Photo by Keith MayOn the evening of July 31, 1769, a party led by Don Gaspar Portola camped out in Brea Canyon during the famed explorer's first march north from San Diego to Monterey. The next morning, the conquering Spaniards forced their enslaved Native American servants to construct Brea's first strip mall.
Brea is a town that's filled with malls, from sad, dilapidated centers nobody visits anymore to the polished, plasticized, we're-not-South-Coast-Plaza-but-we're-really-trying ambiance of Brea Mall and the spiffier, gaudier "shoppertainment" retail environs of the newer Birch Street Mall—excuse us, that's the Birch Street Promenade. So mall-mad is Brea that in recent years, a couple of golf courses were torn up to make way for large consumerist meccas—which, in golf-crazed OC, is really saying something.
Yet as malled-out as Brea may seem, there are pockets of genuine wilderness north of the city. Carbon Canyon Regional Park boasts miles of hiking trails—including one that leads to a grove of redwoods—and the drive along Brea Canyon Road, past the rusting remains of the old oil derricks that lent the city its name ("brea" means "tar" in Spanish, y'see), is quite pretty, though often congested with commuter traffic flowing to and from LA and San Bernardino counties. These areas make the town's official nickname—"Tree City USA"—seem a little less of an irony.
LITTLE-KNOWN BREA (NOT THAT YOU KNEW A LOT TO BEGIN WITH)
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Whittier Boulevard. Did you know that the eastern terminus of this famous avenue, featured in many an East Los Angeles dream, is at Puente Street, amidst a gaggle of quiet, conservative, white-middle-class houses?
Art in Public Places. In 1975, the City Council demanded that all new major developments in Brea must include some sort of public sculpture. Twenty-six years later, Brea is riddled with more than 100 pieces of art. Most of it is crap—lots of large, curvy, shiny, inoffensive blobs with self-explanatory titles like Warped Cube and Wall Arch and Post, befitting the corporate mindset of major developers conforming to an artless government edict. Some, though, are worth noting: the funky human gargoyles that loom over the Brea Mall parking garage—um, parking terrace—that appear to mock rampant consumerism while also embracing it (note the chewing gum that various passers-by have stuck to the bountiful tits of Granny Garg); Doublecheck, a lifesize bronze of a frazzled businessman poring over notes in his briefcase (though you can't see the briefcase—it was stolen by vandals several years ago and has yet to be replaced); and Loving Guidance, the Carlos Terres scandal-in-the-making piece in front of the Brea Community Center that depicts the player-coach relationship between two Lucille-Ball-coifed women,one standing in front clutching a volleyball as the butcher one stands behind, left hand cradling her pupil's left elbow and right hand resting seductively on her right shoulder. It's a monument to lesbian erotica, and, even better, it's across the street from the Golden Gate Baptist Seminary!
RETAIL MADNESS BREA
Birch Street Promenade. Downtown Brea used to be quaint and serene, with faux-Western shopfronts and chipped-paint wood-and-brick buildings that dated almost to the turn of the 20th century. A "BREA WELCOMES YOU" sign arched across Brea Boulevard, throwing you back to another, less-populated era. It was a small-town vibe amid the clatter of a hypermetropolated county. A few years ago, it was all bulldozed to make way for the flashy, glittery, corporate-neon bedazzlement you see today (though construction delays left the area a depressed mess of vacant lots for some time, giving the hood all the elegant ambiance of 1980s Beirut). There are undoubtedly some cranky natives who despise this "new" downtown—the megaplexes (not one but two), the sparkly sidewalks, the Old Navy, the overpriced boutiques, the gargantuan Tower Records store, the trendy eateries, the Starbucks (not one but two). But say what they will, Brea now has what was once thought a laughable flight of fancy: a nightlife that amounts to something more than a Saturday-night sprint around the shelves at the local video store. Birch Street, west of Brea Boulevard.Brea Mall. The Birch Street Promenade of the '70s. Your basic suburban indoor shopping mall, really. What did you expect? 1065 Brea Mall, (714) 990-2732.Two Wheeler Dealer. I bought my mountain bike here back in 1990. Eleven years later, the shop is still around, and so's my bike. They must be good. 1039 E. Imperial Hwy., Ste. F3, (714) 671-1730.
Carbon Canyon Road. Also known as California Highway 142 to the folks at Caltrans, Carbon Canyon Road offers not only a remote locale for dumping that dead body in your trunk but also the perfect two-lane drive for when the strains of urbanized OC get to be too much. Just don't go slower than 60 unless you want the short-tempered urchin behind you to flash his brights and possibly his middle finger. For a real scare, though, try driving this road at night (say, around 3 a.m.) up to a quiet little hamlet on the other side of the OC/San Berdoo county line named—for real—Sleepy Hollow. Oooo-WOO-woooo . . .
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 that people just sort of stumble upon and then go to great lengths to keep secret. Highlights are the aforementioned hiking trails and redwood grove, plus the usual barbecue grills, picnic tables, mountain bike/equestrian paths (don't spook the horses, please) and acres of gorgeous green grass. 17002 Carbon Canyon Rd., (714) 996-5252.
La Vida Roadhouse. At the site where rock and roots bands once mixed freely with leather-clad, bearish Harley riders, there now sits a fenced-in, darkened building and a crumbling, leaf-and-weed-strewn parking lot. Sometimes there'll be a lonely-looking guy there selling firewood, the only function left for the old Roadhouse since the passing earlier this year of its owner, Don Himes. The outdoor stage from which Big Sandy made the crowd bounce and bomp an untold number of times? It looks like a funeral bier: dead palm fronds drape the lighting rig, sadly symbolic of the ravages of time overtaking our memories. Farewell, La Vida. 6105 Carbon Canyon Rd.
The Hat. It's hard to ignore a joint that boasts WORLD FAMOUS PASTRAMI in big block lettering on the sign out front, though the Hat's fame is more likely confined to the San Gabriel Valley, where this mini-chain has been based since 1951. This is the Hat's first OC eatery, and if you're into the sort of cuisine that would make a vegan's head spontaneously combust (like the Hat's specialty—the pastrami dip sandwich, a frightening cacophony of red and brown meat stuffed tightly into a roll), this is Cholesterol Nirvana. Or, if you're not into great wads of meat, you could just pick up a WORLD FAMOUS PASTRAMI T-shirt instead. Imperial Highway and State College Boulevard, (714) 257-9500.Brea's Best Burgers. The perfect non-chain burger, a quarter-pound patty all gussied up with the Thousand Island dressing, the lettuce, the onions, the tomatoes and the sesame-seed bun. Brea's Best also has sandwiches, hot dogs, tacos, burritos and breakfast fare. You could even eat healthy by ordering an ostrich burger—but why would you? They also have weird promotions, like the deal that gets you a burger, fries, a drink and a large bucket of driving-range balls at Brea Golf Course—sweet! A word of warning, though: the place gets mobbed during the weekday lunch rush, so plan accordingly. 707 S. Brea Blvd., (714) 990-2615 or (714) 990-3973.Fatburger. An LA import, to be sure. But really, there's nothing on earth quite like the feel of a juicy, hot Fatburger wedged between cheek and gum while the jukebox pumps out great blues and R&B oldies. 215 W. Birch St., Ste. 1, (714) 255-9997.Shehnai. Brea's best Indian restaurant—okay, Brea's only Indian restaurant—decked out in fancy linen tablecloths and Ganesh water fountains and serving hot plates of tandoori, vindaloo, curry and kebabs at unfancy prices. 705 E. Birch St., (714) 990-8989.McConnell's Creamery. Brea is the only OC locale—so far—of this Santa Barbara ice cream shop, which has been around since 1949. They aren't exactly modest, as you can see by reading the platitudes in huge type that grace the shop's entryway ("Best of the best!"—LA Times; "The best ice cream in the world!"—Time Magazine). Once inside, you'll be possessed by visions of jars filled with jelly beans, lollipops and assorted confections, but the ice cream—and the sundaes, floats, shakes and milk steamers—are pretty damn good, too. But really, is there such a thing as bad ice cream? 215 W. Birch St., Ste. C, (714) 929-4523.Taps Fish House & Brewery. The first of several planned eateries, Taps specializes in two things: oysters and beer. They brew their booze right on the property (that's what those big, shiny vats by the entrance are for), and the 10 different kinds of raw oysters—from places like New Zealand, Washington, British Columbia and Doheny State Beach (kidding! We're kidding!)—arrive at your table shucked and iced. The seafood-heavy menu also has tasty fish, crab and lobster dishes, as well as classic New Orleans fare like po' boys, Cajun shrimp, gumbo and muffulettas, plus some big-ass steaks and chops. There's also a sizable bar on the restaurant's Imperial Highway side, abundant with soft, cushy sofas and big-screen TVs so you can get schnockered in righteous comfort. 101 E. Imperial Hwy., (714) 257-0101.
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