Our relationships with these business owners dotted the San Fernando Valley from strip mall to strip mall.
On the corner of San Fernando and Sonora in Glendale, California, is a strip mall I’ve known all my life. Its parking lot, always full, is framed by stout hedges and bird-of-paradise plants. Bearing the name Sonora Plaza on its pylon sign out front, the strip mall houses a 7-Eleven next to a Chinese Fast Food next to an ACE Cash Express next to a New Image Cuts next to what used to be a Subway but now is becoming a Wingstop. It’s one of five in our neighborhood, all within walking distance of one another.
It’s here at Sonora Plaza that the Chinese takeout spot pretends to be closed every time my dad comes by for their end-of-day discount meal.“Close now,” they say the second he walks through the door. One of the workers mumbles something to the other one, and they begin to take some of the food to the back.
“To-go special,” my dad replies, taking off his baseball cap and pointing to the food still left over. Glistening noodles and garlicky green beans are displayed next to veggie fried rice and broccoli beef stir-fry, all nestled together under bright lamps that keep them warm. My dad’s back-and-forth with the workers continues as steam from the hot water bath underneath curls around the food. They press on that they are, in fact, closed, and my dad reminds them that yes, he’s here for the to-go special.
When he does eventually walk away, he does so with several pounds of chow mein and broccoli beef stir-fry (his favorite) instead of the one pound allotted per customer; he also somehow always manages to pay less than he should.
“See you again,” my dad says happily as he carries out a plastic bag holding three styrofoam containers stacked on top of each other.
On the corner of San Fernando and Sonora in Glendale, California, is a strip mall I’ve known all my life.
Our relationships with these business owners dotted the San Fernando Valley from strip mall to strip mall. Since my family has never owned a car, so much was out of reach for us in Southern California. So our weekends in my childhood were spent either running errands by bus or walking from strip mall to strip mall within the five blocks around our apartment. The strip malls around the corner offered us affordable home goods, produce, and take-out meals on days when there wasn’t much to eat at home. We grew to know the owners and workers at each store, eventually even befriending some who passed candies along to my brother and me when we were younger. There’s the strip mall with the donut shop owned by a Cambodian family, where I had my first sugar twist. The fluffy fried dough covered in sugar left crystals all over my face and fingers as I ate it during the walk home. There’s the strip mall with the (now-closed) flower shop that turned out to be running a credit card fraud scheme. Then there’s the one with an Armenian bakery, where my little brother and I always stopped for tea and tiramisu on our way home from a day out.
One block over from Sonora Plaza is another strip mall that’s home to the only two Vietnamese establishments within walking distance of our apartment. One is Phở Hot, a relatively new addition that meant we could walk to warm bowls of phở or cơm gà rô ti instead of having to take the bus to Chinatown. Since its arrival to the neighborhood nearly six years ago, we’ve marked important life milestones—from my dad’s retirement to my brother’s high school graduation—at the restaurant. When my parents and brother received their Covid-19 vaccines, I celebrated with them from my apartment in Providence, Rhode Island, by ordering their favorite dishes for contactless pickup. Before ordering, I held my breath, afraid that I would reach a disconnected line, that this restaurant would be another small, immigrant-owned business lost to the pandemic.
The other Vietnamese business on our stretch of San Fernando is at a strip mall down the street from the Phở Hot. It’s a nail salon where my mom continues to have an on-again, off-again friendship with the owner. Despite any misunderstandings that might arise—whether my mom forgets her birthday or the owner doesn’t wish us chúc mừng năm mới—my mom still walks to the nail salon if she’s feeling lonely. Growing up, we were the only Vietnamese family in the neighborhood, so it was a small joy for my mom to walk a short distance to speak with people who got her jokes and knew her longing.
My own visits to the nail salon track the passing years of my life. When I was the first in my family to graduate from high school, my mom paraded me around the salon, telling everybody that I was off to New York University when really I was leaving to attend a small liberal arts college north of the city. Already at seventeen, I was starting to want more than these strip malls that I saw over and over again. Where my mom longed for familiarity, I longed for something beyond the L-shaped buildings that structured my days in Los Angeles.
When I brought home a significant other, my mom walked us down to the salon to say hello so that she could show off her daughter’s fancy East Coast boyfriend. Even on days when I was back in New York commuting between school and my internship, my mom would take me on trips to the nail salon by FaceTiming me once she got there so I could greet all the aunties. The first time it happened, I held the phone close to my face, as if it would bring me closer to them, to the wideness of the valley. All the buildings in New York seemed to stumble over one another for attention. I always expected to see a mountain range just beyond but never did.
The history of strip malls in Los Angeles reaches back to the 1920s, when car ownership was on the rise. This gave way to the county’s first drive-in market, where someone could drive right up to a storefront and park immediately instead of having to find a spot on the street. While many strip malls are background characters to the daily lives of Angelenos today, they come from a place of innovation, back when a solution was needed to the growing parking pains in Los Angeles.
These U- and L-shaped structures built around wide, open lots continued to pop up across Los Angeles County, and by the end of the 1920s, there were at least 250 in existence. They were intricately designed, calling upon inspiration from Spanish, Chinese, or Old English architecture for finishing touches. By the 1980s, around three thousand strip malls could be found across Southern California. America’s oil crisis in the 1970s resulted in a slew of gas station closings, and developers who saw the potential for more strip malls on these corner lots seized the opportunity. While strip malls came to be out of a need for convenience, they stuck around as an architectural phenomenon. It’s impossible to go more than a few blocks in the San Fernando Valley without coming upon a strip mall, most with simpler silhouettes now, all stucco walls and pillars. They’re a marker of the valley, sprawling across parking lots in the same way that the valley stretches itself along San Fernando Road and between the mountain ranges.
Today, most are looked over as just another symptom of urban sprawl in Los Angeles. The giant signs out front that display each store’s name seem to change every other month, juggling different combinations of nail salon/pizzeria/barber/pharmacy/spa/laundromat/gym and more. In the 1980s, more affordable rent at strip malls meant that immigrants in the city could become small-business owners. The businesses in a strip mall are often markers of different communities, as the signs transform from Spanish to Armenian to Vietnamese to Chinese as one moves from neighborhood to neighborhood. Each strip mall is a tiny ecosystem of dentists who speak your language or bakers who know your favorite order. At night, the bright strip mall signs become guideposts along the roads that cut straight through the San Fernando Valley.
“Having a business is the fastest way for our people to make money,” an uncle once told me when I was in middle school. As I watched him fill up bag after bag with coins from the washers and dryers at his laundromat, I believed him.
“We can sell our food. We can do nails. Or wash clothes,” he explained, tapping a washing machine.
He walked around to each machine with a silver key that fit perfectly into the coin box. After each click of his key, I would hear the tinkling of metal against metal as he shook the containers into his bags.
Each strip mall is a tiny ecosystem of dentists who speak your language or bakers who know your favorite order.
“See how easy it is to make money like this,” he said to me. His laundromat was in a strip mall in Burbank, California, set against the Verdugo Mountains, which constantly threatened to swallow the whole of the valley. We would only visit at night once the store was closed. He liked to keep the lights off as he made his rounds, leaving the silhouettes of palm trees to dance across the walls and machines.
Within the boundaries of these strip malls, the rest of Los Angeles fades away. The Targets, Walmarts, and Burger Kings of the city lose a bit of their hold on us when we’re wandering under the strip mall awnings. What emerges instead is a microcosm of commerce and activity, stores that either cycle through new ownership or remain claimed by the same family over many generations. Either way, they carry onward a history of small businesses often started and supported by immigrants.
For my family, who couldn’t navigate much of Los Angeles during our first years in the country, strip malls were a place to take part in the community in more digestible ways, without having to venture into giant supermarkets or malls that sometimes felt like a maze to a family with varying levels of English proficiency. When my family got into collecting recyclables as a way to make extra money, my dad befriended the owner of an Armenian café at one of the strip malls we frequented. We came by so often for cans and bottles that he eventually started sending us home with free kebab combo meals. It was a comfort to look into a convenience store or bakery and see someone who maybe didn’t look like us but who still understood the uneven territory of uprooting one’s family for a new country and a new way of life.
Even if we didn’t share the same language, my mom would pantomime with the Cambodian teen selling us donuts or the Armenian cashier ringing us up for a bag of tomatoes. After all, though the workers at Chinese Fast Food down the street might find my dad’s stubbornness to be the last thing they need after a long day of work, they still smile at him when they send him home with containers full of noodles and stir-fried sides.
Strip malls became so ingrained in my everyday life that when I moved to New England, the lack of strip malls left me feeling anchorless. In the Northeast, where strip malls exist with less density, I found myself constantly looking out for the familiar L-shape of storefronts hugging asphalt.
When I found out about a Vietnamese restaurant near my new apartment, I held my breath as I drove up to the spot, which was flanked by small businesses on both sides, except for the Ocean State Job Lot down the way. Even though the parking lot was much too big, and the structure neither L- nor U-shaped, if I squinted at the restaurant’s storefront, the afternoon light hit it in such a way that I could have been home in Los Angeles, picking up some Vietnamese food for my family.
An Uong is a writer, editor, and recipe tinkerer whose work orbits themes of pop culture, food, and Vietnamese-American womanhood. Her writing is forthcoming or has appeared in Catapult, Eater, Hyphen Magazine, Roads and Kingdoms, Bon Appetit, Taste, and elsewhere. Living between Los Angeles and Providence, Rhode Island, she’s always on the lookout for a good bowl of bún bò Huế. Find her online: @anuonganuong.