small stretch of land.Not walking down the aisle yet? Fifteen years past your quinceañera? Only got another “Why, in my day . . .” speech for your Sweet Sixteen? Doesn’t matter. The magnetic force of the mannequins in the display windows will pull you in not unlike a bar or strip club along Bourbon Street. And behold! The tiaras, scepters, kneeling pillows for the birthday girl, ring pillows for the bride and groom, cake figurines, cake-cutting knives, toasting glasses, champagne fountains, photo albums, porcelain dolls, crystal rosaries and lazos — this is what all those years of Barbie dress-up must’ve been about. And everything is embroidered. With all the planning, preparation and accessories involved, a wedding and quinceañera in Latin culture look almost one and the same: first church, then big partay. Plus, the all-important court of torture victims — bridesmaids and ushers, or damas and chambelanes where the debutante is concerned. Men have it easy with the tuxes and zoot suits (some stores even rent out military uniforms), but women obviously have much more variety. While the wedding gowns are your typical cheap satin numbers, with beading on top and tulle on the bottom, the more elaborate quinceañera gowns (colors vary) are a cross between Miss USA 1984 and Gown With the Wind: quarter-length frilly sleeves, hoop skirts big enough to hide your entire court under, and corsets you’d have to wrap your hands around a bedpost to fit into. There’s a plastic Scarlett O’Hara in every corner, looking back at you. Of course, no girl can “come of age” without a hairdo of fried, crispy, over-glittered sausage curls dangling from her head. And wouldn’t you know there’s a nearby hair salon for that, not to mention a photography/videography studio advertising itself with the requisite cheesy pictures — birthday girl surrounded by fake clouds for background, married couple under a gazebo (he holding his chin, she carrying a parasol) — all over its window? It’s one-stop shopping here. And if you think you’ve seen enough satin, Maria’s Boys and Girls Wear has wall-to-wall baptism gowns. There will be a wet, screaming baby boy this Sunday, somewhere out there, dressed as a midget pope.
wave: Shopping at
Maria's Boys and Girls Wear.
After the first few, or nine, of these boutiques, you’ll walk out feeling like you’re surrounded by your own imaginary puffs of cloud. But we couldn’t help but be impressed by Lili’s Bridal, the mother-of-the-bride of them all, with its waist-high plastic Roman columns, more praying baby-angel figurines than you’d find at the Vatican gift shop, and enough silk-flower bouquets to make all of San Fer look like spring in Rotterdam. Measuring tape and planning books are strewn about the tables, along with a display of table and chairs decorated with fancy linen and ribbons, and a “Do Not Touch” sign sits in the corner. The minute a customer walks in, the salesgirls start sizing up her neck and waistline. All this, and a giant heart-shaped balloon arch, too. Everyone should have a balloon arch to stand under and wave in beauty-pageant motion. Everyone.Bitterness can work up quite an appetite, so you head over to Don Carlitos Raspados and Tortas and find happiness in the form of a toasted three-cheese sandwich or slushee. In these still-warm November days, there’ll no doubt be long lines waiting to get to the cool concoctions: fruit juices in all flavors; the rice-milk drink horchata and Mexico’s answer to the Bloody Mary, the Vampiro; aguas frescas available in tamarind and the hibiscus-flavored jamaica; and raspados (snow cones) that you can top with condensed milk. But beware of the one called Diablito. It involves lots of spices. Right next door, Los Reyes Bakery, a typical panadería, sells cookies, empanadas, and slabs of crispy bread sprinkled with sugar that go for a mere 50 cents. And next door to that is El Bondolero Carnicería, a tiny, narrow meat market boasting different cuts of beef, chorizo, and packets of spices and seasonings from dried hibiscus to chile pods.
Concrete benches are everywhere. But if you’re looking for a slightly more scenic
place to sit and chip away at your snow cone, the cobblestone El Paseo
walkway (hot-dog and cell-phone stands on one end, rollaway carts selling metal
CDs and more punk rock T’s on the other) is perfectly tucked into the middle of
the mall and serves as a sort of nook of historical information. Just above the
mosaic-tiled fountain hang street banners, courtesy of the San Fernando Valley
Historical Society, with photographs of San Fernando Union High School in 1901,
and the San Fernando baseball team in 1908, as well as images of the city’s early
years dating back to the 1800s. Pretty significant, considering that San Fernando,
founded in 1874, is also known as the “First City of the Valley.”
1. Jim’s Western Wear
1123 San Fernando Road
2. Lili’s Bridal
1015 San Fernando Road
3. Mi Musica
1029 San Fernando Road
4. Maria’s Boys and Girls Wear
1122 San Fernando Road
5. Don Carlitos
1143 San Fernando Road
6. Los Reyes Bakery
1147 San Fernando Road
7. El Bondolero Carnicería
1149 San Fernando Road