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The Road to Pho

San Jose has the largest Vietnamese population of any American city. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that it’s home to some of the best Vietnamese food around.

SLIDESHOW

The star of the Vit Dong Que menu is the bún bò Hue, the region’s characteristic spicy noodle soup.

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Bowl of soupy noodles or a porridge made with duck giblets.

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Vit Dong Que’s duck salad.

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Pho Ha Noi specializes in northern Vietnamese cuisine such as bún cha hà noi (top left), grilled pork and meatballs in fish dipping sauce; giò cháu quay (center left), fried breadsticks; com gà roti (bottom right), chicken with tomato, rice and egg; and pho bò (bottom left), pho with five types of beef.

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Among Vit Dong Que’s menu is bánh bèo, a type of rice-flour cake with dried shrimp and crisp pork skin.

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Nuoc Mia Vien Dong’s pandan waffles.

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Vit Dong Que’s specialities include bánh bèo (left), whole-poached duck (center) and bánh nam (top right), a rice-flour-and-ground-pork dumpling that’s steamed inside banana leaves.

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Sometimes a strip mall tells a story. In the case of Vietnam Town, an enormous shopping plaza in East San Jose that consists almost entirely of Vietnamese restaurants and other Vietnamese-owned businesses—cosmetics shops, nail salons and clothing boutiques—and the adjacent Grand Century Mall, a swanky indoor shopping center that’s populated by more of the same, the story is a simple one: This is where you go to find the Bay Area’s best Vietnamese food.

The history of how this came to be, of course, is tied to the history of the Vietnamese refugees who settled in the area in the late 1970s, after the fall of Saigon. Thien Pham, an Oakland-based Vietnamese American comics artist who is currently working on a graphic novel about pho, moved to San Jose in 1980 as a refugee kid. But Pham recalls that even before he arrived in the United States, when his family was on the refugee island of Bidong, Malaysia, waiting to find out where they’d be placed, he’d heard stories about the city—about how large the Vietnamese community was there, how nice the weather and how lucky they’d be to resettle there. In those early days, many of the businesses catering to the local Vietnamese community were clustered around the Lion Supermarket on Tully Road, an area that constituted San Jose’s first informal Little Saigon. The newer businesses, meanwhile, opened a little farther north, on Story Road, with the two big shopping plazas as the major fulcrum. Really, though, there are good Vietnamese eats scattered throughout the city.

Pham, for his part, still makes the hourlong drive down to San Jose at least once a week to eat pho with his family. Apart from the Vietnamese food in San Jose being objectively just better, he says, the Vietnamese restaurant scene is also much more varied and specialized—to the extent that you’ll find multiple restaurants with the claim to fame of, say, one obscure periwinkle dish. Part of this is a sheer numbers game: With more than 110,000 residents of Vietnamese heritage, there’s a big enough customer base to support restaurants with a narrower focus than the kinds of all-purpose pho-and-rice-plate restaurant that’s ubiquitous elsewhere in the Bay Area. “There are not enough people who want to get that one niche dish in Oakland or San Francisco,” Pham says.

What’s intimidating, though, is that even the best Vietnamese restaurants in San Jose often only have one or two standout items worth ordering. What those items are, however, aren’t always obvious to a first-time visitor. As Pham puts it, “That restaurant specializing in one thing will still have a menu with 200 dishes.” Here, then, is a brief guide of where to go in San Jose’s vibrant Vietnamese food scene—and, just as importantly, what to get.

Get to Know Hue Food
If there’s one place that exemplifies San Jose’s thriving landscape of Vietnamese niche specialists, it’s Vit Dong Que, a tiny restaurant in the plaza adjacent to Grand Century Mall. Not only does the restaurant focus on the regional cuisine of central Vietnamese city Hue, but the menu is even more narrowly focused on a single dish: duck that’s poached whole until it’s tender, cut into slices and served cold as a salad over a bed of cabbage and herbs, with a funky-sweet fish-sauce-based dressing. At Vit Dong Que, you can get the duck salad on its own or on the side of a bowl of soupy noodles or a porridge made with duck giblets.

Unlike some of the other single-dish specialists in San Jose, the restaurant actually serves a fairly wide range of uniformly excellent Hue cooking. It’s a great place to sample regional dishes such as bánh bèo, a kind of rice-flour cake that’s steamed in tiny bowls and topped with dried shrimps and crispy pork skin; and bánh nam, very tender rice-flour-and-ground-pork dumplings that are steamed inside banana leaves. But the star of the menu is the bún bò Hue, the region’s characteristic spicy noodle soup. Vit Dong Que serves one of the best versions of the dish I’ve ever had—a profoundly beefy broth fragrant with lemongrass that owes its depth of flavor to a 12-hour cooking process and comes with steamed crab balls, a traditional Hue addition, according to manager Cuong Chau. Taste the soup plain first to savor the clean flavors before spiking it with dried chiles to your preference. 1143 Story Road, Ste. 190

Rice Plate Mastery
The history of com tam, or Vietnamese broken rice, goes something like this: The fragmented, imperfect grains left over from the milling process were a cheaper and less desirable grade of rice that thrifty, working-class folks in Saigon would buy, eventually turning the broken grains into a great delicacy. Com Tam Thien Huong, a local rice-plate minichain, the swankiest location of which is probably the one near the main entrance of Grand Century Mall, specializes in two things: Vietnamese-style barbecued meats—their smell wafting into the mall parking lot—and, of course, the broken rice from which the restaurant borrows its name. Order any of the combination rice plates and savor the delicate, couscouslike texture and the slightly nutty flavor of the tiny rice grains. Everything else on the plate is likely to be delicious too: the exceedingly plump and tender egg cake; the thin slice of smoky, well-caramelized grilled pork chop; and, especially, the fish-sauce-based dipping sauce to pour over the rice—a precise mix that adds just the right amount of savoriness, subtle sweetness and pungency. 1111 Story Road, Ste. 1086

The Many Faces of Pho
To spend even an hour browsing the offerings at the Vietnam Town shopping center is to take a master class on how much more there is to Vietnamese food than only pho and banh mi. Which isn’t to say that the pho or banh mi connoisseur won’t reach higher levels of happiness in this city. To wit: Not only is the pho in San Jose roughly 40 percent tastier than its counterparts in San Francisco or the East Bay, but it’s also a far more varied and idiosyncratic dish here. In other parts of the Bay Area, almost all of the pho joints serve the southern (or Saigon) style, with its slightly sweet broth, heavy use of aromatics and generous accompaniment of fresh herbs. It’s what most Americans are talking about when they talk about pho.

A San Jose pho crawl might start at Pho Ha Noi San Jose in the back corner of Vietnam Town, where the specialty of the house is the northern Vietnamese style of pho that’s associated with the city of Hanoi. That means a clear, exceptionally beefy broth that’s light on herbs—except a heavy dose of chopped scallions. It’s about as tasty a bowl as you’ll find in the Bay Area, especially with the restaurant’s housemade fresh noodles, which are wider than the more typical dried rice noodles and worlds apart in terms of their delightful, tender-soft texture. (Pro tip: Pho Ha Noi San Jose also serves a sublime rendition of free-range chicken and tomato-tinged red rice, a winning combination that ensures noodle eaters and rice eaters will both leave the restaurant satisfied.)

Pho Papa, a relative newcomer to San Jose’s noodle-soup scene, serves the familiar southern-style pho, albeit an uncommonly excellent, soul-invigorating version, with an option for fresh noodles. The restaurant also traffics in another specialty I’ve only seen offered at a handful of places in San Jose: a whole bone-in short rib, cooked tender and served in a small bowl of intensely flavorful, extra-fatty broth—as decadent a side dish as you’ll ever find at a pho restaurant.

Meanwhile, Dac Phuc Vietnamese Cuisine, a stalwart in downtown San Jose for more than a decade, is the only Bay Area restaurant I know of that specializes in homestyle pho—which, as its name suggests, is the kind of pho Vietnamese home cooks typically make for their families in their own kitchens: a clean-tasting broth with a much smaller amount of the aromatics and spices, like star anise and cinnamon, that go into restaurant-style pho, and a healthy portion of rendered beef fat added to provide extra richness. This is pho that tastes like a beloved auntie’s home cooking—the plate of roughly sliced raw beef on the side only adds to the effect. And if you think diversity in pho is limited to variations in broth composition, order the pho ap chao, in which deep-fried rice noodles form a kind of nest—a crunchy vessel for the gravy-soaked beef-and-vegetable stir-fry that gets piled on top. Like everything at Dac Phuc Vietnamese Cuisine, the dish tastes even better with a squirt of the restaurant’s sharp-tasting housemade hot sauce, but exercise caution—it’s potent stuff. Pho Ha Noi San Jose, 969 Story Road, Ste. 6048; Pho Papa, 1611 E. Capitol Expressway; Dac Phuc Vietnamese Cuisine, 198 W. Santa Clara St.

Banh Mi Excellence
San Jose’s banh mi landscape is just as vast. The city is, after all, home to the original Lee’s Sandwiches, which was a small store at the corner of Sixth and Santa Clara streets before it became a banh mi megachain, and, now, the proprietor of a huge affiliated supermarket on Senter Road. It has next-generation shops like LA Sandwiches, located in a former Subway in South San Jose, the signature offering of which is a slightly classed-up number that combines the pleasures of salty-sweet beef short ribs and a soft, warm roll.

But the true strength of the city’s banh mi scene is in its wealth of old-school Vietnamese delis that have been cranking out the same stellar sandwiches for 20 or 30 years. Among these, Huong Lan Sandwich, which sits in a strip mall on Tully Road, might be the most reliably excellent option. The shop’s thit nguoi banh mi (item No. 1 on the menu)—the classic ham, pate and headcheese combination—is the kind of quietly brilliant sandwich that grows on you with each successive bite. No single element sets off fireworks by itself; instead, the banh mi is a marvel of sandwich construction because of the way all of the ingredients are applied in  perfect proportion to each other: just the right amount of earthy pate, gelatinous headcheese, brightly pickled carrots and daikon radishes, jalapenos, and mayonnaise spiked with umami-rich Maggi seasoning—all enclosed inside a crisply toasted baguette-style roll. Don’t sleep on the sardine banh mi (No. 8), a humble and homey sandwich featuring the same canned sardines in tomato sauce that you can find in any Asian grocery store. Take a lesson from everyday folks in Vietnam, where these sandwiches are often eaten as an inexpensive and wildly delicious breakfast. LA Sandwiches, 6005 Snell Ave.; Huong Lan Sandwich, 1655 Tully Road

San Jose-Style Fancy
One of the defining characteristics of San Jose’s nexus of new-school Vietnamese shopping plazas is how upscale they are and how much loftier their architecture is compared to the city’s older Vietnamese commercial districts—a reflection of the community’s growing affluence. Still, Pham, the Oakland-based pho enthusiast, says Westerner-friendly fine-dining interpretations of his native cuisine, along the lines of Charles Phan’s The Slanted Door empire, have not yet gained much traction in the local Vietnamese American community, which still tends to gravitate toward traditional cooking. So, a fancy celebration dinner in Little Saigon might entail a trip to Grand Century Mall’s Saigon Kitchen—a mall restaurant, to be sure, but the kind with high ceilings, glass-enclosed wood-burning fire pits and a back-lit bar, and food that’s festive and elegant yet unfussy. It’s the type of place where you’ll see Vietnamese families splurging on a sumptuous version of the classic seven courses of beef. Best of all is the restaurant’s signature dish, ca quay dua xiem da gion, a whole catfish that is butterflied, then deep-fried and topped with chopped peanuts, scallions and shredded coconut. You dip rounds of thin, translucent rice paper in water, then pile on a miniburrito’s worth of the fish’s golden-crisp skin and tender flesh, fresh herbs, and two different sauces—a typical fish-sauce-based nuoc mam, as well as a pungent, spicy mam nem made with pineapple and fermented fish. Wrap everything up in a tight little bundle, eat and—with great joy—repeat. 1111 Story Road, Ste. 1005

A Sweet Ending
You should always save room for dessert. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that San Jose boasts a handful of Vietnamese sweets that are so good, you’ll want to pick up a small taste no matter how much you’ve already eaten. Vietnam Town’s The Sweet Corner highlights the French influence on Vietnamese sweets with its dainty little cakes, colorful macarons and cute cafe vibe. But there’s no mistaking the shop’s Vietnamese bona fides if you order the avocado-and-durian smoothie, a thick, deliciously funk-forward treat designed to please those who have already embraced that tropical fruit in all its ripe pungency. (First-timers may want to exercise caution.) Mostly, though, the shop specializes in chè, Vietnam’s answer to Filipino halo-halo, served in a plastic cup layered with crushed ice, coconut milk, sweet mung bean paste, and assorted beans and jellies—delicious scooped up with a spoon or, later, when everything has melted down and mixed together into something like ice cream soup, sipped through a straw.

For me, no trip to San Jose is complete without a trip to Nuoc Mia Vien Dong 2, an outlet of a local fresh-pressed sugarcane juice minichain on the other side of the Vietnam Town plaza. On a warm day, nothing hits the spot like a cup of that juice, whether the plain version, or, in season, one spiked with bright, tangy kumquat juice. But the real stars here are the pandan waffles, the best I’ve ever eaten. These are the same fragrant, green-tinged waffles you’ve likely seen sold at your local banh mi shop, but more delicious by several orders of magnitude—outrageously crisp on the outside with an addictive mochilike chewiness and just the right amount of sweetness. Grab one or two or a half-dozen of these beauties for the car ride home, and however else you spent your time in San Jose, it will have been well worth the trip. The Sweet Corner, 989 Story Road, Ste. 8039; Nuoc Mia Vien Dong 2, 979 Story Road, Ste. 7096

 

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco 

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