By Paige Osburn
Once upon a time, Sid Vicious walked into a tiny café in Little Tokyo, got six orders of fried rice and started a food fight. On another occasion, David Byrne ordered an Egg Foo Yung and a glass of milk. And on different night, an all-girl band from Los Angeles picked up a plate of Gogo Chicken and decided they liked the name.
This is 422 East First Street, the corner of First and Alameda in Little Tokyo. Down the street is the Digby Hotel. Beyond that, the Los Angeles Soap Company. And inside is the Atomic Café, noodle house and one time after-hours punk hangout.
The cracked brick walls, once plastered with Screamers flyers and posters of the Clash, will be razed early next year to make way for a new underground Metro stop connecting the Gold Line to 7th & Metro. The $1.4 billion project is stampeding forward; only two businesses still remain in the building and both are shuttering early next year. All that remains is picking a memorial.
“It started with the idea of a public art piece, some kind of commemorative art that designates that place as special,” says Remy de la Peza of the Little Tokyo Service Center Community. “But now… the response is really exciting. We hear so many stories. So many people have connections.”
Ito Matoba and his wife Minoru opened Atomic Café in 1946, just two years after Ito had been released from a Japanese internment camp in Northern California.
For more than three decades, Atomic served locals giant bowls of broth and noodles in a quiet atmosphere. Then Minoru suffered a stroke in the mid-1970s, and his daughter took over. Caking her eyes in black liner and teasing her hair into devil's horns, Nancy Sekizawa was the product of a new age. Posters and flyers popped up on the walls and spread until they covered the café's interior; a jukebox was installed and filled with albums by the likes of Japanese singer Mori Shinichi to the Germs. The music was turned up to eleven and played until 4 a.m.
“It was probably one of the only punk jukeboxes in the United States,” recalls Bibbe Hansen, a one-time regular. “Put in 25 cents and hear X-Ray Spex at 3 o'clock in the morning and see Nancy dancing in the aisles.”
Word spread through the scene. Punks from Hollywood, Downey, Altadena and Pasadena flocked to the squat brick building with the 45-record themed menus and the giant neon CAFÉ sign. National acts bands and local groups alike dropped in and created local legends.
“Blondie, X, the Gogos, the Ramones — plus all the local staples, the Bags, the Screamers, the Alley Cats,” recalls Sean Carrillo, who at 18 was paid $100 by Nancy's mother to paint a giant Atomic Café sign on the side of the building. (He had never painted anything before but, at that age, he says, “you'll do anything for $100.”)
When she saw the sign, Hansen knew it was something special. “I wanted to meet whoever painted that sign,” she recalls. “[Sean and I] were both were in the scene, and both went to Atomic, but neither of us knew each other when we were there. It was serendipity.”
In addition to musicians, Atomic was populated by punk kids, local residents and the occasional Japanese mobster. (“I didn't know them by name, and I didn't want to know them by name,” says Carrillo, “but I did notice they were missing half a digit.”)
“Before, Hollywood kids were in Hollywood. Eastside kids stayed Eastside,” observes Hansen. “Everybody stayed in their little bubbles. The Atomic stood as a landmark between the worlds, and there was nothing else like that.”
The Atomic Café locked its doors Thanksgiving Day, 1989. The work was rewarding but exhausting, Nancy's father had suffered a stroke and she also had a young daughter to take care of.
“The timing, in a way, was perfect,” recalls Hansen. “It was New Years Day; we'd been walking on the beach talking about looking ahead, talking about how we wanted to open a business. And the next day, Sean drove by the space and saw the 'For Rent' sign.”
The couple bought the property in January, and it was open by Valentine's Day. As Atomic was to the punks of L.A., so the newly-christened Troy Café became to the Latino teens of L.A.'s Eastside. Hansen and Carrillo still refer to the “kids” who sat splay-legged consuming $2 cappuccinos and giant slices of pie while acts like Culture Clash, Los Guys and (2013 Grammy award-winners) Quetzal tuned their strings and traded lyrics in the corner.
Acts including the L.A. Music Choral and a teenaged Beck launched themselves from Troy's plywood stage. Blue-haired ladies in furs and shawls rubbed shoulders with street kids from Downey on jam-packed nights when the music soared.
Singer Alice Alemendariz of the band Las Tres said it best to the L.A. Times in 1993: “We perform at other places, but we rehearse at Troy. Troy is home.”
Today, Metro is in talks with the building's owner to take the building via eminent domain. Once that's complete, it will be another few months before demolition begins. But even with all that left to do, Remy de la Peza says the place has reached its finish line.
Hundreds of patrons have turned out to share their stories: the time they saw the Japanese mafia, tattooed and muscled, eating chop suey with Nancy playing host. The time an opera singer gave a gig at the Troy and Sean was taking “reservations” by writing cursive names in the air. Those times when they saw David Bowie and Debbie Harry (or at least two people who looked like them) shaking their butts while “Atomic” Nancy ran the jukebox.
Customers will get one more chance to share such memories and to maybe make some new ones. Nancy Sekizawa herself will be back in late February, DJing a special set at First and Alameda, right before the building meets the wrecking ball.
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