GLENDALE, Calif. — In a quiet corner of the Glendale Galleria mall, between a video game store and a pizza place, a red sign lights up “Panda Express.”
Here, according to my research, is the very first Panda Express location, which opened in 1983. But neither outside the store nor inside, with its typical cafeteria-style counter and steel bins of hot food, there is no sign indicating as much.
As I paid for my chow mein and egg rolls there one recent afternoon, I asked the cashier if we were actually inside the original Panda Express location.
“So they say,” she said, obviously disinterested in my line of questioning.
This, for better or worse, sums up the culinary history of the state of California. The Golden State deserves credit for the dozens of fast-food chains and culinary trends that have taken off across the United States, but much of that heritage has been forgotten.
Yes, the nation’s very first hamburger fast food chain, White Castle, originated in Kansas. But California has since spawned a disproportionate share of America’s most popular fast food restaurants: McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr, Jack in the Box, Del Taco and, of course, Panda Express.
The most common explanation is car culture: fast food was a response to freeways and an increasingly mobile lifestyle, which California perfected.
But the pattern extends beyond quick service restaurants, suggesting that California has a particular influence over the rest of the country. Many large chains that aren’t considered fast food also hail from California, including Marie Callender’s, Cheesecake Factory, Denny’s, and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
“Everyone looks to California to set trends in many ways,” Southern California chef and food writer George Geary told me. “If it happens here, it will happen anywhere.”
In 2021, Geary released “Made in California”, which compiles the history of 50 of California’s oldest food establishments.
The inspiration for the book came when Geary was driving down a freeway in Indiana and spotted a sign for restaurants at the next exit. Of the 24 named, 22 had started in California.
“I was like, ‘Wow. Do these people realize all the California stuff that comes here?’ said Geary.
Even if a restaurant is not Californian, the dishes it serves may be.
A&W Restaurants, which started in Lodi in 1919, invented a concoction called root beer. The Brown Derby, a now-defunct Los Angeles chain, created the Cobb salad, according to Geary’s book.
Baskin-Robbins, now the largest chain of ice cream parlors in the world, opened in Pasadena and pioneered ice cream cake.
But many of these stories have been lost over time. Businesses generally don’t have historians, and the original buildings have often been razed or remodeled, and their past abandoned.
“When you go to Europe, you see plaques on buildings, you read them and learn what happened there,” Geary said. “Here we don’t know what’s going on anywhere.”
The same day I visited the Panda Express in Glendale, I visited the site of the first IHOP, which opened in Burbank in 1958 and has since expanded to over 1,500 locations worldwide.
I knew the building that once housed the original restaurant was no longer an IHOP, but I assumed it would still be easy to spot. Instead, I circled around until I realized that a Mendocino farm that I had passed several times was in the old IHOP building.
Of the 50 chains in Geary’s book, only 15 are still operating in their original locations. Some have been turned into medical buildings, animal groomers, post offices, hair salons or banks.
And in classic California fashion, the first homes of many of our best-known restaurants have been torn down and turned into parking lots and freeways.
If you read a story, make it this one
The Times featured the California judge on the shortlist of Supreme Court nominees.
The rest of the news
Minimum wage: The minimum wage in Los Angeles will increase from $15 to $16.04 on July 1, City News Service reported.
Obituary: Martine Colette, founder of a well-known wildlife sanctuary just outside Los Angeles that rescued exotic animals, died Jan. 23 of lung cancer. She was 79 years old.
“Hell Week”: One Navy SEAL candidate has died and another has been hospitalized after undergoing several days of excruciating training in Coronado.
Car accident: Five people were killed in a head-on crash Saturday in eastern Fresno County, and investigators said alcohol may have been a factor, The Associated Press reports.
Helicopter rescue: A couple have been rescued from a cabin in Sierra County after a snowstorm left them stranded for two months, CNN reports.
Submerged skater: Six skaters fell through the surface of a frozen reservoir near Truckee in the Sierra Nevada. One of them was still missing as of Sunday night, ABC reports.
Woodside housing: California’s attorney general has ruled it would be illegal for a Silicon Valley town to declare itself a mountain lion sanctuary to avoid building affordable housing, reports the Associated Press.
what we eat
Three recipes for your favorite mushroom varietals.
where we travel
Today’s travel tip comes from Kevin Danaher, who recommends the town of Quincy, about 200 miles north of Sacramento:
“Quincy is the seat of Plumas County, home to the mighty Feather River, the largest watershed in the Sierras. Plumas County is larger than Yosemite and Yellowstone, with more mammal species, more plant species, and more breeding bird species than these two famous places. Quincy has several good restaurants, ancient trees at Gansner Park near Spanish Creek, and is close to the Lake District with an abundance of lakes and hiking trails.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] We will share more in future editions of the newsletter.
What we recommend
The 50 best movies on Netflix right now.
As Valentine’s Day approaches, we ask questions about love: no Who you love, but What you love your corner of California.
Send us a love letter to your city, neighborhood, or region in California — or the entire Golden State — and we might share it in an upcoming newsletter. You can reach the team at [email protected]
And before leaving, some good news
The western burrowing owl is increasingly on a collision course with humanity.
As Southern California developers expand their habitats, birds are forced to find new places to live nearby. And sometimes there’s nowhere to go, further endangering an already endangered species.
So scientists recently conducted an experiment to see if they could successfully transplant burrowing owls into new habitats when developers build on top of their homes. And it worked.