KQED's San Jose: The Bay Area's Great Immigrant Food City is a series of stories exploring San Jose's wonderfully diverse immigrant food scene. A new installment will post each weekday from Oct. 20–29.
very article written about Vietnamese food in America reads like the beginning of an Asian American studies paper. And that’s fair: Food can’t be truly understood without getting into history and politics. The United States' involvement in the Vietnam War created a pathway for the first large wave of Vietnamese immigration into the states. Hundreds of thousands of refugees wound up landing in cities such as New Orleans, Houston and San Jose, the last of which is home to the Bay Area’s biggest concentration of Vietnamese Americans. In fact, San Jose has the largest Vietnamese population of any city in the country—over 100,000, according to the 2010 census.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the city is also home to the best Vietnamese food that Northern California has to offer. Even Vietnamese people from San Francisco, Stockton and Sacramento often make the long journey for a taste. Savvy out-of-town readers have already seen the listicles featuring San Jose’s best phởorbánh mì. But what’s spoken of less frequently is the city’s sprawling, vibrant Vietnamese drinks scene—an ever-evolving landscape of colorful, icy sweet soups layered with mung beans and pandan jelly, fresh-pressed sugarcane juice and distinctly Vietnamese takes on boba and coffee.
While some drinks are traditional, others are new innovations popularized by Vietnamese American youth. In many ways, the entire chè and boba scene speaks not only to what Vietnamese culture in San Jose is, but also where it’s going.
After all, if wine can be Napa’s thing, why can’t Vietnamese beverages be San Jose’s?
Milk Tea and Boba
These days, boba’s omnipresence is a distinctive characteristic of the Bay Area. Cruising through San Jose, you get the impression that there are more boba shops than Starbucks. San Jose is the so-called Asian Baby Girl (ABG) capital of the Bay, after all, and big, colorful boba drinks are the accessory of choice for this particular subculture, alongside acrylic nails and lash extensions. While Taiwanese boba culture tends to dominate the discussion, in San Jose you’ll find a whole universe of Vietnamese takes on the cult drink.
These boba shops take the Taiwanese boba canon—your classic milk teas with tapioca pearls—and build on that foundation by adding Vietnamese ingredients. 7 Leaves Cafe is a good example of this approach. The local chain’sfirst Northern California location is in the sleepy suburban neighborhood of Berryessa, the less widely recognized Vietnamese ethnoburb within San Jose.
Though the cafe serves the standard milk tea flavors of black, jasmine, and taro that you expect at any other boba shop, its standout items draw on distinctly Vietnamese influences. There’s mung bean milk tea, “herbal tea” (pandan, chrysanthemum and raw cane sugar) and, the student favorite, Vietnamese coffee. Fortunately, the hour-long waits from 7 Leaves’ debut have tapered off as the chain settled into the city, with three locations that act as popular hubs for midday caffeine boosts and hours-long study sessions.
To immerse yourself in San Jose’s Vietnamese youth culture (or one aspect of it, anyway), head over to Pekoe Tea Bar. With its white leather couches, vibey dimmed lighting and neon LED strips, Pekoe embodies last decade’s Asian American raver revival and San Jose cheugy. During its heyday in the mid-2010s, you couldn’t make it to the register without swarms of teenagers and 20-somethings huddling around modded cars and vape circles.
The menu captures the aforementioned subculture’s casual geekery and tendency toward questionably appropriative hip-hop references, with drink names such as “Mario and Lui-lychee” and “I’m in Luv with the Coco.” Pekoe offers a cocktail style menu, pairing teas, flavorings and toppings that are meant to complement one another. “Pretty in Pink'' features a strawberry-infused jasmine milk tea with heart-shaped strawberry jelly and boba, resulting in an adorable pink drink that, believe it or not, tastes like vape juice—in a good way. For an earthier drink, “Yung Mung-y'' combines jasmine tea with “natural mung bean” and coconut pudding.
If your curiosity won’t let you decide between two menu options, Pekoe offers split cups. The drinks run sweeter than most, so ask for less sweetness than your usual order.
Chè is a category that covers an endless variety of desserts that can be hot or cold, savory or sweet, solid or soupy, chewy or smooth, fresh or cooked. It’s a maximalist dessert with no limitations. One popular iteration is chè ba màu, recognized for its striking tri-color layers of red bean, mung bean and pandan jelly topped with coconut milk and shaved ice. Another is chè thái, a canned-fruit cocktail—of jackfruit, lychee, grass jelly, water chestnut and coconut flesh—that’s reminiscent of ambrosia.
The Bay Area’s most recognizable chè shop, BAMBU Dessert & Drinks, originated in San Jose, first opening in Berryessa in 2008. Since then, the chain has expanded to 15 stores serving Vietnamese enclaves as far away as Sacramento and Stockton, but the San Jose mothership is still worth a visit for an efficient and reliable pitstop while eating your way through the Eastside scene. The menu offers all the greatest hits of the icy variety of chè, though the shop also serves a host of flavored milk teas, fruit teas and coffees for those who prefer less texture. Drink your way through the shop’s preset chè options, or pick your favorite ingredients to create your own combination. When in doubt, the classic chè ba màu (#10 on the menu) is a dependable option.
In Vietnam, freshly made soy milk is often served alongside street food and deli entrees. While American soy milk does its best to neutralize itself, waiting to be paired with coffee or utilized in baking, Asian soy milk is a delightful treat all on its own. It’s meant to taste like soy.
To enjoy Vietnamese soy milk in its purest form, head to Hung Vuong Tofu, a soy- and tofu-focused deli tucked in an unpretentious strip mall in Berryessa. Snake around the floating isle of imported snacks and prepared food trays to land at the shop’s fridge, with its nostalgic red, yellow and blue stripes. Inside, you’ll find bottles and jugs of freshly pressed soy milk available in four options: unsweetened, sweetened, pandan and matcha. Older patrons gravitate toward the unsweetened version, but the matcha flavor sells out quickly due to the younger crowd. If you’ve only had mass-produced soy milk from the supermarket, be prepared for a completely different sensation: a refreshing, subtly sweet silken tofu taste with a full mouthfeel. They don’t use preservatives here, so finish your drink within one to two days of opening.
For those seeking a more contemporary take on the genre, Soyful Desserts is the ultimate lovechild of boba, chè and soy. Though the shop’s core options are Hong Kong-style milk teas (and at least one of its founders hails from Hong Kong), Soyful is best known for its soy pudding drinks. The tender, slurpable ginger syrup–dowsed tofu is layered with your toppings of choice. I recommend the pandan jelly, basil seeds, and of course boba. To really lean into the shop’s chèside, opt for red beans as well. The soy pudding drinks are all accompanied by crushed ice—the kind that’s fun to stab with your straw and easy to drink.
San Jose is also one of the only places in America where even lesser known Vietnamese drinks are able to cultivate a devoted following. One such drink can be found at Dzui’s Cakes and Desserts. In 2017, Dzui Thai decided to open his namesake storefront in Eastside San Jose, building on the legacy of his family’s successful bakery which has operated in Vietnam for nearly 40 years. The shop specializes in pillowy durian crepe cakes and bánh mì muối ớt (grilled bread with spicy seasoning), but it’s also known for offering hard-to-find beverages like corn milk, mung bean milk and, especially, a variety of durian drinks—all made with super-fresh ingredients.
Dzui’s signature “á đù”rian (a pun on Vietnamese for “motherfucker”) milk tea originally featured fresh, high-quality durian chunks. Thai noticed that customers were either thrilled or repulsed by the contentious fruit in its purest form. It is durian, after all. To those less familiar, it’s allegedly offensive and reeks of onions (or worse). To its championing lovers, it’s an aromatic blend of perfume and—OK fine—garlic.
Determined to adapt his signature drink to be friendlier to his new stateside market, Thai landed on a housemade durian pudding. The resulting product invites durian amateurs to familiarize themselves with the fruit’s complicated custardy notes. The pudding sits atop a salted cheese foam with fragrant jasmine tea, resulting in an alchemic blend of savory and sweet. Durian lovers can rest assured that fresh durian chunks are available for a worthwhile extra $1.50.
“I wanted to stand out,” Thai says of his durian desserts and drinks. “There’s a lot of Vietnamese business around here. Why not try it? You can't find it anywhere else.”
Californians have a reputation for being particularly health conscious, so it’s surprising that Vietnamese juices and smoothies haven’t taken the state by storm yet. One of the more popular options is fresh sugarcane juice, and the definitive sugarcane juicery in town isNuoc Mia Ninh Kieu.
Located in the food court of the Grand Century Shopping mall—one of two almost exclusively Vietnamese malls in San Jose—Nuoc Mia Ninh Kieu is all about transparency and simplicity. Literally. Customers get to watch their order made from scratch right in front of them, explains Ron Kwok, the son of the company’s founder. Whole sugarcane sticks are run through an industrial press, with a filter that catches the inedible fibers, yielding a pure, refreshing cup of juice.
Each menu option is an exhaustive list of the ingredients that go into that drink. In other words, the sugarcane juice only contains sugarcane, unless you decide to add fresh or preserved fruit (which you should!). Fresh-pressed sugarcane with a squeeze of kumquat is the most popular option, with bright citrus notes balancing out the sugarcane’s natural sweetness.
There’s no talking about Vietnamese beverages without mentioning coffee. In the U.S., cà phê sữa đá, or Vietnamese iced coffee, sits in the hall of fame next to phở and bánh mì. In San Jose, you don’t have to drive very far from wherever you are to find that bold and delicious bitter cup of robusta sweetened with condensed milk. Most boba shops in town even offer it alongside their milk and fruit tea options.
Until recently, though, cà phê sữa đá was usually tucked at the end of bánh mì shop and restaurant menus rather than featured as a standalone product in its own right. “Vietnamese coffee shops” usually referred to late-night haunts for men to drink cà phê, chain-smoke, watch sports, play cards, buy lottery tickets and generously tip bikini-clad servers.
When husband-and-wife duo Frank and Kathy Nguyen opened Academic Coffee in 2017, they began with a straightforward, no-frills espresso focused menu—nothing especially Vietnamese about it. About a year into operating, though, Frank began experimenting with a housemade pandan syrup. The result was the shop’s iconic pandan lattes and cold brews. Inspired by the classic childhood snack, bánh kẹp(pandan waffle), the pandan drink’s flavor lands between a vanilla and coconut latte. Don’t expect your coffee to be green, as the cafe opts to skip out on dyes.
While Academic Coffee provides an option for Vietnamese-inspired espresso drinks, Kasama Ca Phe focuses on the classic cà phê itself. Childhood friends Erik Quiocho and Kevin Ho Nguyen developed their love for cà phê sữa đá when they’d have it as a casual after-school treat while grabbing phở. As the third wave coffee movement hit the Bay Area, the duo saw an opportunity to educate coffee enthusiasts on Vietnamese beans, labor and brewing methods. Thus came Kasama Ca Phe, a pop-up concept that has halted during the pandemic and shifted to growler pick-ups only.
More San Jose Food
“We didn't want to just go off the radar,” explains Quiocho, “There was a lot we wanted to do and a story we wanted to tell. We decided the best way to do it was curbside pickup.”
The pair also increased their focus on online engagement. At the start of the shelter-in-place ordinance of 2020, they hosted an online workshop teaching participants how to brew a “proper" cup of cà phê trứng, or egg coffee. The Northern Vietnamese hot coffee drink is slowly becoming more widely available in the U.S.—though it’s still relatively hard to find in the Bay Area, especially outside of San Jose. To make cà phê trứng, phin-brewed coffee is topped with a custard-like foam made from whipped egg yolks and condensed milk. The drink embodies the pop-up’s methodical approach to coffee, as well as its founders’ commitment to introducing customers to new-to-them Vietnamese coffee offerings.
There’s a quickly growing diasporic coffee movement of young Vietnamese Americans who are eager to reclaim Vietnam’s robusta bean, often deemed inferior to arabica beans in terms of flavor and quality, and push back against Eurocentric coffee standards. Kasama Ca Phe proudly represents San Jose in this new wave. And Quiocho and Nguyen aren’t done yet: They have their sights set out on creating their own organic condensed milk, and plan to open their own storefront in San Jose in the near future.
“San Jose’s always on this come-up moment. A lot of other folks in the South Bay feel it too. Times are changing,” Quiocho says. “As San Jose continues to grow, we want to help champion the coffee scene out here. Do it for the hometown.”
Jacquelyn Tran is a San Jose–raised, Berkeley-based researcher and writer. She does not identify as an ABG but did write her college thesis on the subculture. Follow her on Twitter @jjjjacq.
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