GLENDALE, Calif. — In a quiet corner of the Glendale Galleria shopping mall, between a video game store and a pizza place, a red sign glows “Panda Express.”
Here, according to my research, is the first ever 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, are there any signs indicating as much.
So as I paid for my chow mein and egg rolls there on a recent afternoon, I asked the cashier if we were in fact inside the original location of Panda Express.
“That’s what they say,” she said, clearly disinterested in my line of questioning.
This, for better or worse, sums up the state of California’s culinary history. The Golden State deserves credit for dozens of fast-food chains and dining trends that have taken off across the United States, but much of that legacy has been forgotten.
Yes, the nation’s very first fast-food hamburger chain, White Castle, got its start in Kansas. But California has since given rise to 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 highways and an increasingly on-the-go lifestyle, which California perfected.
But the pattern extends beyond quick-service restaurants, suggesting California has a special kind of sway over the rest of the country. Many large chains that aren’t considered fast food also hail from California, including Marie Callender’s, the Cheesecake Factory, Denny’s and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
“Everyone looks at California for trendsetting in a lot of ways,” George Geary, a chef and food writer in Southern California, told me. “If it makes it here, it’ll make it anywhere.”
In 2021, Geary published “Made in California,” which compiles the history of 50 of the oldest California-born food establishments.
The inspiration for the book came when Geary was driving on a highway in Indiana and spotted a sign listing restaurants at the next exit. Of the 24 named, 22 had begun in California.
“I was like, ‘Wow. Do these people realize all the California stuff that comes here?’” Geary said.
Even if a restaurant isn’t from California, the foods it is serving might 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 world’s largest chain of ice cream shops, first opened in Pasadena and pioneered the ice cream cake.
But many of these histories have been lost to time. The companies usually don’t have historians, and the original buildings have often been razed or remodeled, and their pasts discarded.
“When you go to Europe, you see plaques on buildings, and you read them and learn what happened there,” Geary said. “Here, we don’t know what happens anywhere.”
On the same day that I visited the Panda Express in Glendale, I drove to the site of the first IHOP, which opened in Burbank in 1958 and has since expanded to more than 1,500 locations worldwide.
I knew that 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 walked in circles until I realized a Mendocino Farms I had passed repeatedly was in the former 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 several of our most well-known restaurants have been torn down and transformed into parking lots and freeways.
If you read one story, make it this
The Times profiled the California judge on the shortlist of Supreme Court nominees.
The rest of the news
Minimum wage: The minimum wage in Los Angeles will rise to $16.04 from $15 on July 1, City News Service reported.
Obituary: Martine Colette, founder of a well-known wild life sanctuary just outside of Los Angeles that rescued exotic animals, died on Jan. 23 from lung cancer. She was 79.
“Hell Week”: One Navy SEAL candidate died and another was hospitalized after completing several days of excruciating training in Coronado.
Car crash: Five people were killed in a head-on crash on Saturday in eastern Fresno County, and investigators said alcohol may have been a factor, The Associated Press reports.
Helicopter rescue: A couple was rescued from a cabin in Sierra County after a snowstorm left them stranded for two months, CNN reports.
Submerged skater: Six ice skaters fell through the surface of a frozen-over reservoir near Truckee in the Sierra Nevada. One was still missing as of Sunday evening, ABC reports.
Woodside housing: California’s attorney general ruled that it would be illegal for a Silicon Valley town to declare itself a mountain lion sanctuary to avoid building affordable housing, The Associated Press reports.
What we’re eating
Three recipes for your favorite mushroom varietals.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s travel tip comes from Kevin Danaher, who recommends the town of Quincy, about 200 miles north of Sacramento:
“Quincy is the county seat of Plumas County, home of 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 nesting bird species than those two famous places. Quincy has several good restaurants, old growth trees at Gansner Park near Spanish Creek, and is near the Lakes 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’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
What we’re recommending
The 50 best movies on Netflix right now.
With Valentine’s Day coming up, we’re asking about love: not who you love, but what you love about your corner of California.
Email us a love letter to your California city, neighborhood or region — or to the Golden State as a whole — and we may share it in an upcoming newsletter. You can reach the team at [email protected].
And before you go, some good news
The western burrowing owl is increasingly on a collision course with humanity.
As developers in Southern California expand into their habitats, the birds are forced to find new places to live nearby. And sometimes there isn’t anywhere to go, further endangering an already at-risk species.
So scientists recently ran an experiment to see if they could successfully transplant burrowing owls to new habitats when developers build over their homes. And it worked.