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A Feast of Treats on the Half-Shell

August 18, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who contributes frequently to the Times Orange County Edition

There's no better place to start a crawl through Fountain Valley than Casa de Tortuga. From the street it may look like an ordinary residence, but inside are more than 700 tortoises and turtles, drawn from 100 species including Argentine side necks and Chinese big heads. And because turtle soup is not on the menu, you'll need to head over to Richard Jones Pit BBQ. There are no Texas tortoises, but they do offer smoked armadillo tails. After a quick bite, the latest mutant turtle comic can be found at the Land of Oohs and Ahs.

10 to 11:15: A turtle-shaped doorbell gives you a hint that Casa de Tortuga is a casa unlike any other. Beyond the front gate, Walter Allen's turtles, tortoises and related collectibles fill two large homes on three city lots landscaped with cactus, hibiscus and a 5,000-gallon pond.

Tours are booked well in advance, but you can attend its annual open house this Saturday and Sunday, no appointment needed. (The neighbors don't mind the tours because the animals are so quiet, the operation is educational and humanitarian, and there's normally only one tour a day.)

"It's just a hobby I ran into, and it got out of hand," said Allen, 67. "You buy two, then you got 10, next thing you know it's 28 years later, and you got 600."

Signs warn, "Danger, beware of stampeding turtles" and "These premises patrolled by attack tortoise." The tour starts with red-eared sliders and Argentine side necks, whose heads are too big to retract.

Among the world's larger tortoises are the Kalahari Desert's sulcata, the Burmese and the Galapagos: "That male was 6 months old and weighed 4 1/2 ounces when I got him," Allen recalled. "Now he weighs 350 pounds. He's cantankerous, but he's our mascot because I feel so proud to raise him up. I've had him 23 years."

The largest is the aldabara, from the Seychelles Islands; Allen's, still young, weighs 450 pounds.

Inside the house are the collectibles: turtle hot plates, graters, cookie jars, coffee cups, teapots and baby-powder shakers.

"You name it, it's been made into a turtle," Allen said. Some sport slogans such as "Turtles do it slower" and "My shell or yours?"

One room is a veritable Ripley's Believe It or Not of turtles, where wonders include snake-neck turtles and the spine-covered mata-mata.

Chinese big heads are good climbers: "I was watching a travelogue, and one went from the bottom to the top of a 200-foot-high waterfall," Allen said. "Turtles have claws. If a turtle can grab on, he can climb. They're just not all interested in doing it." Allen also owns two albino turtles, yellow-orange with pink eyes, and even a freeze-dried turtle.

11:15-11:35: No goldfish are in sight, but even a mata-mata might be interested in taking a few moments to check out the varied spread at A-Unique Bazaar, Indo-Pak Grocery & Video.

Turmeric, coriander, garlic, fennel, tamarind and cardamom are a few of the spices lining the shelves. Less odoriferous, but no less enticing, are jars of mango and chili pickle, fresh carrot pickle and lime pickle, extra hot. Chutneys include fresh mint and others made from such mangoes as chunda and katke. Basmati rice is big here; it comes in 44-pound bags. Among a bevy of beans for soups are garbanzo, black eye and mung. The store also stocks Indian-language videos, though some have names like "Boyfriend."

11:35-12:35: Turtles don't have ribs, but Richard Jones Pit BBQ does, and the beans transcend all language barriers. What's in them that makes them so good?

"Sometimes beef, sometimes pork, you never know," the waitress said.

One bite, and everything else went on hold. Armadillo tails, hickory-smoked chicken strips with barbecue sauce and fries, are $4.50; lunch with the fixings is $5.95 for beef or spare ribs, half-chicken or smoked ham, $6.95 for baby back ribs.

Combination platters are generally $10.95; I chose beef brisket, "smoked up to 16 hours," and baby back ribs (add $1.25). A pail was provided for bones, and a request for water brought a glass the size of the Panhandle. Other barbecue sauces can turn a perfectly good meal into a tomato-y mess, but Jones' bottled sauce might make a perfectly good meal itself.

12:35-1: The Land of Oohs and Ahs carries comic books, 25 cents and up, guaranteed to bring you out of your shell: "Freex," "Lobo/Infanticide" ("Say yer pwayers, cweep," says a baby on the cover, milk bottle and guns at his side) as well as the more G-rated "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Owner Robert Lugibihl said that a reorder of "Tortuga!" was possible.

"It's about a turtle that got caught in an experiment, kinda like Spiderman did, and he turns into a giant turtle," Lugibihl said. "There was a museum show for kids, and one of the kids carried his little pet turtle with him wherever he went, and they were doing some sort of atomic tests in front of these kids, like with an experimental growth ray, and the kid trips and drops his turtle and it gets bathed in the beam, and it starts growing and growing.

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