While I loved when my parents would take us to Souplantation in Alhambra, by far the worst part of any trip to the soup-and-salad buffet was waiting in line for the chicken noodle soup.
As a precocious 10-year-old, I wondered why so many adults wanted a soup that was supposed to be for kids. What made even less sense was that the Asian adults would load their bowls full of green onion, and when they got to the front of the line, they would get chicken and broth, no noodles.
That was fine — I loved those noodles — but it remained baffling for a few years until I decided to throw some green onion in my bowl of soup (yes, old habits die hard). It made sense immediately — the soup tasted like so many I had before, though usually with wontons and thin egg noodles.
Back then, I ate my food the way it came and liked it. These strangers made a slight modification and created a familiar flavor they enjoyed. My world at least doubled in size as a result of this realization.
Souplantation’s concept was simple: it offered an affordable buffet with healthful options and indulgent comfort foods like blueberry muffins, pizza focaccia, and New England clam chowder.
Even when it was founded in 1978, the Souplantation name had to be problematic — why anyone, even in conservative San Diego, thought it was a good idea to associate with plantations and consequently slavery, I’ll never know. They had the presence of mind to re-brand as Sweet Tomatoes outside of Southern California, which has to be seen as an acknowledgment of just how problematic the name was.
But offer a good product at an inexpensive price and people will overlook any number of evils (Walmart? Amazon?). Even after filing for bankruptcy in 2016 and restructuring, the chain still boasted 97 restaurants as of Thursday’s closure announcement, 44 of which were in California.
I’ve rarely been to a Souplantation where I didn’t have to wait in line, and as anyone who’s been can tell you, waiting there is especially torturous. When you wait at Souplantation, you wait in the salad line. Utensils are available at the end of the line near the cash register, so if you want to snack while you wait, you’re going to pick at your plate with your fingers. There’s nowhere to hide — everyone else knows you’re eating with your hands and will take special note of which spoon handles you reach for next.
So it makes sense why parent company Garden Fresh Restaurants is folding instead of making a go of coming back. People couldn’t be trusted to not be gross before. With stricter FDA guidelines, would people even consider coming back to the buffet?
Alhambra is a city whose evolution isn’t yet complete. In 2010, its population was 34.4% Latino and 28.3% Asian, according to U.S. Census data. Based on a 2018 Census estimate, the city’s population was 51.2% Asian and 35.9% Latino just eight years later. Where it’ll be as of this year’s Census is hard to say.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I always felt this shift in demographics most at Souplantation. Alhambra is home to some of the best Chinese and Mexican restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, but the place they all seemed to agree on was the buffet near Costco on Commonwealth Avenue. The platitude that food brings people together bears repeating, and for about $10 per person, everyone could have what they wanted.
I was raised to be someone who didn’t modify their food after it was served, but after I learned about the green onions in the chicken noodle soup, I became unstoppable. I topped my baked potatoes with chili or broccoli cheese soup instead of just dropping in a dab of sour cream. I dipped my pizza focaccia in ranch dressing (not a huge revelation on the whole, but it was to me at the time!). I put my warm apple cobbler in an ice cream bowl instead of on one of the plates available at the bakery, swirled vanilla soft serve on top, then drizzled the whole thing with caramel. The food world was one I could make my own.
A friend mentioned to me that immigrants often gravitate toward buffets because they can see the food and don’t need to order in a language they may not yet be familiar with, and this was plainly evident at the Alhambra Souplantation. All comers would pile plates high with “Wonton Joy” salad and fill bowls to the brim with chicken noodle soup and clam chowder. It pains me to imagine Alhambra without Souplantation bringing everyone together.
At least once a week, we had dinner with Grandma Yee. Sometimes she’d cook chow mein or fried chicken or dipped roast pork sandwiches or any of the other varied foods she had mastered the cooking of. Other times, we ate out. Because she lived in Alhambra for more than 30 years, we always had excellent options, but she especially enjoyed Souplantation. Sunday nights often saw us there at 5:30 p.m., coupons in hand, in an attempt to beat the rush.
I think, for her, it was the variety — her salad plate had a little of literally everything all on a bed of iceberg lettuce topped with thousand island dressing. As the kid who never liked his foods touching, I was aghast, but she enjoyed it along with her chicken noodle soup with green onions and a variety of breads and muffins with honey butter. By design, she always got too much bread. Inevitably at the end of the meal, she’d grab one of the clean napkins and wrap up what she hadn’t eaten, usually a muffin she could eat with her coffee the following morning. The most important thing for the rest of us was to remind her to remove the baked goods from her purse lest she forget and let them become a mummified artifact found days or weeks later.
I hadn’t been to Souplantation with Grandma Yee for months before she died in December. In the weeks and months that followed, I couldn’t go back — I needed to mourn. And now, five months later, I find I’ll never get a chance to toast her memory with a glass of strawberry lemonade there.
But not everything is awful. What’s warmed my heart since the closure announcement has been seeing just how many people have fond memories of taking muffins to enjoy later.
Smuggling out honey butter seems dangerous — it was whipped and melted quickly, but I get it. Like many other offerings there, it was delicious. Michele’s tweet is one of thousands from people who shared this experience. There’s a great deal of comfort in knowing we mourn together.
What happens next? I know many people are wondering, but there’s no answer in sight. Somewhere down the line when we feel safe to gather around food again, someone could buy the brand and resurrect it. I dreamed that perhaps the Alhambra location could re-open as an independent business run similarly to its progenitor. No matter what, though, that stack of trays warm from coming out of the washer won’t be waiting for us when quarantine ends, when we need it most.
Alhambra will survive. I know from personal experience that the public schools do an excellent job making sure their students learn about each other and what makes them similar at the end of the day. Parking for Costco will likely be a little easier. Boomers and millenials will tell stories about the good old days of Souplantation.
For me? I need to perfect that chicken noodle soup recipe. It never seemed like more than chicken boiled in salted water, but there was something so perfect about that simplicity. These days, I’ve always got plenty of green onion on hand, that lesson learned at the buffet counter long ago.