The Vietnamese restaurants in San Jose range from a family-run pho stand that opens before dawn to a restaurant that launched a franchise empire, with locations now in seven countries. In between there are snack shops and juice bars; keep reading to learn more about this culinary community.
Thirty years ago, a pho restaurant inspired a business idea that would eventually become the largest international pho franchise outside of Vietnam. Although customers in search of home-style cuisine may be disappointed to find a streamlined restaurant with a sleek design — and even a hip bubble tea counter — Pho Hoa’s offerings tell a story about the evolution of the Vietnamese-American role in the American restaurant business.
In 1983, Pho Hoa opened in Lion Plaza, the first Asian American mall to open in the South Bay Area. At the time, Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom had fled communist Vietnam after the war, had little business knowledge. Founder Binh Nguyen, who expanded Pho Hoa into a franchise, earned an MBA specifically to learn the ins and outs of the business. Soon after, Pho Hoa could be found in Canada, Korea, and the Philippines. Pho Hoa bills itself as a “health-conscious choice,” with broth that is slow-simmered with meat rather than bone marrow. The result is a broth that is lower in calories and consistent across all its locations around the globe.
Aside from the pho, be sure to try the vermicelli noodle dishes, such as the grilled prawn and pork version served with pickled daikon and carrots and house fish sauce, as well as rice dishes, featuring grilled meats like lemongrass pork chop.
This small stand located in one of San Jose’s oldest Vietnamese food courts, in Lion Plaza, is a true mom-and-pop shop. In 1975, owners Hung and Karen Vu emigrated from Vietnam immediately after the end of the war. Over the course of the next decade they secured jobs at Northern Telecom, the phone-equipment giant at the time, while their children all launched various careers in tech. But when the economy began to sink, the couple dropped their careers and decided to open up a chicken pho shop.
The Vu children assisted their parents in the opening of the restaurant, splitting up the days of the week to help open up shop at 4:30 a.m., making slow-simmered vats of broth. The shop has remained a family-run business for 30 years.
Pho Ga Hung is the first noodle shop in San Jose to focus on in all types of northern noodle soups; pho is the speciality, but there are also pork and crab vermicelli noodle dishes.
Hung and Karen — both from Nam Dinh, a city southeast of Hanoi — had to innovate when key ingredients were not available in America. When they realized the water mimosa plant could not be readily found, they altered the dish canh bun rau rut (literally “water mimosa noodle soup”) and used water spinach instead. In a recipe that originally called for dog meat — now frowned upon by some in Vietnam and illegal to sell in America — the family used pork hock, making bun gia cay (“false dog dish”).
Cao Nguyen restaurant comes as close as possible to the experience of eating at a Vietnamese family’s home. Serving all types of Vietnamese comfort food, the dishes are best shared and eaten family-style.
All the dishes at Cao Nguyen are from recipes that the owner, Nga, adapted from those taught to her by her grandmother, who worked for a meal delivery service catering to French residents during the French colonial period in Vietnam. After escaping Vietnam by boat and coming to the U.S., Nga turned to cooking in order to support herself, as well as her parents and siblings who all remained in Vietnam. She opened a few restaurants until finally settling on Cao Nguyen in 1996. Her restaurant philosophy is that food is only great when you can taste the love and soul in it, and that’s what she’s sought to maintain at the restaurant for the past 20 years.
Make sure to order a classic dinner pairing: claypot catfish and canh chua, or sweet and sour soup. At Cao Nguyen, you can also find a bowl of rich hu tieu, the well-loved Vietnamese adaptation of the pork and seafood rice noodle soup from Phnom Penh, kuy teav.
Sugarcane juice is a refreshing drink served on the streets throughout Vietnam. In San Jose, you can find it served with a dozen different flavors at Nuoc Mia Vien Dong, which uses the classic method of mill-pressing peeled sugarcane. When kumquat is in season, it is squeezed into sugarcane juice. Otherwise, lime is used. Sugarcane juice flavored with strawberry, mango, pineapple, and other fruits, is also available, as well as one of their most popular juices: pennywort (rau ma) sugarcane juice, a leafy green version of the drink known among Vietnamese people for its myriad health benefits.
Nuoc Mia Vien Dong also offers sweets like Vietnamese waffles — in flavors such as pandan, durian, and taro — and sinh to, Vietnamese shakes made with fruits like strawberry, papaya, or avocado, as well as che.
The most popular che is the combination or three-color che (che ba mau), an icy treat layered with green tapioca noodles, yellow mung bean paste, and red beans — the three colors that give the dessert its name. While there are many shops that specialize in che, Nuoc Mia Vien Dong offers a variety of sweets and juices in one shop.
The history of colonization in Vietnam can be told through Vietnamese snacks available at beef jerky snack shops like Eurasia Delight across from the food court in Grand Century Mall — now considered the quintessential Vietnamese mall in San Jose, edging out the older Lion Plaza.
Beef jerky is the main attraction here, with over a dozen different types stored in clear cases surrounding the store. Beef jerky became a part of Vietnamese culture after roughly a thousand years of Chinese domination, beginning in the first century BCE. And like all Vietnamese foods that resulted from imperialism, beef jerky has become distinctively Vietnamese — with flavors like lemongrass and Vietnamese curry.
For those with a taste for the sour, among the cases of beef jerky are jars of pickles, featuring fruits like unripe ambarella (coc non), chili green mango, and kumquat. Lining the walls are French goods, remnants of the effect of colonization of Vietnamese tastes: You can find beurre Bretel (a classic French butter that is sometimes spooned into a cup of coffee), cans of paté, and boxes of French pastries. Eurasia Delight and similar snack shops all offer seasonal specialties as well: mooncakes during the Moon Festival, candied fruits during Lunar New Year, and at Christmas, boxes of panettone (an Italian sweet bread popular in southeastern France, and now, among Vietnamese Americans).
Bun Bo Hue (Seafood Hut #1) is tucked inside a plaza of gift shops, groceries, and bakeries on Senter Road. When Ngoc Ngo, the owner of Bun Bo Hue first came to America, she started serving small dishes in takeout food shops. When the customers responded well to the food she served, she decided to take a gamble and opened her first restaurant, serving food from central Vietnam, which is characterized by spicy flavors. The restaurant is named after the noodle soup of Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam: Food from Hue is said to be fit for kings, thanks to the immaculate preparations requested by the emperors. The dishes are carefully cooked and presented, elevating flavors and ingredients found across the country to new levels.
Aside from bun bo Hue, you can find a range of dishes topped with small, dried shrimp: Banh beo (tiny steamed rice cakes), banh nam (flat rice cakes steamed in banana leaves), banh bot loc (chewy tapioca dumplings), banh ram it (fried mochi dumplings), and banh canh (a soup with thick, udon-like noodles) are all on the menu here.
Food from the central region features delicate dishes, each meant to be eaten with the correct fish sauce — flavored a bit saltier for banh nam, and sweeter for banh beo — for dipping. Another must-try dish from the region is mi quang — a turmeric-dyed pork (or chicken) and shrimp noodle dish from Quang Nam province that is light on the broth and served with a handful of herbs, plus toasted sesame rice crackers for crunch.