A plume of gray smoke, a dim sum waiter with no restaurant: the aftermath of the Blue Ocean fire

Location

1412 S Garfield Ave
Alhambra , CA 91801 United States

The first thing I noticed was how quiet it was. The gardeners always came early on Thursday mornings, and I would shove my head beneath the pillow to drown out the symphony of weed-whackers.

But today there was no noise. And it stayed that way until my grandmother began shouting from the backyard. I went outside and found her and my mother gazing into the distance. That’s when I saw it: a towering plume of gray smoke that spun and billowed into the sky.

We estimated that the fire was two blocks away; a safe enough distance, but a little too close for comfort. My mother left for work with this advice: “If the fire comes here, you could run or something.” I agreed that it was a solid plan.

Photos by Albert LuBut I went out later to gauge the aftermath when the smoke had abated. The police had blocked off traffic on Valley between Monterey and Second Street, sending a glut of cars into the residential streets. The funny thing was, while traffic control was air-tight, residents were mostly left to their own devices. Business owners stood outside their stores with their arms crossed. The mechanics at the Shell gas station had set up foldable chairs on the lot — a ringside seat to the spectacle. Mechanic Hai Le showed me photos he’d taken on his iPhone, complete with a running commentary on the sequence of events. “The fire, when it started, was very small. Only a little smoke. But 20 minutes later, the fire was shooting out of the roof,” Le said as he scrolled through the images. I asked him if he was afraid that the fire would spill over to the gas station. “Yeeeah!” he replied. His eyes were practially out of their sockets. It was a stupid question, OK.

Photos by Albert LuOne elderly Asian woman, no more than five feet tall, was walking alongside a big yellow hose that led to Blue Ocean Seafood, which I discovered was the scene of the fire. She followed the trail until she was standing a few feet from the backdoor of the restaurant, which was no longer ablaze but still simmering. She stared at the building as if it were a sculpture at the Getty, and when a gust of white smoke blew over her, she turned around thoughtfully and headed in the opposite direction.

I went further down the block to inspect the front of Blue Ocean. I’d had dim sum in this building on countless Sundays (back then it was known as MVP Seafood). Now the windows were blown out, the roof had caved in. Inside were the charred remains of banquet chairs, light fixtures, and roofing material. The walls, however, had held up nicely. A stream of water ran out the front door and spilled onto the gutters.

There was a small crowd of onlookers outside Harbor Kitchen, which sat directly across the street from Blue Ocean. There was a giddiness in the air—the sign that a grave disaster has passed. The men, mostly Asian, joked around in both Mandarin and Cantonese. A Caucasian man told his friend of a restaurant that served “amazing shrimp etoufee.” Among the onlookers was Vincent Chang, who worked as a waiter at Blue Ocean. He’d arrived after most of the flames were put out. “No one called me, so when I get here all I see is this. I don’t know what happened. They sent all the workers home,” Chang said.

A policeman caught one of the onlookers stubbing out a cigarette on the curb. The officer asked for the man’s ID, but the man seemed to not understand. “Does anyone here know English?” the officer asked the crowd. Chang stepped forward without a moment’s hesitation. But in spite of Chang’s efforts, the smoker was still oblivious.

“I bet he’s got a fake card,” one of the onlookers said in Cantonese. “Oh yeah, he’s probably got a fake card.”

The tension mounted. The policeman was irate, the smoking man was flustered, and Chang seemed nervous about the prospect of getting someone in trouble. “We can take you to jail if you don’t show me an ID,” the officer threatened. Then, finally, the smoking man produced a driver’s license and a pack of Marlboros from his pocket. The policeman wrote up the citation, barked a few words of warning, and the three men dispersed.

The work was not over for Chang, however. He was now tagged as The Guy Who Can Translate, all thanks to his act of goodwill. He provided his statement to an officer from an arson department, then translated for the others who were also asked to provide testimonies. Chang didn’t show an inkling of reluctance. He retained his cool throughout the whole ordeal. Perhaps it was something he’d picked up from working at a dim sum restaurant—which are often loud and packed to the rafters with hungry diners.

At some point the irony hit me: in the background was his former workplace, which had been reduced to a pile of rubble, and here he was, going back to work when the day had came to an end for everyone else.

11 thoughts on “A plume of gray smoke, a dim sum waiter with no restaurant: the aftermath of the Blue Ocean fire”

  1. How did the fire started?

    1. daniela.gerson

      The Alhambra Fire Department has not yet concluded the cause of the fire. The Alhambra Source will update as soon as we know.

  2. They probably set the fire themselves to gain insurance money since business was failing…

    1. @John Blak: Please have respect for others during a tragedy. The owners lost a business/livelihood and its employees are now jobless.

      Your comments are ignorant, baseless, inflammatory, and downright mean. None of us know what happened. That’s what the fire department and insurance company are left to sort out.

      First, the standard is “innocent until proven guilty.” No matter how suspicious something may appear to you, you cannot say for certain that something is true (unless you have evidence supporting your guess).

      Second, you also make a number of assumptions that require a series of questions to be answered first. Was the business really failing? Did the business have insurance? Was the insurance policy adequate to cover losses for the building, business, and goodwill? Who is “they”? The building owners? Investors? Restaurant operators? Again, let’s let the fire department do its job and identify the cause. Together, the fire department and insurance company will ask, investigate, and answer those and many more questions about the cause of the blaze.

      That said, if you do have specific information that provides support for your assertions regarding the cause of the accident then please call and inform the Alhambra Fire Department: (626) 570-5190.

  3. I’m disappointed with the number of people judging the restaurant’s food quality while the fire effected so many. Sure, they had mediocre dim sum. Doesn’t mean that every other mediocre restaurant should burn down. There are people out there trying to make a living. The cooks and waiters of these Chinese restaurants work hard to support their kids. I know cause my parents have friends who work at restaurants like Blue Ocean. They have to put up with a lot of terrible people just to earn a decent living in America and to support their kids through college.
    But who cares right? One less mediocre Chinese restaurant. (sarcasm)
    Have a heart people…

    1. Albert – I agree with you. Don’t let some food blogger that fetishizes the latest and greatest over-hyped and over-priced restaurants get you down.

      As someone that actively brings groups of non-local people to this type of restaurant (the LA Times covered our ride to Blue Ocean) I can assure you that what some may think is mediocre is quite good to many. Not everyone has the refined palate (and assistance of the restaurant hosts) to select the right delectables that are specialties of one restaurant or another. Part of the experience of dim sum is getting a lot of little dishes from a rolling steam cart and trying new flavors. Some are bland, some are rich, some are salty and some are sweet.

      If you want the finest quality dim sum in the world, would Blue Ocean be your go-to place? Probably not. But for hundreds of people a day, they served a delicious meal for a very fair price and I know I will miss their presence.

      http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-flying-pigeon-pictures,0,7973962.p

      1. I assume “food blogger”, in singular form, references myself. To say that I “fetishizes” over latest/great over-hyped/over-priced restararant is rather presumptuous. Not asking anyone to read the verbal vomit on the blog, but in the last 30 days, $6 Thai breakfast in MPK, and a $7 bowl of 牛肉麵 in SanGabe were covered. Unless you’re eating tacos off tables on York, you can’t find cheaper meals out.

        While Flying Piegon’s ride to SGV is cute & commendable, realize there are many of us here who live here, and support local food businesses on the daily instead of taking weekend bicyle food treks. With our modicum income earned by desk jockeying, we have no choice to support places that serve half pleasant food, say uhmm.. King Hua, Elite, Lunasia (insert other dimsum houses). Whether other people have “refined palates” has no bearing on my purse string.

        The sentimentality attached to these restaurants is laughable. They come, they go. It’s a way of life, especially in the WSGV (Albert, did you also for Sweet Blanket’s fire? Doubt it). Many people (including myself) shed a tear for Yi Mei when that fire tore through. It was an actual culinary tragedy because there are far fewer palatable Taiwanese breakfast delis than hohum dimsum joints. Then I was told the owners are wealthy, are thoroughly insured (unverified), and will re-open. Voila, 9 months later, Huge Tree was born. And now we blog about that!(FWIW, it’s also not over-priced, over-hyped, nor latest/greatest. Been around for 20+ years).

        Rest assured, your assurance provides substantiation to nothing. And thanks for trying to parlay the dimsum experience to us via Alhambra Source, because no one gets it. Before anyone screams: “schadenfreude”, no one’s actually “glad” they closed. Fires suck, even for the fire fighters who actually fought it.

      2. Yes Sino Soul. I was directing that at you specifically. So far, you are the only food blogger here that I’ve read saying something as mean-spirited as what you posted above.

        I do live in Alhambra and have eaten at most of the dim sum restaurants in the area. Neither of us has anything to prove to the other in terms of right to discuss these places. Your blog is interesting and I’ve read it in the past and continue to read it. Thank you for sharing your experiences and observations about food.

        At the same time, you writing that you are ok with a decent business burning down makes you sound a bit like an unpleasant complainer who only would ‘shed a tear’ for a place that impacts you and your belly.

  4. Michael Lawrence

    Nice job Tim. I enjoyed hearing the comments from the crowd and the advice from your grandmother. You added a whole new side to the story.

  5. Thanks for the human interest side of the tragedy. That said, DESPITE BO winning Top 10 of LA’s Chinese in LA Mag, I won’t miss BO. This place symbolized mediocre dimsum for the mass consumption. With Monterey Palace opening in San Gabriel, the lookie-loos will move on.

    The management team is spot-on when they say they may not open. I’d take the ins. $ and run, this is the best thing that can happy to BO, they don’t need to whither away ala Empress Harbor.

  6. As a patron, I was sorry that one of the great eateries was gone. On the other hand, it was good to learn that no one was injured. Wish that the employees of the restaurant will find new jobs.

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