It wasn’t the compendium of facts in the chapter “Water! Water! Water!” or indeed in the entire book. It was that Carey McWilliams wrote about Southern California with sensibilities my eye, ear, and nose recognized. Along with Chandler he made me feel that he’d not only walked down the same streets and into the same arroyo-he smelled the eucalyptus, heard the humming of high tension wires, saw the same bleeding Madras landscapes-and so a sense of deja vu was underlined by a sense of jamais vu: No writers had ever spoken as strongly to me about my home.
Monterey Park became the first suburb that Chinese people would drive for hours to visit and eat in, for the same reasons earlier generations of immigrants had sought out the nearest urban Chinatown. And the changing population and the wealth they brought with them created new opportunities for all sorts of business people, especially aspiring restaurateurs. The typical Chinese American restaurant made saucy, ostentatiously deep-fried concessions to mainstream appetites, leading to the ever-present rumor that most establishments had “secret menus” meant for more discerning eaters. It might be more accurate to say that most chefs at Chinese restaurants are more versatile than they initially let on—either that or families like mine possess Jedi-level powers of off-the-menu persuasion. But in a place like Monterey Park, the pressure to appeal to non-Chinese appetites disappeared. The concept of “mainstream” no longer held; neck bones and chicken feet and pork bellies and various gelatinous things could pay the bills and then some.