In the heart of Little Tokyo, at the corner of First and Alameda, is a plain-faced brick building with the wildest of backstories.
This is where Sid Vicious started a food fight. Where the hottest Chicano bands played into the early morning hours. Where a young Beck tried out his newest material.
Few other places have encapsulated the breadth of LA’s music scene like this building. But this time next year, it will have turned to rubble.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is using eminent domain to raze the building and replace it with a new underground station. It's part of a nearly $1.4 billion project connecting the Gold Line to the 7th Street/Metro Center Station.
“This is an unfortunate but needed step to move closer to the actual construction of the regional connector project,” Metro spokesman Rick Jager said.
As a planned summer demolition approaches, neighborhood leaders are racing to preserve memories of the building's two most iconic businesses:
- The Atomic Café, which drew some of the biggest names in punk rock during the '70s and '80s
- The Troy Café, which moved into the building during the 1990s, became an incubator for Chicano talent.
Remy De La Peza of the non-profit Little Tokyo Service Center is among those working to memorialize the two businesses.
“We realized that as a community you can’t hold onto everything that once was,” De La Peza said. “But we need to make sure the story is saved and told.”
The Atomic Café
Minoru Matoba called his noodle shop the Atomic Café because — as his daughter Nancy Sekizawa remembers him saying — “Well, nobody forgot about the atomic bomb and no one should forget about our food!”
First and Alameda was the Atomic Café’s third location in Little Tokyo; Minoru and his wife, Ito, moved the restaurant there in 1961 after they were displaced by a Japanese bank.
The restaurant catered mainly to local families. But in the mid-1970s, Minoru had a stroke, and Sekizawa – then in her early 20s and newly married with a young daughter — took over the restaurant while he recovered.
She decided she would run it her way – punk rock style.
That meant dressing the part – heavy eyeliner, teasing her hair so high it looked like “devil’s horns,” and hiring eclectically dressed servers – “I didn’t want to work with anyone who looked normal," she said.
Polite service wasn't her specialty. "I actually did jump on the counter to get over to the next customer," Sekizawa said. “I would jump over your plate. “
Sekizawa became known to patrons simply as “Atomic Nancy” and was a top attraction, along with the restaurant jukebox that she filled with bootleg 45s of punk rock shows.
“It was just the strangest thing to find [in Little Tokyo],” said Paul Roessler, keyboardist for the Screamers, one of the most popular L.A. punk bands at the time. “Especially when there was no punk rock jukeboxes anywhere.”
But it signaled to the punk musicians that they were welcome at the Atomic Cafe, and it became a de facto meeting place after concerts.
"A lot of people want to go somewhere and be together to relive the evening, and a lot of that happened in alleyways, street corners or people's bedrooms," Roessler said. "For there to be one restaurant where people could go inside and have their music on, it becomes a cultural center."
After the Screamers started frequenting the Atomic Café, other bands followed, and so did punk rock fans.
Sean Carrillo was a rail-thin teenager from Boyle Heights when he started going to the Atomic Café in the late '70s. He said it was a pitstop for every punk band that ever came through L.A.
“The Ramones, Blondie — not to mention all the L.A. bands who really made it home, the Bags and X, the Alley Cats,” Carrillo said.
There was the night Sid Vicious showed up with an entourage and requested six orders of fried rice. It didn’t stay on their plates.
“All of a sudden I see a ball of fried rice flying, and then I saw another ball rice flying,” Sekizawa said, laughing. “I was mad, but I was, like, hysterical at the same time. It was so punk rock.”
Sekizawa said other pop culture luminaries became curious about the restaurant and would drop by. Sekizawa’s husband once served David Bowie. Andy Warhol was spotted peeping through the window to "see what the hell was going on inside," Seikizawa said.
Sekizawa still can picture then-couple Linda Ronstadt and Jerry Brown in booth No. 2. And she can never forget taking David Byrne’s order: “I would like an Egg Foo Young. And a glass of milk.”
The Troy Café
Sekizawa said it was exhilarating running the Atomic Café. But over time, it was also utterly exhausting.
She wanted more time to spend with her young daughter, so she stepped away from the business in the mid-1980s.
By then, many of the bands that frequented the Atomic Café weren’t even together anymore. Business slowed even more after Seikizawa left. Her parents decided to retire in 1989, and Sekizawa watched her father lock up the restaurant for the last time on Thanksgiving Day.
But First and Alameda didn’t stay quiet for long.
The next year, a "For Rent" sign went up on a small storefront in the same building.
Who should drive by one day but Sean Carrillo, the teenaged punk fan from Boyle Heights.
He thought to himself: "Wow, it’s for rent. One of my favorite buildings.”
In the decade since, Carrillo had become a film editor and married Bibbe Hansen, a former Andy Warhol protege. Carrillo became a stepdad to her two sons, Beck (yes, that Beck) and Channing.
The family decided to open a café that would double as a coffee shop and a performance space. They named it the Troy Café, after Channing’s girlfriend, whose parents had put up the start-up cash for the space.
The Troy immediately filled a void for the young, second-generation Mexican-Americans looking for a venue to call their own.
“In the early 1990s, Chicanos – we didn’t have a place,” said Flavio Morales.
Morales is a Peabody award-winning TV producer who got his start at the Troy filming performances for a cable access show called “Illegal Interns.”
The Troy was a launch pad for Chicana singer-songwriters Las Tres, the ska band Yeska and Quetzal, which won the 2013 Grammy award for Best Latin pop album.
You can watch Las Tres perform for the first time at the Troy:
But it wasn’t just Chicano music. Morales says patrons wanted to hear jazz, indie rock, rave music. There were also one-man plays, spoken word nights.
“It was a place for this cool Latino that wanted more, that didn’t want to be boxed in,” Morales said.
Some shows at the Troy were so packed that lines were out the door. Carrillo said there were times people had to stand in the kitchen.
“I’m not sure what the official capacity was,” Carrillo said. “But I’m sure we exceeded it many a night and made many a fire marshal cringe."
One of the busiest nights was in 1993, when Beck got on stage. He had played to audiences at the Troy before, but his single “Loser” was getting airplay, and the crowds were bigger than ever.
Listener Steve Vasquez sent us the below flier, which was distributed in 1993 in an effort to save the Troy Cafe. Vasquez writes, "[It was] when my old band, Yeska, opened up for Beck at Troy Cafe. Beck was just breaking out and 'I'm a Loser' was getting some airplay."
Last remaining months
It was all about the music at First and Alameda.
But in the coming months, there’ll be other kinds of sounds coming out of here: bulldozers, saws.
Work crews will clear the site for its next chapter as a Metro light rail station.
Before it is demolished, Little Tokyo Service Center is collecting photos and anecdotes from the patrons of the two places on Facebook.
It's also raising money to fund a documentary by filmmaker Tad Nakamura and possibly a public art exhibit at the new train station that will replace the building.
De La Peza said the hope is the new station will reflect the spirit of the Atomic and Troy Cafes.
"It's a history worth sharing and preserving, not just those of us who may have a direct connection with this community but for all the Angelenos out there," De La Peza said.
Sekizawa, who's become a drug counselor, said she's honored, and touched by the commemoration campaign.
"I thought people already forgot about us and what we did," Sekizawa said.
Sad as people in Little Tokyo may be about the building's demise, there seems to be one consensus: A new Metro station will bring more people to a neighborhood that's ready to put out the welcome mat, just as it did for punk rockers and Chicano musicians looking for a home.