To view images of the food and places described in this post, click here for a slide show.
As with most exits off Northern California's US-101, the area around the Story Road turn-off in southern San Jose is freckled with shopping centers and strip malls. If you look closer, however, you'll notice that here the writing on the signs and windows of many of the shops and restaurants is in Vietnamese. As it has throughout the U.S., the Vietnamese population in San Jose has increased in the last several decades; here that surge has been dramatic, making San Jose the city with the largest Vietnamese population in the country according to the city's planning department. In 1980 San Jose had a Vietnamese population of only around 8,000 people. By the 2000 census, that number had reached 80,000.
With these new residents has come a new culinary landscape for the city, as restaurant owners and shopkeepers try to preserve the tastes of their native country. Maintaining those flavors and eating familiar food is important, says area restaurant owner Vu Tran, who came to San Jose after traveling throughout Asia and the Midwestern United States as a refugee. "It's the feeling of homeland," he says. For a sense of those flavors, you need only explore the restaurants, markets, and bakeries scattered throughout the neighborhoods off of this stretch of 101.
At certain times of year the restaurant fills up with beautiful potted orchids, tricking even the most intrepid eater into walking past, thinking the restaurant is a florist.
The corner of Story Avenue and McLaughlin is considered the epicenter of the city's Vietnamese commercial district, so much so that it has (after a protracted naming battle) been dubbed "Little Saigon." In the center of a larger shopping center at the corner of Story and McLaughlin is the monolithic Grand Century Mall. In addition to dentist offices and jewelry stores, the mall boasts several sit-down restaurants, a bakery, a tea shop, an a bustling food court, making it is a one stop wonder of Vietnamese culinary delights.
Start in the food court at Bánh Khọt Vung Tau for its signature dish, bánh khọt. These lightly fried rice pancakes are crispy on their bottoms while maintaining a sweet doughy softness in their cupped centers, where a tiny shrimp is placed. Wrap them in lettuce, sprinkle with torn bits of fresh cilantro and mint, and then dip into the provided cup of nước mắm. A couple of stalls over from Bánh Khọt is Thuận Phát, which among other offerings, serves up excellent, bánh bao--mildly sweet, puffy steamed buns stuffed with ground pork, sausage, and egg.
Still in the mall, head over to O-Mai International Snacks, a kind of Vietnamese appetizing store, to pick up some treats to take home. As you might in a candy shop, fill small plastic bags with delicacies ranging from dried abalone to five-spiced plum to deer jerky. Next, head over to the kitchen supply store, MV Trading Company in the center of the mall where you can purchase the special cast iron skillets needed to make your own bánh khọt. Finally, before leaving be sure to check out the Century Bakery near the mall's main entrance, where if you're lucky, fresh waffles, tinted bright green with pandan leaf, will be emerging piping hot from the iron.
Photo by Katie Robbins
Leaving the mall, you have the choice of two shopping centers across Story Road. On the northeast corner is a small strip mall that includes Dông Ph'u'ong Tofu, a tiny store front that offers a dazzling array of soy-based dishes, and the Story Super Market, which sells a range of East and South East Asian products, from shrimp paste to galanga powder to fresh durian.