Brea's official nickname is "Tree City USA"—ironic, considering how much of this town of 36,000 has been shopping-malled over. But perhaps more than any other Orange County city today—even Costa Mesa, which would have a good excuse—mall culture has come to define Brea. It needed something; this once-sleepy oil town, incorporated in 1894, went to sleep for about 30 years when the oil went dry in the '40s. It took the opening of the 57 freeway and the construction of the huge Brea Mall—a grittier South Coast Plaza North, opened in 1977—to wake things up.
Of course they couldn't stop there; once the mall ("five anchor stores") was up, the bulldozers took aim at what remained of downtown Brea, which until about six years ago had survived, quaint and serene, with faux-Western shop fronts and chipped-paint wood-and-brick buildings that dated nearly to the turn of the 20th century. Echoing Bakersfield, another oil town, a "BREA WELCOMES YOU" sign once even arched across Brea Boulevard, evoking a small-town vibe rare amid the clatter of a hypermetropolated county.
That all came down for the flashy, glittery, corporate-neon bedazzlement of Birch Street Promenade you see today (though years of construction delays left the area a depressed mess of vacant lots with all the elegance of 1980s Beirut) and what amounts to an entirely new downtown. Kinda like Anaheim. Brea-ans now have not one but two megaplexes, sparkly sidewalks, Old Navy, overpriced boutiques, an Improv comedy club, trendy eateries, a city art gallery that's actually pretty good, a Tower Records and the crowning achievement, a Starbucks.
And the city named for tar and once synonymous with oil now has a nightlife that's more than Saturday nights at the video store.
Best Hair Removal Threading, at Lin Beauty Salon, where they'll work you like a sewing machine. A most ancient method of facial hair removal, threading plucks the hair directly from the follicle with thread. Your hair grows back slower and thinner, and thanks to threading, your brow lines are more shapely than they'd be if you'd used wax. 800 E. Imperial Hwy., Brea, (714) 255-8318.
Best Draw-Your-Own Nipples Parking Garage Gargoyles. These funky gargoyles in human form looming over the top deck of the Nordstrom parking garage at Brea Mall are our personal favorites. They subtly mock the rampant consumerism going on inside the mall—appearing as evil, bat-winged shoppers—yet their bag-lugging presence embraces capitalist culture with the other scaly, thorny arm. Also, don't miss the bizarrely buxom granny gargoyle, upon whose bountiful bosoms would-be taggers keep adding nipples. 1065 Brea Mall, Brea.
Best Pastrami The Hat. It's hard to ignore a joint that boasts WORLD FAMOUS PASTRAMI in big block letters on the sign out front, but the Hat's fame has been mostly confined to the San Gabriel Valley, where it's been an institution since 1951. This is the Hat's first OC eatery—a second opened recently in Lake Forest—and if you like the type of food that would make a vegan's head explode, try the house specialty: the pastrami dip sandwich, a frightening cacophony of red and brown meat stuffed tightly into a roll. Pure Cholesterol Nirvana. 1210 E. Imperial Hwy., Brea, (714) 257-9500.
Best Dump Olinda Alpha Landfill, 562 acres of heaven on earth since 1960. Your cost: $27 a ton—dirt-cheap. It accepts old tires—though no asbestos, radioactive waste or explosives. A man has to know his limits, and that man is manager Gary Brown. Call ahead for other restrictions, etc. 1942 N. Valencia Ave., Brea, (714) 834-4000.
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Best Museum The City of Brea Gallery. Why? It's the penises, silly. And their masters—that is to say, masters of the recent phallus-friendly "Mediums" show—gallery education director Travis Collinson and gallery director Thomas Ciganko—who gave us "Mediums" and hope for the future of difficult, challenging art in an otherwise rather conformist city. (Except the gargoyles.) 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea, (714) 990-7730.
Best Stylist David J. at Carlton Hair International (no, not the guy from Love and Rockets). Face it: a $10 hairstyle is a $10 hairstyle. David J. costs more, but he is very worth it: in times of crisis, he's the only one who can sculpt your bird's nest into a live head of hair. If you're lucky—if he likes you—he'll also throw in one of his heavenly scalp massages that'll make you wonder if he'd ever run away with you. Girl, he's married to his work. 1107 Brea Mall, Brea, (714) 256-9760.
Best Park Carbon Canyon Regional Park. Rustic and rarely crowded, this slice of North County wildlife nestled in the beckoning cleavage of Chino Hills is the kind of place people stumble on and go to great lengths to keep secret. Great hiking trails and a lovely redwood grove, plus the usual barbecue grills, picnic tables, mountain bike/equestrian paths and acres of gorgeous green grass. 4442 Carbon Canyon Rd., Brea, (714) 973-3160.
Best Golf Course Brea Golf Course. It looks like a big ditch, is only 1,733 yards from the back tees, has about as many trees as the Gobi Desert and a storm channel runs through it. But you can't beat the price—and it's great for your short game: $10 to walk during the week, $8 after 4 p.m. ($12 and $9.50 on weekends). Still more: during the week, you can play the course and eat at Brea's Best, in the footsteps of PGA legend Payne Stewart, who hung out there while helping design Coyote Hills Golf Course. 501 W. Fir St., Brea, (714) 529-3003.