Clinging to scraps: they're all over Placentia—star-ringed, red-white-and-blue shields reading—no, trumpeting—"All-American City." Fine, but this was the county's first all-American city in 1972.Thirty-three years ago. Time to expand history's spotlight to tall true tales like the worst natural disaster in Orange County's history—the Great Flood of 1938, which killed at least 17 people here, almost all Mexican children under 12—which is commemorated with only a plaque outside Melrose Elementary.
Here is where once Orange County's citrus industry flourished; where dozens of quaint orange-packing houses and thousands of orange trees were knocked apart for tract housing. Here is also where the descendants of orange pickers still take on the City Council almost every year over its efforts to redevelop the barrios with the city's oldest stores and houses.
"Everyone has their creation myths, and they tend to be monochromatic and mostly fictional," says P. Sergio Serrato, whose mother was a bookkeeper in one of those old orange-packing houses. He now lives in Washington, D.C. (where he interned at the libertarian think tank Cato Institute), but will forever consider Placentia casa. "Placentia's aspirations of pleasantness, much like this country's ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, will occasionally veer off in the wrong direction by the vulpine antics of the chest-thumpingly reactionary dreamers—pining for the good old days that never were."
Well, sort of. People live here, just like anywhere else—proof that you can only focus so long on missed chances before you refocus on the shady parks, the tidy little frame houses, the baseball diamonds, the good eats. This may be the creepiest little town outside of Aliso Viejo, where you never know what will disappear next, but that could be said of everywhere in Southern California. So you do what everyone else—from Alan Hess to Kevin Starr—does: you squint your eyes and read between the lines what history there is. And you get on with your life.
Best Family The Aguirres. Others are richer, cuter, funnier or own more property, but no clan wields as much legacy as the Aguirres, after whom Aguirre Lane in the La Jolla barrio is named. Joe Sr. was instrumental in organizing one of the first Mexican Independence Day parades in the county in the early 1930s. His son, Joe Jr., helped desegregate Valencia High School in the 1940s and helped create California's first chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Joe Jr.'s son, Joe III, is a major reason why bulldozers have yet to level Placentia's barrios. Joe Aguirre III's uncle, Alfred, became the second Orange County Latino to serve on a city council in 1958. And Alfred's hijo, Frederick, sits on the Orange County Superior Court.
Best Old Guard Restaurant Rembrandt's Beautiful Cuisine, where the most adventurous offering is a mozzarella-baked chicken Monterrey. Stubbornly retro in its attempt to be undistinguished—and that's how we like it. This is the closest place to such old-fashioned steakhouses as the Brown Derby and the Velvet Turtle: a Fleming's for the over-80 set. Steaks are as straightforward as the whiskey, which flows like, er, wine. 909 E. Yorba Linda Ave., Placentia, (714) 528-6222; www.rembrandtsrestaurant.com.
Best Big Man on Campus Mike Marrujo. In a 24-year career as Valencia High head football coach, Mike Marrujo has missed the playoffs once. His Tigers have won three CIF titles, 11 league championships—and 204 games, making Marrujo one of only four Orange County prep football coaches to ever break the 200-victory mark. He'll never get the acclaim local sports reporters shower on the Bob Johnsons and Bruce Rollinsons of the world, but that's fine. He just keeps coaching. Watch the Valencia Tigers play at Bradford Stadium, 18042 Bradford Ave., Placentia, (714) 628-4300.
Best Watchdogs Citizens for a Better Placentia, which spent the past two years exposing the financial wrongdoings of the Placentia City Council and its controversial $440 million OnTrac railroad lowering project, digging through documents and releasing their findings online. Thanks to their activism, the Placentia City Council has been investigated by the Orange County grand jury, the district attorney's office and the state controller's office. Even better, OnTrac is deader than Dillinger. Visit www.betterplacentia.org.
Best Variations on a Theme Melkite and Chaldean Catholics. Placentia is the Southern Californian spiritual crucible for the Melkites and the Chaldeans, two Catholic denominations from the Middle East. Melkites and Chaldeans differ from regular Catholic dogma by having accepted the Council of Chalcedon in 451, thereby retaining its unique Byzantine . . . zzz. Better go worship at Holy Cross Melkite-Greek Catholic Parish and figure out the differences yourself. Honorable mention: Societas Fraterna, the most infamous Placentian sect and a vegan commune that flourished about a century ago. Dubbed the Grasseaters for obvious reasons. 451 W. Madison Ave., Placentia, (714) 985-1710.
Best Mexican Restaurant Row Placentia and North Orange County's best Mexican restaurants are all in one block of Bradford Avenue. Tlaquepaque is a must-eat for its smoldering mole. The best Mexican is across the street at Q's Tortas; its drive-through is an Old Town institution, having hawked juicy tortas ($2.95) only slightly smaller than the King James Bible for more than a quarter-century. And all Placentians eventually make it to El Farolito, where gabachos and pochos alike find all-American Mexican favorites like quesadillas, chiles rellenos and gooey enchiladas. Tlaquepaque, 111 W. Santa Fe Ave., Placentia, (714) 528-8515; Q's Tortas, 220 N. Bradford Ave., Placentia, (714) 993-3270; El Farolito, 201 S. Bradford Ave., Placentia, (714) 993-7880.
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Best Kinky Bar TJ's Locker Room. A buddy of mine swears he finds lasses itching for threesomes any time he visits this otherwise inconspicuous cubbyhole of a booze barn with a couple of pool tables and cheap, cheap beer. "Hot chicks come here," says my friend, whose Wang Computers T-shirt reflects poorly upon my own status as cool (or is that hot?). "And they like to party. But you better take a wingman, since they always have an Amazon friend who isn't into that sort of stuff," he adds—is he still talking? Also? Perhaps you should take this with a grain of salt. 1164 E. Yorba Linda Blvd., Placentia, (714) 996-0929.
Best Historic Hamburger Hamlet In-n-Out Burgers. There are only five In-n-Outs without a drive-through, and Placentia has the oldest—opened in the now only vaguely Orwellian 1984. Southern Californians might think the lack of a, well, in-and-out in a chain franchise that originated the roadside burger phenomenon is heresy—but the Animal Burgers are always worth taking a few extra steps. 825 W. Chapman Ave., Placentia, (714) 528-7868.
Best Supermarket Bargain Basket. In a city where chains occupy everything from hospitals (Kaiser) to music stores (possibly the last Wherehouse extant), Bargain Basket is an original: a low-cost supermarket independently run for more than five decades. Residents love its Alpha-Beta-esque design (hazy halogen lighting, wide aisles and veteran employees), its cheap prices and its emphasis on Mexican produce. 710 W. Chapman Ave., Placentia, (714) 528-1171.
Best Old Park Kraemer Memorial Park. This arboreal dell played host to the Placentia Heritage Days festival for 35 years, and with good reason—it's the park closest in address and spirit to the city's original downtown. But it also happens to border Placentia's historic barrios, and Tri-City Park is in the newer, whiter section of town, and so they moved the festival. And Kraemer Park is still jammed with families every weekend, but no amount of protests have persuaded city fathers to move Placentia Heritage Days back where it came from. Which is just sad. 201 N. Bradford Ave., Placentia.