Photo by Jack GouldOh, benighted land! Offspring of the Philip Morris Companies Inc.'s interest in portfolio diversification! Created at a time when capitalist imperatives for profit maximization overrode all other considerations—like the need for humans to gather organically in a public space—and shaped by the Philip Morris marketing department's promise that in the product hereinafter referred to as Mission Viejo, residents "Live the California Promise"™.
Mission Viejo is, in fact, a city in hell hacked out of salt. Public spaces are rare. Sidewalks are post-nuclear-war empty. Strip malls rarely offer something you can't find everywhere else in the nation. It's as if every good and unique thing has been sifted out, and you are left here in Mission Viejo with least-common denominators. Much of what's good about the place seems accidental (see below); anything intended to produce a feeling of community (the various recreation centers, for instance, the Mission Viejo Country Club or Lake Mission Viejo—carved and filled in the 1970s even as Mono Lake was flushed to slake SoCal's thirst) reinforces through user fees and memberships the feeling that there are no people here, just members, buyers and homeowners.
But such shortcomings only make a tour of Mission Viejo more enticing for the truly adventurous, like a kid's game in which you're supposed to spot the almost indiscernible things that don't fit—the camel smoking a cigarette, the chickens driving a car. Let us go then, you and I, while this brown city is spread out to the distant sky, and see if we can find real life in Mission Viejo.
DRIVING MISSION VIEJO
The City That Says "CONVENIENCE." Imagine our delight when we discovered Quik Serv Liquor & Mail: despite our lack of a permanent address, we could now pick up our government check and a 40-ouncer in one convenient location. 25571 Marguerite Pkwy., (949) 770-6301.
Chariots of the Gods? Check out the bizarre Mesoamerica-style script along the tops of buildings on the Saddleback College campus. The hieroglyphs—which look like stick figures having sex in Tenochtitln—recall T.J. Jackson Lears' notion that such random borrowing of ancient symbols is intended to lead to a feeling of deep tradition but ends up inducing "psychological vertigo." We're pretty sure that in Olmec, it reads, "Man, it's fucking hot up here." 28000 Marguerite Pkwy.What Sign Are You? Oh, sure: Saddleback College's rooftop observatory features a computer-controlled Mead 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on a permanent equatorial pier with remote viewing capabilities. And yes, when coupled with electronic imaging devices, the telescope provides spectacular real-time images that are displayed live in the classrooms. And we're willing to concede the thing is great for learning and school-sponsored star parties and might help us go on to Berkeley or Caltech, where we might earn an advanced degree in astronomy. But what can it tell us about the hot sex we'd like to have with that Cancer at the coffeehouse? Math and science building, Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Pkwy., (949) 582-4320.Font of Wisdom. Yes, we know a man's home is his crenellated abode, etc., but perhaps the only truly remarkable building in the entire city is the public library, a stone, glass and wood beauty. Yes, it has some harsh fluorescent lighting, but it also has that Progressive Era feeling that public life can transcend the private. We're especially partial to the liberal epigraphs at the library entrance—from Mencken, Vidal, FDR, Faulkner, Beckett and, yes, the Library Design Task Force: "It will be a place where people of all ages can go to find the facts, feed their dreams, meet their heroes and learn the truth." They forgot to mention that residents can do all this while overlooking the only Mission Viejo strip center that matters. 25209 Marguerite Pkwy., (949) 830-7100.Old School. Founded in 1966, Mission Viejo High School is the city's oldest high school and the only one whose mascot is Satan, a fact barely masked by the school's clever use of the Spanish term El Diablo. This fact seemed unremarkable for two decades until it caused some panic among the city's righteous in 1986, when such panics (re: child molestation, communists, liberals) were more common than in these enlightened times. The Saddleback Valley Unified School Board agreed to dump the devil, genuflecting to the tender sensibilities of some fundies, and renamed the school mascot the Bulldogs. But who in the hell is afraid of a fat-assed animal whose front legs are longer than its back ones? Not the students of MVHS, who, in a special 1993 election, rose up and voted by 76 percent to return the school to the Dark Side. That vote was followed by further evidence of wickedness descending upon the benighted campus: the same school board recently banned all extracurricular clubs rather than allow Christians to form one on the campus. You can check out Satan at the football stadium and on the backs of geeks who wear their school colors. Mission Viejo High School, 25025 Chrisanta Dr., (949) 837-7722.
ETHNIC MISSION VIEJO
Little Teheran. Live the California Promise? Sure—if the promise is more strip malls than Harbor Boulevard. But people come here to put beds in houses that are perched on beautiful rolling hills. They're certainly not here for the rock & roll, art films, bars, and coffeehouse scene. Except every once in a while, you'll find a total surprise—and when we say surprise, we mean it seems pretty likely city officials don't know the thing exists. How else can you explain the really bizarre little shopping center that seems to have slid down the hill from the Mormon church perched atop Marguerite Parkway, around the corner from the fabulous Shops at Mission Viejo (which we discovered isn't shops at all, but—hey!—a real mall!). It's like something in a Thomas Pynchon novel: a little Iranian market on the ass-end of nowhere, with a second-floor restaurant serving all manner of authentic Persian foods and a gift shop with CDs by Shakila, Sharan Nazeri and (of course) Iran's Madonna, Googoosh! Music, Gifts & More, Crown Valley Marketplace, 27771 Center Dr., (949) 340-1012.
THE SLUDGE STARTS HERE!
Aliso Creek. Known hereabouts as the Mississippi of South Orange County, Aliso Creek was once a seasonal stream of fast-moving rainwater. Today, it's a sewage pipe for the runoff of such cities as Mission Viejo. An apparently nameless tributary of the mighty Aliso flows parallel to Los Alisos Boulevard. Nearly dry much of the year, in the rainy season, it races fast in the tree-lined crotch of a narrow, verdant little park that stretches for nearly a mile, like a stripper's boa forgotten by the side of the road. Between Trabuco and Santa Margarita Parkway, along Los Alisos Boulevard.
THE GOOD LIFE
Live Like a Millionaire. Golf's cheap at Casta del Sol—18 holes are just $20 till 3 p.m., $15 from 3 to 5 p.m., and a measly $12 after that. Golf carts are more, but we figure if you're too lame to walk, you belong in the PGA. 27601 Casta Del Sol, (949) 581-9701.Bowling-Alley Food. Throwing rocks demands high-octane fuel—just the sort served in the Saddleback Lanes snack bar. There, amid plastic plants, mood lighting and padded booths, kick back with a frosty ICEE and a bowl of clam strips ($2.95). Mmmmm! 25402 Marguerite Pkwy., (949) 586-5300.Bowling-Alley Art. The mural by lane No. 1 depicts a bowling ball crashing through five pins that look like they've been knocked out of this universe by the Bose-Einstein effect. I mean, these pins are hard evidence that matter can, indeed, be destroyed! Ka-POW! 25402 Marguerite Pkwy., (949) 586-5300.
EAT MISSION VIEJO
Deep in the Fried Heart of Mexico. Ah, the chicken chimichanga at Maya Inn: seasoned (but not molten), tender chicken in a deep-fried tortilla with ample salsa, guacamole and sour cream flying atop the thing like a Mexican flag on a submarine. Cheap! 25571 Jeronimo Rd., Ste. 8, (949) 768-0401.Best Italian. Capriccio Italiano Ristorante. If God were to appear to Abraham again (as he did in Genesis in regard to Sodom and Gomorrah), warning that he would send a fireball to destroy all of Mission Viejo lest venerable Abraham identify one good eatery—not a Del Taco, Burger King, Wienerschnitzel, Coco's or Pizza Hut, God would stipulate, but a real chophouse, bistro or caf—Abraham would undoubtedly settle upon Capriccio. A fixture in a city that is otherwise fixtureless, Capriccio started off in the 1980s with four stars in a stock strip-mall retail center and got better. Great wine list (we like the 1995 Nozzole Chianti), better food, amiable service. Mission Viejo's residents would be wise to build a shrine to Capriccio, but it seems they're across the parking lot at Swensen's building personal shrines to spandex. 25380 Marguerite Pkwy., Ste. D, (949) 855-6866.Best French. At La Ferme, I have eaten things I would touch nowhere else. Like Franois Mitterand, who is said to have eaten a sacred songbird at his last meal, I have dined on snails—garlicky, buttery mollusks helped down my gullet with whatever wine the waiter suggests. And not merely snails, but duck, veal and sweetbreads. And great rivers of good wine. And then I've gone back to work knowing that the experience had cost me a week's salary. And I regretted nothing. 28451 Marguerite Pkwy., (949) 364-6664.Best Burger. Royal Donuts No. 6. Do not be put off by the terrifying nominal collision of fats. The doughnuts are good, but it's the sloppy double-cheese numbers that really shame the chains. 24501 Marguerite Pkwy., Ste. 5, (949) 837-3909.
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Best Story. Alias was 15 when he left Iran for an English boarding school in Southampton, followed by 28 years as a chef and artist in Edinburgh, where he picked up Italian cooking. He settled in Mission Viejo a couple of years ago and opened the wonderful Bar Roma. For reasons that escape us, Alias has traveled all over Europe but never visited Italy. 27230 La Paz Rd. (Commerce Center), (949) 855-8001.Will Fight for You! City Councilwoman Gail Reavis! PLUS: she opposes an airport at El Toro (and, on at least one occasion, was ejected bodily for insisting on her right to enter a public meeting on the subject), has protested the Riverside-OC link via the Santa Ana Mountains, has pressured the Santa Margarita Water District to clean up the city's urban runoff, and would like to see Martin Sheen elected president of the United States for real. MINUS: While campaigning, she promised she would fight to keep porn out of the library because, you know, so many people are fighting to get it in there. And she likes Rosemary Clooney. See Gail Reavis in action on the first and third Mondays of every month at City Hall, 25909 Pala, in the High Park business park.
Tierra Nativa. Growing up in Mission Viejo, there was nothing in the neighborhood to nurture the imagination of a growing child. No haunted houses to speak of, no graveyards to spend the night in on a dare, and absolutely no decent place to build a treehouse. But there was the creek. It ran behind the Norman P. Murray Senior Center, where an expanse of undeveloped land was host to a variety of flora and fauna not known to the average kid. Besides possessing a whole ecosystem right in the middle of suburbia, this valley was our hideout. We built forts up against the trees, played hide-and-go-seek among the cattails, and frolicked about in the tall grass. Years later, I returned to my former sanctuary. The creek had undergone many changes. A year or so ago, someone organized a cleanup and beautification of the creek. It was a community-wide group project that allowed anyone to mosey on down and plant a tree or bush. The group organizers named the valley Tierra Nativa (Native Land) and constructed a path down to the canyon with a trail leading in and around the creek area. They also built a bridge and a wall with a pretty tiled mural on one side. Although the creek will never be as wild and forbidding as it once seemed, that won't keep me away. It may not be Yosemite, but the creek is a nice place to take your sweetie for a stroll or chase rabbits with your dog. Just keep it clean and nice for the other nature-lovin' folks. Off Jeronimo Road (past Marguerite Parkway) on your right. Call general city information at (949) 470-3000 or Parks and Sports Field Reservations at (949) 470-3093 for more information. (Suzanne Speed, Mission Viejo)