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Derailed by the bullet train

Couple who own a '50s eatery were ordered out by the state, which offered $120,000 -- not enough to buy a new restaurant. Some longtime customers are trying to help.

August 18, 2013|Diana Marcum

FRESNO — Angelo's Drive-In didn't change, even when its slice of the city -- by the train tracks and the highway -- turned gritty.

Customers moved to nicer neighborhoods. But they still flocked to the 1950s burger joint because of all the things that stayed the same: the chili, the Thousand Island dressing, the red-vinyl booths faded to orange.

Angelo didn't own it anymore, of course. He'd sold it to his nephew Jim Karos, a Greek immigrant who ran it with his son Junior. In 2004, Junior sold it to Kay Lim and Ken Chea, Cambodian immigrants.

That meant there were still owners who worked six days a week. The few customers the couple didn't know by name, they knew by their orders: more onions, burn hamburger, triple cheese.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, August 20, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Angelo's Drive-In: An article in the Aug. 18 California section about a Fresno restaurant facing closure because of the high-speed rail project described the first segment of the project, from Fresno to Madera, as a 130-mile stretch estimated to cost $6 billion. The first segment is from Fresno to Madera, which is about 29 miles. That segment is part of a 130-mile, $6-billion stretch that will eventually link Bakersfield and Madera.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 25, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Angelo's Drive-In: In the Aug. 18 California section, an article about a Fresno restaurant facing closure because of the high-speed rail project described the first segment of the project, from Fresno to Madera, as a 130-mile stretch estimated to cost $6 billion. The first segment from Fresno to Madera is about 29 miles. That segment is part of a 130-mile, $6-billion stretch that will eventually link Bakersfield and Madera.

Then, this month, a woman from the California High Speed Rail Authority came with a big stack of papers. "So sorry ... just doing my job ... here's a number to call," she said.

Lim and Chea are supposed to be out by Sept. 15. Angelo's, born of car culture, is giving way to California's long-awaited bullet train. The state's acquisition offer is $100,000 for the building and land, and $20,000 for the business. If the family wants to take the big neon hamburger, it will cost them $1,000.

The first segment of the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco rail line is planned to be built from downtown Fresno to Madera. The 130-mile stretch through rural towns and farmland is expected to cost $6 billion and must be completed by 2018 to receive federal funds.

Construction was slated to begin in 2012 but had been delayed, possibly until next year. Then on Friday a judge ruled that the state broke environmental and financial requirements imposed by voters five years ago when they approved the initiative -- a decision that could halt the project for far longer.

The High Speed Rail Authority has vowed to stay on course as the case makes its way through further hearings, and this month the state put out the first 106 notices to buy land within 90 days -- Angelo's among them. The diner sits in the way of a planned overpass.

Brent Norman, 38, who said he'd been coming to Angelo's "since I was born," waved a French fry dipped in Thousand Island as he asked Lim for the details.

"A hundred thou? I'll follow you anywhere, but you can't even buy a house, much less a restaurant, for that," he said.

Norman works in construction and said he knows how precious those jobs can be.

"I'm all for new construction," he told Lim. "But not like this."

On those evenings when Lim turns on the neon hamburger floating above the low-slung diner, she imagines, she said, a parking lot full of shiny roadsters, like in the old photographs her customers give her.

In the harsh light of an August lunch hour, however, it was possible to see why a second appraiser told the family they weren't going to find someone who could give them a higher property value estimate.

"But where do we go?" asked Lim. "It isn't enough money to begin again."

A crowd filled the well-worn booths. Regulars who once came with their grandparents now come with their children, and the lines at a nearby DMV office ensure a steady supply of new drop-ins.

Lim is the waitress and Chea the cook. She came to this country at 17, he at 19, both fleeing the Pol Pot regime when more than a million Cambodians were slain by the Khmer Rouge.

Chea's first American job was delivering newspapers in North Dakota.

"It was so brutal. So cold," he said. Even back then, he saved his money to buy a business.

Their families arranged the couple's courtship. From their first meeting they agreed it was a fine idea. They have two sons: Timothy, 19, a community college student who hopes to go to medical school, and Peter, 24, an economics major at Cal State Fresno. Both work at the restaurant.

The first business the family owned was an ice cream parlor in San Mateo, bought with savings from working in doughnut shops and other jobs. They sold it to buy a restaurant in San Leandro, then sold that place and their house in the Bay Area to buy Angelo's.

"My heart, my soul and all my money I ever make is in this. It's all I got," Chea said. "I have no education. My English isn't good. Someone isn't going to hire me."

He said he should not say anything else -- "I come from a place where you know not to talk about the government."

Each Thursday morning, a group of people who have been friends for seven decades gather at Angelo's for breakfast. They grew up in Easton, a small farm town south of Fresno. They don't approve of jelly in tiny plastic tubs with peel-back foil, so they keep their homemade preserves in the diner's refrigerator.

On a recent morning, Lim showed them the papers from the state.

"We're going to have to help you find a new place, that's what we're going to have to do," said Nadine Goodenough, 86, still in tennis clothes from a morning game. "But that doesn't seem like much money, does it?"

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