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Cook's Walk : Around the World in Reseda

November 03, 1994|KATHIE JENKINS and CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

About 86,000 cars pass the intersection of Sherman Way and Reseda Boulevard every day. It's too bad so few drivers bother to stop. They might be pleasantly surprised.

From the street, it may look like a tacky, pathetic, earthquake-ravaged old business district: vacant buildings, boarded-up store windows, chipped plaster, garishly painted signs, desolate sidewalks. But on the other side of the buildings, a bustling business goes on. Just around back, where there is plenty of free parking, doors are wide open and business is booming. (There just aren't many parking spaces out front, so many merchants have oriented their stores toward the parking lots.)

If the drivers got out of their cars, they'd see a spirited multi-ethnic market life: men lining up to select from 20 kinds of garlicky sausages, grandmothers picking up Irish soda bread and Flintstones birthday cakes at a German bakery, housewives authoritatively selecting exotic fish to be cleaned and fried for dinner. Within a few short blocks, shelves, bins and cases overflow with unusual fruits and vegetables, tongue-searing spices and luxury items you might not find even in Beverly Hills.

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According to the latest census figures, 27 ethnic groups are represented in Reseda. Recent immigrants and refugees speak 67 languages and dialects, from Spanish to Khmer, making for cross-cultural phenomena such as the Iranian restaurant that advertises pizza and Farsi language lessons, or the coffee shop that specializes in meat loaf, farm-style breakfasts and . . . menudo. One resident in six is foreign-born, and many of them have started businesses in Reseda. The Business Watch, a newsletter published by the Reseda Chamber of Commerce, is now published in four languages: English, Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese.

Downtown Reseda was not always like this. In the 1950s, the business district was the premier shopping area for the West Valley. Sherman Way was dense with wonderful little specialty stores, and most of the shoppers were the white, middle-class residents of the countless housing tracts that had sprung up in the San Fernando Valley after World War II.

The advent of giant shopping malls in outlying areas changed all that. The fashionable stores left Reseda, and their customers followed. By the '80s, downtown Reseda was a hodgepodge of pawnshops, junk stores and auto repair stalls.

At about the same time, the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood started to change. A block of Vietnamese restaurants, markets and boutiques opened. When the Pep Boys auto store burned down, Manny, Moe and Jack rebuilt somewhere else and Miller's Marketplace, an Iranian supermarket, took over the original spot. And not long after that, the Thai-owned Bangluck market opened three blocks away, its shelves dense with Cuban coffee, Indian curry pastes, Chinese noodles, Vietnamese fish sauces, Filipino lumpia wrappers.

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Today the Reseda business district is bursting with ethnic markets and specialty stores full of wonderments and bargains.

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99 Only Store. The 99 Store might not sound--or look--like a promising place to shop for foods, but you might be surprised. In its cramped aisles, among the off-brands and closeouts, paper plates, packets of ramen noodles and Barbie Doll fruit drinks, we found Czech and Swiss preserves, imported Italian pasta and liter-sized bottles of Mexican hot sauce, as well as boxes of that beloved Southern delicacy, Moon Pie.

Amazingly, nothing is more than . . . 99 cents.

18222 Sherman Way, Reseda. (818) 609-0990.

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Miller's Marketplace. Brothers Danny and Benny Aghaee serve a primarily Iranian clientele in this large, bustling store, to which they moved their business four years ago. In April, Miller's will become even larger and presumably more bustling when it expands into the adjoining building with an American-style grocery.

For now, this is a Middle Eastern supermarket with taped Persian love songs reverberating throughout the store. There is a music shop (cassettes of Iranian pop stars such as Viguen) right inside the door, and close by a video rental store ("El Cid" dubbed in Farsi), with a small selection of Persian books plus shelf-worn copies of Ronald Reagan's autobiography in English. There are also some Persian cooking utensils--the broad-bladed skewers needed for making ground meat shish kebab ( kubideh ), the samovar teapot that Persians adopted from the Russians, and Arab-style brass coffee pots.

Thread your way past the busy cash registers and you find a big island display of cellophane-pack condiments: kebab seasonings, typical Iranian flavorings such as orange and lime peel, sour sumac berries (ground, for sprinkling on chelo kebab, or whole, for flavoring stew) and dried sour cherries. Around the corner, there are Indian teas, very sour Iranian vinegar pickles, rose waters and pomegranate syrups, a wide range of Italian and Greek olive oils, and shelf after shelf of dried beans of all kinds.

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