I’ve moved 16 times. So when I settled in San Jose, I thought I could finally get some real Vietnamese food.
But where to go?
A friend brought me to the Grand Century Mall food court in East San Jose to catch up over bánh xèo. It had been years since I’d torn through this sizzling crepe of coconut cream and rice flour batter. Shrimp, slivers of pork, mint, and bean sprouts spilled out the lacy edges of a golden crisp semicircle.
It tasted like home.
I came back to the mall recently to figure out if there were other people who felt the same way I did.
I met Emily Nguyễn, who was eating with friend at one of the laminate tables. She’s in her 40s and came to San Jose as a teenager.
“When you migrate to a new country, everything seems strange at the beginning. And at the time we didn’t have a lot of Asian food or shopping malls,” she says. “That’s one of the main reasons why they built this mall for us; to continue that tradition and pass it down to our children.”
Emily easily navigates between her native and adopted cultures. But Hu’o’ng just emigrated a year ago. She says eating at the Grand Century Mall makes her feel less lost:
“I’m homesick for Vietnam. Because here at the mall, we Vietnamese are many. Many countrymen. The hometown dishes we miss are here,” she says.
I meet a group of well-dressed twentysomethings visiting from New York. Their orange trays are piled with plates of fresh herbs and greens, bowls of dipping sauce, bánh xèo, and a bowl of beef phở.
Phillip said he wanted to show his friends the variety of Vietnamese cuisine, and introduce them to dishes they may not have tried.
There are more choices in San Jose than New York, he added.
I can hear distinctive regional Vietnamese accents, as well as other languages. A group of Buddhist nuns with shaved heads and brown robes check out the merchandise at a cell phone and phone-accessory shop.
Then, with beatific smiles, they walk across the mall’s pink terrazzo tiles to order sugarcane drinks.
At the end of the hall, the Eurasia Delight snack shop carries everything from Belgian cookies to dozens of different kinds of beef jerky. There’s also dried seafood, stacks of sausages wrapped in banana leaves, and jars of candied and pickled fruits.
Once you look interested, the women at the store will insist that you try a sample. Shoppers stop for a meal after buying some snacks, dragon fruit, or giant pomelos for an ancestor altar.
The restaurants are pretty bare-bone operations, with the owner on-site and just a few employees. Like traditional Vietnamese street food, each vendor specializes in one or a few dishes. That’s how you know they’ll be good at what they make.
Quý and his wife Hu’o’ng make the trip from Pittsburg to the mall in San Jose every few weeks. I’m surprised they drive all that way in traffic just to do errands.
But Quý says it’s convenient, because after a long drive, he doesn’t have to move his car again. He likes that he can eat glass noodles with roast duck one day, ginger chicken the next, and if he feels like it, a bowl of porridge.
I’m guessing there’s probably more to it. I think he and his wife find comfort being around familiar people, food, and sounds, and to get a hit of someone else’s home cooking.
He slurps appreciatively at his bowl of hủ tiếu.
Yuki Dinh sits at another table. She’s slender, glamorous, and meticulously dressed—every part the cosmopolitan San Franciscan. She’s delicately plucking at a plate of blood sausage and organ meat while blowing gently on a spoon of rice porridge. It’s a dish called cháo lòng giò heo.
“It comes with — um — intestines,” she says casually. “It’s a little bit strange for Western people, but for us it’s like very tasty.”
She’s talking about offal, like spleen, stomach, liver, and tongue. I’ve never tried it.
I was excited to find bún thang, a Northern dish that you don’t typically find in restaurants. It’s a light, delicate soup with an herbal flavor. It’s sometimes called Medicine Soup.
Here, the spicy, complicated dishes of central Vietnam, the clear flavors of the north, and the sweet, savory intensity of the south comfortably rub shoulders.
“Each region or even small area of each region they have their specialty dishes,” Phillip explains. “People might be familiar with bún bò Huế, which is from Huế, the old imperial capital. I’m forgetting if bánh khọt is from there, but it might be.”
He describes the dish as floury with shrimp on top. “Each one is like a tiny little muffin, and there’s a special pan that they cook it in that has the mold,” he says. “You can do like six or nine at a time.”
I asked Phillip to pick just one food to recommend. He laughed at the tough decision.
His friend Troy says, “I grew up eating Vietnamese food, but mostly phở, and I’ve never experienced all of this. [I]t’s an awesome experience.”
If you’re a true Vietnamese gourmand, you might not be impressed with the food here. It’s a mall food court after all. It’s not as good as mom’s — how could that be possible?
I asked a woman from Canada if the food was better here at the mall or back home in Vancouver. Although she didn’t think that the bánh bèo, small discs of pancakes made to resemble a leaf, were particularly good, she decided that overall the food in this mall food court was better than what she could get back home in Vancouver.
It’s not just locals that come to the food court. People from all over the Bay Area and beyond go out of their way to come here. Even Vietnamese who’ve spent most of their lives in the United States want to be part of a community — a community bonded by a love of food and communal eating.
Philip says the Grand Century Mall reminds him of childhood memories and trips to Vietnam.
“I remember when they broke ground, and it was such a fun place to be. I love sugarcane drinks. And the spot here is really good. I remember visiting Vietnam, and you could get sugarcane drinks on the side of the streets. They would just give it to you in a Ziploc bag with a straw, and they put a little kumquat in it,” he says.
Outside the food court, beside a fountain and the mall’s peach McMansion-esque entry, groups of men cluster around café tables, with the odd glass of beer and packs of cigarettes. One man wears a maroon Army Ranger beret, another an FBI hat. They all look like regulars. But no one wanted to talk to me except for Mr. Ngọc Trần.
“This table, all of them are my friends. That’s why I take a seat right here: to talk. Maybe from 10 until 2 p.m., until 3 p.m. You know why? Because of all of us are old and retired now. We have nothing to do. It’s a lot of fun to come here,” he said.
Every day, Mr. Trần sits here in the shadow of a statue of Trần Hưng Đạo, a 13th century military hero who defended Vietnam from three Mongol invasions. I ask him if he’s here to play cards with friends.
No games, he insists.
“Just talk, take the tea, take coffee, just sit and talk together,” he says. “We have a lot of things to talk about — the past, about the present time, the future of the children. A lot of things. I have been here for almost 25 years. You look outside, a lot of people come here. To enjoy, to kill time, and meet people, to talk.”
For Mr. Trần and his fellow veterans, the Grand Century Mall is not about the food. For them, the mall means that the Vietnamese people are here to stay. Even if they lost the war, they positively shaped a nation — even an expatriate nation.
He bragged about the first Vietnamese general in the U.S. Army. For him, every Vietnamese who succeeds in American business, education, law, or medicine is an example of how our people have persisted.
Like most expats, these men remember the fall of Saigon as “the day we lost our homeland.” For a long time, they dreamed of taking it back. Over the years, those dreams have changed — from taking Vietnam back, to going back one last time.
But for now, they sit here, at the Grand Century Mall, nursing a drink or a snack, and soaking up a little bit of home.