Photo by Jack GouldYou know Los Alamitos for its racetracks and fine schools. You know it as the town proud to be wedged between the 405, 22 and 605 freeways, proud to be so easy to leave. In short, you know the Los Alamitos that the people who run Los Alamitos want you to think you know. The Los Alamitos of marching bands and powerful high school football and cheerleading squads, the Los Alamitos that was named for the acres of cottonwoods that used to cover the land. But most of the cottonwoods are gone now. And along Katella, there are small shops that hawk such aggressively virile products as "meat pies" and "Pittsburgh broasted chicken," just blocks from a small Catholic church fighting for its life. A sweet town? Well, Los Alamitos Township did once have a thriving sugar industry, but it was destroyed by nematodes. The town rose again thanks to a Dr. Ross, who, in 1921, converted the town's sugar refinery into a plant that processed horses into dog food; the town was saved. (Ross, on the other hand, was ruined by the Great Depression and died a pauper, and his mill was torn down.) It was during these halcyon days that hotels were built and an average of two people were shot and stabbed every weekend. Those truly were the days.
AND THEY'RE OFF . . .
Los Alamitos Race Course. Since 1951 (the same year the Los Angeles Rams were crowned NFL champions), people have come from miles around to watch—and bet on—the equine equivalent of drag racing: quarter-horse racing, the fastest horses in the world. Founded by Frank Vessels, the track is open 51 weeks per year. In feel and temperament, it is much closer to the Old West than tony tracks like Santa Anita that try for that Old English feel. Los Al is regular folk who watch their mortgage payment trail the pack while downing the track brew, which packs a wallop. Have a great time, but be sure to keep one hand on your wallet: grifters, pickpockets and scam artists scan the crowd for marks. Of course, the fact that you're betting on an animal that poops while standing . . . 4961 Katella Ave., (714) 995-1234.
Super Savers Cinema, Rossmoor 7. This may be the best deal anywhere. The Super Savers are clean and cheap; all movies used to be a buck, and even though they now cost $2.50, that's still a deal. They've got a fun and funky, Battlestar-Galactica-meets-roller-disco interior, and the concessions are cheap, cheap, cheap. Super Savers show movies at the end of their run, so it's a great place to see that favorite movie of yours once more. It's also a great place to see that movie that slipped through the cracks or the one for which you just couldn't justify paying even matinee prices. Now, some might point out that Super Savers' close proximity to Leisure World and low, low prices make it an unshakeable attraction for local seniors who, while active, sometimes have diminished skills in the area of vocal modulation. "OH, I LOVE THAT JULIA ROBERTS!" you might hear midway through some movie that does or does not have Ms. Roberts in it. If the movie is by David Mamet, expect something along the line of "THERE'S THAT WORD AGAIN. WHY DO THEY HAVE TO USE THAT WORD ALL THE TIME? SPENCER TRACY NEVER HAD TO USE THAT WORD! YOU KNOW, HE WOULDN'T LEAVE HIS WIFE FOR MYRNA LOY BECAUSE HE WAS CATHOLIC. WHAT? KATHARINE HEPBURN? SPENCER TRACY AND KATHARINE HEPBURN. BUT I THOUGHT SHE WAS A LESBIAN. . . . OR WAS IT A COMMUNIST? OH, THERE'S THAT WORD AGAIN!" 12343 Seal Beach Blvd., (562) 594-9411. The Book Connection. Everything about the Book Connection screams starving artist. This is without a doubt the liveliest place in town, with poetry readings, discussion groups and AA meetings. It's a used bookstore, a great place to smoke cigarettes and practice your British accent while you sip your nonfat latte from the coffee bar. And it's a terrific place for anti-government talk. Chicks dig the rebels. 10932 Pine St., (562) 430-5578.
COMMITTED LOS AL
St. Isidore Catholic Church. Drive by this little church on Katella, and you'll rarely see a parishioner, but you'll always find bouquets of flowers laid at its front door, as if in remembrance of someone who's passed on. And as far as the Archdiocese of Orange County is concerned, St. Isidore's has. When the archdiocese discovered in 1999 that it would require $300,000 to get the 78-year-old building up to earthquake code, it closed the church and told its mostly Spanish-speaking congregation, "Adios. Por favor van a St. Hedwig." But those parishioners have balked and continue to agitate for the restoration of their beloved church. A "Save St. Isidore" banner flies over the building. Last year, parish members found a Dana Point contractor who said he could retrofit the church for just $40,000 and offered his labor for free. Apparently the offer has not yet been accepted; the banner and the flowers are still there.
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GET YOUR EAT ON
Original Fish Co.Boasting a fresh market for all things fish in addition to a palatial dining experience, the Original Fish Co. is the best Los Alamitos offers in the way of wining and dining. The food here is so fresh you know they have a tunnel in the back somewhere that leads directly to the Pacific—beyond the Orange County Sanitation District's miles-long outfall pipe. 11061 Los Alamitos Blvd., (714) 960-2229.Katella Deli. This is one of those places with lots of food, all of it good and some of it great. The portions are big, the sandwiches are stacked, the pickles are on the table, and the chocolate shakes are made with chocolate ice cream. You can get cream soda and even celery soda there, and the bakery is worth a trip all its own, crammed as it is with sweet things and fresh-baked bagels and breads and little chocolate things that make you want to slap yourself. 4470 Katella Ave., (562) 594-8611.Volcano Burgers. A Tommy Burger tribute stand, but worth the wait in a teen-infested line that snakes all the way across the street to Los Al High. The chili is mandatory. 3652 Cerritos Ave., (562) 430-6004.
I SING OF LOS AL
Starting Gate Saloon and Steakhouse. Since this is a racetrack town, you need a racetrack bar to complement it, no? Where else would the jockeys and track groupies get their groove on? The sawdust on the floor says everything as you walk in to the sounds of Dwight Yokam and Willie Nelson. With tables set up cafeteria-style, you can get to know your neighbor in between dancing and drinking. 5052 W. Katella Ave., (562) 598-8957.