From bánh cuốn to pandan waffles, 10 spots to get acquainted with San Jose’s booming Vietnamese food scene
An introduction to excellent eating in Little Saigon and beyond.
The last few months, I gave myself the delicious task of dipping my toes into the vast ocean that is San Jose’s expansive Vietnamese food scene. Even in an area as rich in culinary trends and traditions as the Bay Area, the deep-rooted and regionally diverse legacy of Vietnamese food in San Jose is not only special, but arguably the best in the region.
In fact, the sheer number of Vietnamese restaurants in San Jose is so large that finding a point of entry as a novice can be an intimidating prospect. Armed with recommendations from Vietnamese friends and restaurant owners, as well as my own dining research, I wrote a beginner’s guide for immersing yourself in some of the many options that San Jose has to offer, from a glorious mall food court to classic local restaurants, and even an exciting pop-up that reimagines the flavors of the Mekong Delta.
I know I’ve only scratched the surface, because so many spots remain on my to-eat list — Vietnamese hot pot at Lẩu Hải Sản! Duck porridge at Vịt Đồng Quê! — but the places featured below are all very worthy of your attention.
So from one beginner to another — and all of you already in the know — I hope this list encourages you to explore some of the best Vietnamese food outside of Vietnam … right here in the Bay.
All the food stands at Grand Century Mall
If you make one eating stop in San Jose, make it Grand Century Mall in Little Saigon. Outside, visitors take selfies in front of a massive stone sculpture of the scowling Trần Hưng Đạo, an imperial prince and military leader who now guards the suburban mall. Men play chess under tree-shaded corners of the parking lot along Story Road.
Inside, the food court awaits. At Bánh Xèo Đinh Công Tráng, a large, half moon-shaped bánh xèo — a rice batter pancake stuffed with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts — comes with a heaping pile of fresh lettuce, mint and cilantro on the side. (My Vietnamese friend’s mother judges a meal by the quality of these lettuce and herbs, which are typical in southern Vietnam and essential to many of the region’s dishes.) Rip off pieces of the pancake, wrap them in a lettuce leaf, add a few leaves of each herb and plunge the whole thing into a bowl of nước chấm, the omnipresent Vietnamese dipping sauce.
A neighboring stand, Quan Ngọn, serves a crispy ring of bánh khọt, often described as savory cupcakes. Custardy on the inside and studded on top with whole shrimp, they’re also meant to be wrapped in the lettuce with herbs and dipped in nước chấm.
For dessert, head to Hiền Khánh Dakao for chè. The dessert is layered with a variety of ingredients — like boba, but leveled up — so you can choose your own adventure here. Kidney beans, pandan jelly, coconut and agar agar make for a delightfully textural experience. The whole thing is topped with crushed ice and a long plastic spoon that you’ll need to excavate the many layers of toppings.
Don’t miss the Eurasia Delight market, where you should stock up on Vietnamese snacks and condiments: five-spice lemongrass beef jerky, pickled young mango, dried spicy plums, jackfruit chips, the French version of Maggi Seasoning (like soy sauce, but with a deeper umami flavor) and jars of the store’s own chili crisp sauce.
Grand Century is also a great jumping off point; many of Little Saigon’s best restaurants are within walking distance.
Grand Century Mall // 1111 Story Road, San Jose; 408.295.3175
Bún chả cá lã vọng, grilled turmeric fish, at Thiên Long
Thiên Long’s bún chả cá lã vọng might be the most memorable dish I’ve had in San Jose. The turmeric fish, local to Hanoi, arrives audibly sizzling on a portable grill, topped with peanuts and surrounded by a bed of scallions, onions and dill. Add the rice paper ($2 extra, it’s worth it) for do-it-yourself spring rolls stuffed with hunks of the tender white fish, chilled rice noodles, herbs and cucumber. A waiter will bring a bowl of water in which you should dip the rice paper sheet quickly; sogginess is your enemy here. Pile the ingredients toward the bottom of the rice paper sheet, tuck the corners in tightly and roll upwards. Dip in nước chấm or the more intense and thick mắm nêm, a fermented fish sauce.
The fish, onions and herbs will continue to cook on the grill as you eat, getting wonderfully caramelized and crispy — but make sure you stir things around every few minutes to avoid burning. (To put out the burners, lift up the tray and use a small sauce bowl to extinguish the flames. Or, ask a waiter to do this for you.)
The menu says the dish is for two people, but it could easily feed a group. Cash only.
Thiên Long // 3005 Silver Creek Road #138, San Jose; 408.223.6188
A traditional southern Vietnamese meal at Vung Tau
When Anne Le Ziblatt’s parents opened Vung Tau in 1985, there were few Vietnamese restaurants in San Jose. Locals would line up outside the original restaurant, she said, and after her parents moved to the current, larger location on East Santa Clara Street, Vietnamese movie stars would badger her father for the best tables.
The Vung Tau menu is an education in traditional southern Vietnamese fare. All of it is excellent, but below are a few standout recommendations. (The owners are also nearing retirement, Le Ziblatt said, which will mean the end of the longtime restaurant, so go while you can.)
- Hủ tiếu nam vang: When Le Ziblatt is craving quality hủ tiếu nam vang, she heads to San Jose. Vung Tau’s version of the regional soup comes with shrimp, snow crab claws, thinly sliced pork, cubes of pork lardon (ask for extra on the side if you want to amp up the flavor), garlic chives and Chinese celery on the side. The clean, clear broth isn’t one-note; as it cools, the flavor changes and the nuances of the broth “reveal themselves,” she said. The default noodle choice is rice noodles, but you can ask for egg or glass noodles.
- Bánh hỏi with shrimp wrapped around sugarcane: At lunch at Vung Tau you can opt for bánh hỏi, delicate square-shaped nets of steamed and woven vermicelli noodles, as the base for your choice of protein. It’s particularly good with the chạo tôm, ground shrimp molded around a piece of sugar cane. Chew and suck on the sugar cane for sweetness in between bites.
- Bò cuốn hành: In this dish, thinly sliced beef is marinated in soy, garlic and onion, then rolled around slices of sweet yellow onion and tied with a bow of scallion to keep it intact on the grill. The result is incredibly juicy meat flavored by the onions. It’s best enjoyed with a side of broken rice or bánh hỏi and pickled veggies.
- Chả hấp: The Vietnamese take on the French quiche, chả hấp is made from ground pork, mung bean noodles and wood ear mushrooms that are set in egg and steamed with a smear of yellow yolk over the top.
- Bánh hỏi bò nướng lá chuối: Vung Tau charbroils rich lemongrass beef in banana leaf, fated to be wrapped in lettuce with the bánh hỏi, ample herbs (including rau răm, Vietnamese mint), pickled veggies and sprouts. The herbs are served on the side but never as an afterthought. “In the south we really believe in the balancing of flavors and textures,” Le Ziblatt explained. “We believe in using the flavors of herbs to enhance dishes as opposed to using heavy spices.”
Vung Tau // 535 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose; 408.223.6188
At Hết Sẩy, everything — from the duck liver pâté and spiced sausage to scallion oil and vanilla extract — is made from scratch by Duy An and Hieu Le. The pop-up specializes in food from Duy An’s native Mekong Delta, reimagined through a Californian lens. Take the pâté vit ốp-la, a traditional breakfast plate with a fried egg, pâté, sausage, pickled daikon, cucumber and caramelized onions — plus their own localized additions of salmon roe and toasted sourdough bread from the Midwife and the Baker in Mountain View, a distinctly Bay Area whole-grain bakery.
Make sure you ask for a side of Duy An’s excellent, tangy chili sauce to go with the cơm tấm lá dứa, pandan broken rice with a charcoal-grilled pork chop, sunny side up egg and shredded pork skin.
Don’t sleep on dessert. The bánh gan, a Mekong-style baked flan, is both rich and delicate. It’s made with duck eggs, Duy An’s vanilla extract, coconut cream and toasted spices. The couple tops it with a tangle of raw palm sugar (more common in the Mekong Delta than sugar, they said) and Vietnamese-style coffee granita on the side.
(Read more about the story behind Hết Sẩy here.)
Hết Sẩy // 1130 Lucretia Ave. # G, San Jose
Phở bò đặc biệt at Phở Hà Nội
Phở Hà Nội serves classic northern phở at Vietnam Town, Grand Century Malls’s next-door, upscale step-sister. (Its own melange of restaurants and retail is worth exploring. Where else can you karaoke, get plastic surgery, check your income taxes and slurp pho in one sitting?)
Phở Hà Nội’s beef phở is made from pounds of bone marrow in a 500-liter pot, which the restaurant claims to be “the largest phở pot in the USA.” The meat is cut fresh to order for every bowl. The phở bò đặc biệt with thinly sliced rare flank steak, brisket, tendon and tripe arrives fragrant and covered with a snow storm of sliced green onion.
Phở Hà Nội also runs a sister location in Cupertino.
Phở Hà Nội // 969 Story Road #6048, San Jose; 408.239.0888
Pandan waffles at Nước Mía Viễn Đông 2
While you’re at Vietnam Town, grab a snack at Nước Mía Viễn Đông 2, where almost everyone seems to be ordering the pandan waffle — and for good reason. The women behind the counter are constantly ladling bright green pandan batter into four waffle makers that churn out warm, subtly sweet waffles with mochi-like chew. At $3, this is officially the best waffle-in-a-paper-bag deal in the Bay Area.
Nước Mía Viễn Đông 2 // 979 Story Road, San Jose; 408.975.6625
Mini banh mi at Đức Hương Sandwiches
You know you’re in the right place for banh mi when you see a line out the door on a weekday and the air is filled with the unmistakable scent of fresh-baked baguettes. Đức Hương, a short walk across the street from Grand Century Mall, checks both of these boxes. Take advantage of the mini banh mi option ($2.75 each!) to try a few of the sandwiches, including pork belly, spicy Korean pork and meatballs.
Đức Hương Sandwiches, 1020 Story Road, Suite C, San Jose; 408.993.8001
Bún bò huế at Bún Bò Huế An Nam
San Jose’s Bún Bò Huế An Nam is no secret; Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods declared the strip mall’s signature spicy beef noodle soup, typical in Central Vietnam, the “best of its type I have ever enjoyed in (the) USA.”
If “pizzle” (translation: ox penis) or congealed pork blood aren’t your thing, go with the most basic bún bò huế. Taste the incredibly fragrant broth first, then adorn it with the accompanying fresh mint, thinly sliced banana blossoms, saw leaf, shredded cabbage and lots of lime. The restaurant also serves sugarcane juice pressed fresh behind the bar. Cash only.
For those of you who eschew meat of all kinds, pizzle be damned: The vegetarian Đông Phương Tofu, which serves bún bò huế with tofu, is a short drive away.
Bún Bò Huế An Nam // 740 Story Road # 3, San Jose; 408.993.1755
Classic Vietnamese deli food at Thanh Hướng
No San Jose food excursion is complete without a stop at a classic Vietnamese deli, which typically serve a range of no-frills sandwiches, plastic-wrapped prepared foods, sweets and drinks. Le Ziblatt recommends Thanh Hướng, where you can create your own feast from banh mi, porridge, spring rolls, bánh bò nuong (pandan cake), iced Vietnamese coffee and other goods. Cash only.
Thanh Hướng // 2593 Senter Road, San Jose; 408.297.0595
Bánh cuốn at Bánh cuốn Tây Hồ
Tây Hồ’s combination bánh cuốn dish is where it’s at, a sampler plate of the greatest hits paired with the namesake thin, steamed rice flour sheets. Typical in northern Vietnam, the silky rice sheets can be served plain or with fillings, such as shrimp or mushrooms. On the combination plate, they’re accompanied by yam and shrimp tempura, egg rolls, fried dough stuffed with mung bean, slices of excellent Vietnamese ham, a flavorful rectangle of fermented pork, or nem chua (don’t let the bright pink hue scare you away, it’s not that intense).
The literal jug of fish sauce is at the table for a reason. Pour some into a small bowl and alternate between dipping into it and/or pouring the sauce over everything else. Tay Ho’s fish sauce is on the sweeter side, so ask for a side of lime and jalapeño if you want to doctor it.
Bánh cuốn Tây Hồ // 2895 Senter Road Suite 110, San Jose; 408.629.5229
Tell us your favorite Vietnamese spots in San Jose! We’re all ears: [email protected].
For more coverage of San Jose’s deep-rooted Vietnamese food scene, check out our other articles in this series:
- How San Jose became America’s Vietnamese food mecca
- The South Bay’s most exciting pop-up is reinventing Vietnamese food in California
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