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Metropolis / So SoCal

Down the Amazon River of the 818

January 12, 2003|DAVID WOLLOCK

While Hollywood Boulevard scurries to reclaim its past, the landscape of old Ventura Boulevard--the Amazon of the 818--is vanishing like the rain forest. A former Valley Boy journeys back over the hill to hunt for nostalgic sites that have survived the ravages of time and mini-malls.

Casa Vega

Since it opened in 1958, this old-school Mexican joint remains largely unchanged--from the matador paintings to the food (family recipes, no duck tamales, reams of cheese) to the employees (average tenures of two decades). Reservations aren't accepted, and the famous wait with everyone else in the bar area, biding their time with homemade margaritas. In fact, 26 years ago, owner Rafael "Ray" Vega used those 'gritas to woo the future Mrs. Vega.

13301 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 788-4868.

*

The Wiener Factory

The sign outside boasts: "We Sold Over 4 Hot Dogs This Year!" The real number, since it opened in 1971, is in the millions, says owner Kevin Lentz, who bought the graffiti-scrawled shack from his uncle. Beer isn't sold anymore, and they've added "air fries" to the menu, but the custom-blended wieners have the same snap that they did when Mad Magazine illustrator Sergio Aragones used to scribble cartoons on the restaurant's walls.

14917 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 789-2676.

*

La Reina Theater Sign

The La Reina movie theater--a beautiful, Streamline Moderne building opened in 1938--was gutted 15 years ago and replaced by a shopping arcade. Sandwiched between a Starbucks and a Baja Fresh is the theater's Art Deco facade and marquee, now a protected cultural monument redolent of matinees and popcorn with real butter.

14266 Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks.

*

Studio City Camera

Valley shutterbugs have been buying supplies here since 1944. German and Swiss camera-maker Ben Thorsch and his son, Bernward, bought the shop four years later. The photos on the walls were taken by Berny, now 82, who still runs things with his son, Ron. Vintage cameras dating to the 1800s are locked in a display case and are not for sale. But ask nicely and Berny might give you a closer look.

12174 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 984-0565.

*

Handy J Car Wash

Opened in the early '50s, Handy J is, according to owner Joel Gassman, the oldest carwash in the Valley. Today, it offers Ventura Boulevard's biggest waterfall, great star-gazing and free rim scrubbing with a wash. Jay Leno interviewed Gassman about his wash-and-wax secrets. The best part: Kids accompanied by an adult get to sit in the back seat while the car gets the treatment.

14311 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 788-3011.

*

The Sherman Oaks Galleria

It's a landmark. Really. Immortalized in Moon Unit Zappa's hit song and movies such as "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," the Sherman Oaks Galleria closed in 1999 because of earthquake damage (it was getting grody). Rebuilt and reopened in 2001 with more grown-up ambience, the center is no longer mall-rat heaven but remains, like, totally culturally significant as the cradle of the '80s "gag me with a spoon" Zeitgeist.

15301 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 382-4100.

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