Bun 'N Burger
Updated: 10.17.11*; Originally published 10.6.11
The sun is barely up, but Bun 'n Burger owner Alicia Sanchez is already greeting customers in her Main Street diner by name and pouring them coffee even before they sit down.
“Hey Robert! How ya doin’?” asks Alicia, 54. As she serves guests, her husband and co-owner, Arturo Sanchez, 53, is busy grilling hot quesadillas in the kitchen.
The regulars continue to trickle in.
“Good morning Oscar!”
“Kevin, you’re late!”
Located at the corner of Main Street and North Valencia Street, Bun ‘n Burger has been serving the Alhambra community since 1941. The restaurant may be categorized under “Burgers” on Yelp, but it isn’t the quick-fix burger joint I envisioned when I first heard its name. Its menu is perfectly split into two: traditional 50s diner sandwiches and burgers on one end, and homestyle carne asada, chile relleno, and steak picado on the other.
By 7:30 am on a recent Friday, eight men who look like they are approaching or have hit retirement, have taken their regular seats at the breakfast bar. A few leaf through the local paper. Joe is occupied with a crossword puzzle in The Los Angeles Times. They clearly feel at home. Kevin even gets the coffee kettle from behind the bar counter, pours everyone in the room a cup, pours himself one (he has his own mug), then takes a seat at Oscar’s table. They delve into an animated conversation about Obama for a while, then eat pancakes in comfortable silence.
These eight regulars have frequented Bun ‘N Burger for 10 years or more each. Some have wives and kids, others are divorced and living the bachelor life. Robert, 80, says that he’s been coming here every morning for breakfast for the past 15 years when he isn’t visiting his lady friends in China. The breakfast club doesn't meet anywhere else, and there are no rules. They simply come to Bun 'n Burger to read the paper and drink coffee together before the start of the day — on a daily basis, for a decade straight.
“It’s my second home,” Robert says with a big smile. A resident of San Gabriel, he is good friends with many people at the restaurant and even had Thanksgiving dinner at Felicia’s home with her family.
Bun 'n Burger is, indeed, a family affair in many ways. The Sanchezs worked at Bun 'N Burger before they took over the business in 1988. The former owner, a past Alhambra City Councilman and current president of the Chamber of Commerce, Mark Paulson "believed in my parents and gave them the opportunity to take over the business," according to Vanessa Sanchez, the youngest of the owners' three children.
Today, there's not a square foot of the restaurant that isn't decked out with salvaged street signs, yellowing newspaper clips from The Los Angeles Times, and other Americana and Alhambra relics that Alicia's customers donated.
Alicia asked Robert years ago if he had anything to put on the walls inside Bun ‘N Burger. He gave her two photo frames of his ex-wife. Both are black and white vintage photos of a beautiful woman in a long, flowing white dress. “You see that shelf up there?” Robert points to a hand-carved oak shelf that hangs high on the wall near the kitchen’s entrance. It’s about eight feet long and holds over a dozen LAPD mugs. “That used to be on the wall of my house.”
At 8:15 am, a sudden wave of people rushes in. Alicia doesn’t have time to greet by names anymore. “Good morning, anywhere please!” She repeats this without looking at the front door every time a new customer walks in. She’s pouring coffee, taking orders of beef hash and bacon omelets, and pouring more coffee. Vanessa, who comes in to help on Fridays and the weekend, won't be checking in for work for about another hour. Until then, Alicia is a one-woman show with almost 20 customers.
“Should we put on aprons?” Oscar quips.
The miscellanea on the walls have remained virtually untouched in two decades. Robert notes that though Bun ‘N Burger’s décor and ambience haven’t changed much in the years that he’s been here, the rest of Alhambra has altogether transformed.
“Fifteen years ago, Main Street was all boarded up. Now, Alhambra is a thriving city,” he says.
Ralph Salazar, who’s been coming to Bun ‘N Burger for more than 20 years with his father and son, agrees. He says that the city’s landscape and business have fluctuated, but Alhambra’s strength in diversity and hometown quality still exist, if you can look past all the Starbucks coffeehouses and townhouse construction.
There wasn’t a single customer that morning who was intently glued to a laptop screen, SmartPhone, or iPad. No trendy indie folk or jazz music playing in the background either, just the low volume of the local news from an eight-inch TV monitor in the corner of the room. I was in Bun ‘N Burger for just one morning, but as I helped myself to some coffee, I felt like I’d been there for years too.
Bun ‘N Burger1000 E Main StAlhambra, CA 91801626-281-6777
An earlier version of this story contained some errors, most significantly the first name and age of Alicia Sanchez and that the restaurant previously belonged to her parents. The Alhambra Source regrets the errors. If you find something is wrong in a story, we want to know. Please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.