In San Jose, a Taste of Saigon


Photos by Katie Robbins

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.

VIEW SLIDE SHOW>> saigon_11_cut_post.jpg

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.

On the southeast corner of the intersection, a larger strip mall boasts a number of restaurants, including branches of two ever-expanding local chains--TK Noodles, which features different varieties of the vermicelli noodle dish bun, and Lee's Sandwiches, which specializes in bánh mi.

Now leaving the tiny stretch of Little Saigon proper, head further south on 101 to Tully Road. Here, tucked away in a small shopping center, is one of the area's best Central Vietnamese restaurants. While it only shares a lot with a handful of other storefronts, this gem can still be difficult to spot--not only does it go by two names (Nhà Hàng Phở Gà Vàng and Bún Bò Huế Dông Ba), but also the restaurant houses a second business--Bán Hoa Lan Orchids Sale.

At certain times of the year, particularly around the December holidays, the restaurant fills up with beautiful potted orchids, tricking even the most intrepid eater into walking past, thinking the restaurant is a florist. If you make it inside, however, you will have the opportunity to sample a delicious bowl of mì quảng ga--tender steamed chicken and yellow egg noodles, served in a tiny pool of broth and topped with peanuts, bean sprouts, hot peppers, mint, and a tangle of tentacle-like banana flower.

Head northeast on Tully Road to sample more bánh mi--Huong Lan Sandwiches and Kim's Sandwiches both offer a variety of classic versions of the Vietnamese sandwich on crispy, crusty baguettes as well as various other treats, including custardy desserts, fresh rolls, and pastries. If it's nice out, enjoy your sandwich from Kim's in the small courtyard around the back of the store. You'll be joined by groups of men playing checkers and families taking a break from errands at the neighboring stores.

Continuing south on 101, head to Silver Creek Road. Sharing a shopping center with dentists and real estate offices, bustling Thiên Long draws in large crowds of families with its expansive menu that features dishes from around Vietnam. The nation's famous beef noodle soup, phở bò, is the star with a staggering 16 versions leading the menu.

While these bowls of steaming rice noodles and fragrant broth dominate, Thiên Long is perhaps equally known for its version of bún chà cá lã vọng, a traditionally northern dish featuring lightly fried morsels of catfish, topped with copious amounts of dill and sizzling onions. The incredibly moist, savory fish--yellow from a turmeric-laced marinade--arrives at the table still blazing on a small portable grill. To eat, you scoop rice noodles, lettuce, and fresh herbs into small bowls, before adding the fish, a bit of shrimp cracker, and a dollop of intensely scented shrimp paste.

For one last stop, circle back north on 101 to I-280 near San Jose State to try a fine example of Northern Vietnamese cooking at Nhà Tôi. Among the standouts to try are ca nuc kho mia (tender mackerel braised in a rich, peppery sugarcane sauce) and the cánh gà chiên nước mắm, fried chicken wings, marinated in fish sauce.

Grand Century Mall
1001 Story Road

Dông Ph'u'ong Tofu
1156 Story Road

Story Supermarket
1200 Story Road

TK Noodle #2
930 Story Road

Lee's Sandwiches
990 Story Road

Nhà Hàng Phờ Gà Vàng (Bún Bò Huế Dông Ba)
1180-A Tully Road

Huong Lan Sandwiches
1655 Tully Road

Kim's Sandwiches
1816 Tully Road, 182

Thiên Long
3005 Silver Creek Road

Nhà Tôi
460 East William Street