Go for the gold

L.A.'s new light-rail line leads to exceptional dining and shopping
Matthew Jaffe

Riding the Gold Line

The Metro Gold Line doesn't do loops. Nor does it climb 15 stories or plunge backward in reverse free falls. If you're looking for a ride that reaches zero gravity, then this light-rail system that runs 14 miles from downtown Los Angeles through the San Gabriel Valley to Pasadena may not be the thrill ride for you.

Instead, the Gold Line, newest of greater Los Angeles' mass transit options, is all about getting a rush out of rush hour ― and the so-quaint-as-to-be-revolutionary prospect that in Southern California, you can get there from here without a car. A ride on the Gold Line is a sentimental journey: The sight of the line's electrically powered light-rail trains coursing through some of Los Angeles' oldest neighborhoods recalls the days when Southern California had the world's largest interurban rail system. But it's also a glimpse into the region's transit future.

From Union Station, the Gold Line traverses the Arroyo Seco as it heads out to Pasadena (and perhaps, in the future, Montclair), linking 13 neighborhoods on its route. Along the way, it captures Southern California's history and diversity, from Los Angeles' historic Olvera Street and Chinatown to the small-town appeal of South Pasadena's Mission Street to the cultural centers near the Memorial Park stop in Pasadena.

And, for shoppers, the Gold Line offers an additional benefit. It transports you to some of greater Los Angeles' best, most varied, most visitor-friendly shopping venues.

TIGER-SHOPPING IN CHINATOWN

The Gold Line pulls out of Union Station, then snakes along an elevated section of track, with views toward Elysian Park to the north and the heart of downtown to the south. The train makes a big sweep over Alameda Street, then eases into the Chinatown Station. There, a graceful, Chinese-style green-and-red awning echoes the roof lines of the historic district. Each Gold Line station reflects its nearby neighborhoods, from the Craftsman styling at the Highland Park stop to the Los Angeles River themes at the Lincoln Heights/Cypress Park Station.

Walk a block west on College Street, and you'll reach the heart of Chinatown. Spicy fragrances drift from restaurants as a couple, each carrying several enormous stuffed animals, stops passersby, asking a question not typically heard on Los Angeles city streets: "Do you want to buy a tiger?"

A couple blocks up, just off Broadway, locals sit in Chinatown's Central Plaza. A painted sign on a restaurant across Hill Street boasts "jackie chan's rush hour a best movie was shot here." The plaza itself looks like a movie set, which is not altogether surprising: It was built from scratch in the 1930s to be the heart of the new Chinatown, after the community was displaced by Union Station's construction.

The preservation of the city's 150-year-old Chinese history recently received a major boost with the opening of the Chinese American Museum in El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. Almost 20 years in the making, the museum, with its huge collection of artifacts, is located in the historic redbrick Garnier Building, which dates to 1890 and is considered the last surviving building from the original Chinatown. One of the museum's major exhibits features a re-creation of Sun Wing Wo Store, a general store and community gathering place once housed in the Garnier Building.

Part of Chinatown's charm is this mix of authenticity and artifice ― tourist joints, ginseng shops, old-time social clubs, Peking ducks suspended in restaurant windows, crabs and catfish on display in burbling tanks ― making it both familiar and foreign for visitors.

BACK TO THE FUTURE IN SOUTH PASADENA

Hop back on the train, and in minutes you can be in another world. One of the best stops is Mission Street in South Pasadena, where a two-block-long shopping stretch is both hip and hometown in its appeal. In this National Register Historic Business District, the brick buildings are sensible and sturdy and the businesses high on style and vision.

The names alone give a sense of the street's individuality. You can check out Japanese antiques at Yoko, sample the natural lotions and soaps at Kaeli's Essential Oil Body Care, look at contemporary art at the Tah Gallery, and browse for jewelry and women's apparel at Chi-Chi La-La. Then top it all off with ice cream or an espresso at Buster's Ice Cream & Coffee Stop.

Eventually, however, you'll be tempted to get back on the train and check out another Gold Line stop just a few minutes away, such as the Del Mar or Memorial Park Stations in the heart of Pasadena. And the ride itself is part of the appeal, with passengers of all ages and ethnicities and a changing soundtrack of languages; everyone getting along as they go along, looking out the window and taking in the city from a perspective that they might never have had before. For many of us, that's thrill enough.