I went to Hoi An Bistro on the restaurant’s six-month anniversary. Hoi An, once a busy town in Vietnam bustling with the spice trade and known as a melting pot of foreign influence, comes alive on E. Santa Clara Street only a couple blocks away from San Jose City Hall.

Hoi An Bistro is the sixth (or maybe even seventh) restaurant at this location. The restaurant specializes in cuisine from central Vietnam, dishes from a region known for deep, hot spices as well as more complex flavors than the north and south.

Food from central Vietnam is also known for presentation, offering sophisticated decoration in dishes of small portions. Hoi An Bistro brings the integration of authentic Vietnamese and colorful presentation to San Jose, distinguishing itself from the typical pho places that have sprouted in the area.

To start a meal, opt for a dumpling or savory crepe instead of the typical spring rolls. I tried the Royal Patty ($2-$3), which was a crispy cakelike patty with shrimp, mushrooms, chives and sausage. Order the Hue ho combo special for $7, and you’ll get a bit of everything: rice dumplings, pot stickers and shrimp or pork patties.

For a traditional meal, go for a specialty like the Asian-style soy sauce quail ($10) or the fine vermicelli with grilled prawns, pork and onion beef rolls ($9).

The quail was crispy on the outside, chewy and tender on the inside—and comes paired with sticky rice deep fried in the shape of two hearts. You can’t help but smile when you see them.

The vermicelli dish is a meat lover’s dream—two pieces of lean pork, grilled prawns and thin beef rolled around grilled onion and lemongrass all on a bed of vermicelli with chives and crispy fried onions. As a Southern girl, this had to be my favorite. 

The central region’s spice comes alive in the hot spicy beef noodle soup ($8), which is a specialty of the region. Thin pieces of beef, chicken and pork swam in the spicy broth with lemongrass, dried chilies, mint leaves, bean sprouts, jalapenos and fresh lime wedges. I tried the regular soup and found the spice to be more than hot enough but still delicious. Those daring enough can increase the spice to their desired level.

“It’s spicy because [the central Vietnamese are] very poor, so we took a lot of preparation to make [the plates] beautiful,” owner Tam Nguyen explained. “We didn’t have too much meat so we had to be very careful—that’s why the spice is more important.”

His hair tucked back into a net bun, Nguyen also explains the sea of color that washes over the restaurant—it is meant to re-create the small town in central Vietnam known today not only as a former port city but also as a current UNESCO World Heritage Site with a growing tourist industry.

The famous lanterns that come from this coastal town 30 minutes south of Da Nang dot the perimeter. But what truly steals the show are the two murals on the walls of the restaurant that are painted photographs taken in Hoi An by Tam himself.

The covered Japanese bridge built between the 16th and 17th centuries in one of the pictures that characterizes the town and reminds Vietnamese locals here in San Jose of a place they once knew. Nguyen remembers one woman admiring the cement steps in the picture of the bridge, which brought her back to adolescent days 30 or 40 years ago spent skipping class with girlfriends.

Historically, central Vietnam was the seed of the Nguyen Dynasty—the last royal line of kings in Vietnam. In order to please the king and the royal family, the area created elaborate and eye-catching plates even if food was scarce.

“The central [region] focuses more on taste and presentation,” Nguyen told me.

This tradition continues today at Hoi An Bistro with steaming plates adorned with mint, basil, lemongrass and lime to accompany good food at reasonable prices.

Hoi An Bistro
374 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose