If you have gotten anything out of my dispatches from the world of Silicon Valley dining over the past six years, I hope you learned this: The South Bay offers a wide and deep choice of ethnic* eats of virtually every stripe and flavor. The mom-and-pop Chinese, Japanese, Ethiopian, Korean, Indian, Mexican and Vietnamese restaurants that populate the strip malls and shopping centers of Silicon Valley are what we do best.
But do we do right by them?
Silicon Valley loves its burritos, pho and mushu pork, but those popular, often Americanized dishes just scratch the surface. That doesn’t do the richness of our ethnic food options justice. That’s like going to the beach and just putting your toe in the water. Come on, people! Dive in. The water’s fine.
So here’s what I propose. In the spirit of spring, why not dig a little deeper next time you’re out to eat and try something new.
If you like: Tacos and burritos
Why not try: Tlayudas
All Mexican food pretty much breaks down to tortillas, rice and beans. It’s what you do with those staples that make all the difference. There are more and more Oaxacan restaurants in Silicon Valley, a very positive development in an area dominated by northern-style taquerias.
One of the classics of Oaxacan food is the tlayuda, a thin crust of crispy masa topped with silken pureed black beans, white Oaxacan cheese, lettuce, avocado, onions and typically chicken or tasajo (dried beef). It’s a lot messier than a taco, but it’s worth the trouble. And the place to get one is Juquilita, a little gem of a restaurant off Alma Road in San Jose.
If you like: Tikka masala
Why not try: Utthapam
OK, so utthapam doesn’t have any chicken, but it doesn’t have to. The giant pancake is made with rice and lentil flour and packs plenty of protein. At Santa Clara’s Udupi Palace, a great source for vegetarian south Indian food, the newspaper-size pancake is delicious—spongy in the middle and crisp on the outside with a slight sourdough tang to it. The best ones are loaded with extra vegetables and stuff like the Chettinad uthappam made with a piquant jumble of cauliflower and other vegetables incorporated into the batter. It’s good on its own or dipped into the ramekin of sambar (spicy tamarind water) or with a dab of the cooling coconut chutney.
If you like: Green curry chicken
Why not try: Hor mok
Ask me about Thai food in Silicon Valley and be prepared for a well-worn gripe: the menus all look the same. One of the exceptions to that rule is at Thaibodia, a Thai restaurant that serves a Cambodian-inflected dish: hor mok. The menu lists hor mok as its lone house specialty. The dish is described as “sauteed with fresh Napa cabbage, basil, egg, coconut milk and red curry,” but that doesn’t really get the point across.
What comes out of the kitchen looks like an aluminum-foil-wrapped bowling ball that had been slit open with an “X” to release an aromatic cloud of steam perfumed with the delicious aroma of kaffir lime leaves. Inside is a fish cake bound together with coconut milk and egg whites. The cabbage, basil and spicy red curry give the dish texture and color. Hor mok is traditionally served in banana leaves, but the foil package is still impressive. I loved the sweetness of the mild fish and coconut milk combined with fiery curry sauce and redolent kaffir lime.
If you like: Babimbap
Why not try: Yookgaejang
Second to Korean barbecue, babimbap is the best-known Korean dish. It’s a rice bowl topped with a fried egg, vegetables and beef. But there’s more to discover. If you like spicy dishes, you’ll love yookgaejang, and Jang Su Jang is the place to get it. Upon ordering, our waitress gave me a slightly concerned look and asked if I knew that the yookgaejang was spicy. I assured her and began mentally preparing myself. I have learned that the Korean version of spicy tends to indicate something closer to incendiary, but I had a cold and was craving something with heat. And that’s exactly what I got.
This sublimely spicy beef soup is considered one of Korea’s hottest and most popular dishes traditionally eaten in summer, but it’s just as easily enjoyed on a cold rainy day like we had in much of March. The soup is typically served in a large ceramic or stone bowl that keeps the broth bubbling away long after it has left the kitchen. In addition to the delicious flavors, yookgaejang also has an impressive presentation. The spices make for an intensely vivid blood-orange color, visually balanced with handfuls of green scallions. It also contains shredded beef, taro stems, egg, sliced mushrooms and fiddleheads.
There is a distinctively deep and intense slow burn that is nicely balanced with the side of rice and a few cooling side dishes. Although ferociously spicy, the broth was so delicious that after the meat, scallions and taro were gone, I took it home to fashion my own sizzling lunch with leftovers.
If you like: Pho
Why not try: Bun bo Hue
I’m nominate pho as San Jose’s municipal dish. I love the stuff. But as often as not, I order a steaming bowl of bun bo Hue. It’s a big bowl of broth noodles like pho, but it’s a spicier, more exciting bowl of food. While pho hails from northern Vietnam, bun bo Hue (pronounced “boon bo way”) comes from central Vietnam, hence the suffix Hue. Central Vietnamese restaurants are rare in San Jose, but the dish is widely available in Silicon Valley because it’s so popular. The spicy beef noodle soup is similar to pho but has a deeper, more robust broth that’s enlivened with the aromatic citrus flavor of lemongrass.
Bun bo Hue An Nam on Story Road specializes in this hearty soup. At lunch there’s a crowd of people waiting to get in. While the restaurant also serves pho, it’s bun bo Hue that’s on everyone’s table. In addition to thin slices of beef, the soup comes with fat, spaghetti-like noodles, beef tendon (better than it sounds), pork sausage and blood cake. The latter is an acquired taste and easily removed if it’s not your thing. But don’t let the exotic ingredients scare you. This is a great bowl of soup.
If you like: Pork chow Mein
Why not try: Mapo tofu
I was in a Chinese food rut for a while, stuck eating the same old things—until I discovered the vast number of Chinese restaurants in Milpitas. The Chinese food in Milpitas is anything but ordinary. It’s Chinese food for Chinese people—and people who like Chinese food.
One of my favorites has long been South Legend Sichuan Restaurant. Contrary to popular belief, Sichuan food is not all fiery heat. The signature ingredient is the Sichuan peppercorn (actually the husk of the peppercorn), not chile peppers. The husk has a pleasant numbing effect, not a burning one.
The mapo tofu at South Legend shows off the telltale ingredient well. The dish consists of cubes of tofu and ground pork swimming in a ferocious-looking red sauce.
But again, it’s the numbing effect (“ma la” in Chinese) that comes through, not spiciness.
*Ethnic food is an imperfect term. One person’s ethnic food is another person’s home cooking. It’s all ethnic food, really. Where does an Indian-American family go out for ethnic food? Denny’s?