The “ethnic food” aisle at any large chain supermarket, with its tidy little shelves of soy sauce, salsas and jars of Chung King water chestnuts, looks downright sad compared to the dozens of ethnic food markets that populate Silicon Valley. To taste the South Bay’s food cultures in all their delicious diversity, ethnic markets are essential.

The strength of Silicon Valley’s food scene lies in its ethnic restaurants, the little mom-and-pop places that populate the minimalls and shopping centers of the South Bay. Silicon Valley does have some high-end, fancy and noteworthy midmarket restaurants, but it’s the cheap, hole-in-the-wall taquerias, noodle shops and Indian restaurants that make eating here exciting and delicious. And the flipside of ethnic restaurants are ethnic markets.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been exploring dozens of these ethnic markets. They smell different. If fact, that these stores have any aroma at all stands in contrast to a typical supermarket, where the air is purposely devoid of any food odors. Ethnic stores are filled with food, and they announce it. The aromatic of ground spices pervades the air at Indian markets. The smell of fish and fermented foods greets shoppers at Korean markets. If a store sells food, I say it should smell like it. 

The stores look different, too. At the Indian markets along El Camino Real in Santa Clara and Sunnyvale, the produce section is filled with fruits and vegetables non-Indians would have trouble identifying—bitter melon, snake gourd, fenugreek. The meat and fish sections are revelations, too. Chicken with their heads and feet still attached (gasp!) and low-on-the-food-chain fish like mackerel and sardines.

Of course, all those different-looking (and smelling) foods are going to taste different, too. It’s one thing to go into a Vietnamese or Korean restaurant and feel like you’re getting a taste of that country’s culture. It’s another to go into an ethnic market to get the raw ingredients of the food you love while surrounded by people who probably speak a language you can’t understand. 

One quick word about the term “ethnic.” I don’t like it.  It assumes there’s a standard “American” food compared to which everything else is “ethnic” and “exotic.” But what is ethnic dining to one person is home cooking to another. Given the racial and ethnic complexity of Silicon Valley, “ethnic food” is a hard one to define.

Is it just a culinary tradition different from your own? Where does a family of South Asians go out to eat for ethnic food? A donut shop? French and Italian food could be considered ethnic. I say if it hasn’t been thoroughly Americanized and still has roots in the old country it’s all ethnic food when you get down to it. But as imperfect as the term is, it does get its message across. These foods are specific to a particular country, region or racial or ethnic group.

In addition to carrying food nearly impossible to find at a mainstream supermarket, ethnic markets can be less expensive, in part because they are targeted at a more socioeconomically diverse clientele, and they sell lots of food in bulk.

What follows is a list of a wide variety of ethnic markets in Silicon Valley. It’s comprehensive but by no means exhaustive.

Japanese Markets

Chinese Markets

Mexican Markets


Yogi House
19740 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino. 408.865.1228
Yogi House is one of the few (the only?) markets that cater to Silicon Valley’s large Taiwanese community. It’s a small health-food store and grocery that offers many organic specialty items. Yogi House has been in Cupertino for three years but has stores in Taiwan, too.

Look for flavored milk-replacement powders like pumpkin soy and almond. The store also features flavored vinegars, including beet, passion fruit and pine needle, used for health supplements rather than cooking.

Best Buys: Teas (try the chamomile and chrysanthemum flower), organic spices, unrefined sugar (some varieties flavored with ginger or pineapple).{pagebreak}

Western Pacific Grocery
905 E Duane Ave., Sunnyvale; 408.720.1006
John Agustin owns and runs this small Sunnyvale Filipino market with the help from his parents and sister. On a recent visit, Agustin was unloading fresh produce and groceries out of his car, something he says he does routinely. With his father, Manny, quietly manning the register, John keeps the store stocked with Filipino imports such as mung beans, salted eggs and bagoong and shrimp paste. For a small store, it carries nearly every ingredient needed for cooking Filipino cuisine.

Best Buys: Bangus or milkfish, peanut sauce mix, dried rabbit fish and sweet coconut yam cakes.

See McKee Oriental Market as well.


Hangkook Supermarket
1092 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale; 408.261.2299
If you can’t find it at Hangkook, it’s not Korean food. There’s a fishy/fermenting cabbage odor, but get over it. If you want plain vanilla go to Safeway. Most impressive is the self-serve banchan and barbecue bar with kimchi, pickled radishes, candied anchovies and chile- and garlic-seasoned beef sold by the pound.

The scrupulously clean seafood counter with live halibut and abalone is a wonder, too. The supermarket goes way beyond groceries with clothes, cosmetics, shoes, and a little caf in the back.

Best Buys: Live halibut ($22.99 a pound), jumbo bags of sprouts and soup to go (tofu red pepper, spicy beef with vegetable and soybean sprout).


Dai Thanh Supermarket
420 S. Second St., San Jose; 408.287.3744
Outside of Orange County, Santa Clara County has the largest Vietnamese population in the United States, and San Jose is where most of the action is. Dive right into the heart of it all at downtown San Jose’s Dai Thanh Supermarket.

The busy, crowded store is loaded. The produce section, with its Asian herbs (sawleaf, culantro {CQ}, Thai basil and rice paddy herbs), is great, as is the meat section. For the strong of stomach, consider the organic hens and roosters with head and feet still attached, $10.99 a pound. (The feet make a great stock for pho ga.) 

Best Buys: “Three crabs” fish sauce, Vietnamese herbs, rice noodles and shredded green papaya for papaya salad.


Ori Deli
5479 Snell Ave., San Jose; 408.629.4979
Ori Deli’s Robert Tan has been serving Dutch and Indonesian groceries in his small south San Jose store for 35 years. The small corner market also doubles as an Indonesian restaurant where Tan and his family serve traditional dishes such as beef rendang.

Tan says he is thankful the store still breaks even, which he attributes to his longtime customers, 80 percent of whom he says are Dutch. Among the popular items are the letter-shaped chocolate bars, which are part of the Dutch Christmas.

Best Buys:
Licorice, cookies and chocolates are big favorites. Chocolate sprinkles for toast or Hagelslag are available in a variety of colors and flavors. On the Indonesian side, shrimp crackers, Indonesian seasoning mixes and an assortment of chile sauces are available.

See Nak’s Oriental Market as well.{pagebreak}

Indian Markets


La Villa
1329 Lincoln Ave., San Jose; 408.295.7851
La Villa is everyone’s favorite Italian market and deli. Owner Patty Bertucelli says the market offers the “things that grandma used to make, but you can’t find any more.” While the market is famous for its raviolis, it also offers imported meats and cheese, handmade pastas as well as hot Italian deli favorites and secret sandwiches.

“Get the ‘Chris combo,’” says the guy behind the deli counter. “We sell tons and tons of them, but I can’t tell you what’s in it.” Grocery items include cans San Marzano tomatoes, olive oils and balsamic vinegars and imported handmade pastas such as large tube paccheri.
Best Buys: In addition to the ravioli and the Chris combo sandwich (Italian deli meat, crispy melted cheese), during the holidays look for Italian favorites such as cuccidatti, fig-stuffed cookies and arancini, rice balls stuffed with eggplant, peas and sausage.


Bacalhau Grill and Trade Rite Market
1555 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose; 408.259.6101
The store and restaurant are Silicon Valley’s premier outlet for all things Portuguese. Owner Luis Lourenco grew up in what was once known as “Little Portugal,” and the market gives the East San Jose neighborhood a taste of what it was all about.

Look for an extensive selection of sausage, cheese and Portuguese (and Brazilian) groceries. The little restaurant at the back serves the classics of Portuguese cooking and, of course, lots of bacalao (salt cod). There are bacalao fritters, grilled bacalao and bacalao natas, a creamy, delicious casserole of bacalao, potatoes and olives. 

Best Buys:
Great selection of Portuguese wine and pastries.

Eastern European/Russian


Rose International Market
1060 Castro St., Mountain View; 650.960.1900
You’ll probably smell Rose Market before you see it. The tiny, hole-in-the-wall window at the back of store sells great kebabs grilled over a charcoal fire that fills the air with savory smells. To order the kebabs, one must go into the store first and then head outside to wait for the order. But slow down and spend some time in this Persian market to see what it has to offer.

There’s a takeout counter with Persian prepared foods like gormeh sabzi and kookoo sabzi. Look over the huge array of cheeses, fresh nuts and seeds in bulk (the squash seeds are particularly good) and stacks of fresh lavash. And don’t pass up the delicious assortment of Mashti Malone and Golnat Persian ice cream. It goes great with kebabs.

Best Buys: Fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, huge variety of bagged teas and Persian ice cream and prepared foods.