13 minute read.
It’s a Thursday night, and I’ve eaten all the food I prepped on Sunday. I don’t feel like cooking — that means it’s time to go out.
But since I’m not feeling particularly adventurous tonight, I lean into my regular list of restaurants in San Jose (and its surrounding cities).
If you name-dropped any of these restaurants, my eyes would probably begin to glaze over while I daydream about it. Does that mean it’s a source of comfort, or is that a dependency? Anyway, check out my top 10 South Bay restaurants this year.
10. Pho Kim Long
This is my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in the entire Bay Area. It’s a truly nostalgic place for me since I used to go there with my dad right before preschool and kindergarten — every morning actually, around 7:00 or 8:00am, right when they opened. Back then, it was just half the amount of space it was before. The great thing about Pho Kim Long is that it’s not just their beef pho that’s amazing. I personally love their chicken pho and bún bò Huế, but they also have great vermicelli noodles and rice places.
One thing I enjoy getting is this yellow cod spring roll dish, called Chả Cá Lã Vọng. There’s even a recipe on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown website. The fish is cooked on a hotplate with plenty of dill, onions, and peanuts. It’s also portioned enough for two people, so if you’re just feeling like sharing spring rolls with a friend, it’s a fun option to go for. Quality-wise, I’ve tried this dish at two other places, and Pho Kim Long’s beats them out easily.
Pho Kim Long serves hefty portions at a consistent quality, compared to some other Pho restaurants that fall short and leave me longing for something more. And you really just can’t beat that. The menu treasures the idea of something for everyone, and that’s why you should go.
9. Omee.J Fusion Sushi Bar & Grill
Like everyone else, my taste in sushi changed forever after I tried it in Japan. In other words: I turned into a sushi snob. You might have found me saying things like “Why order rolls? Nigiri is the only way to eat sushi,” or, “the average sushi in Japan is still better and cheaper than this,” or, “Dang I want some egg salad sandwiches.” I’ve returned to planet Earth since then, and I am back to eating sushi rolls like everyone else.
Like everyone else, my taste in sushi changed forever after I tried it in Japan. In other words: I turned into a sushi snob.
In a sketchy-ish lot situated along Stevens Creek Boulevard is Omee.J — an unexpected gem of a Japanese restaurant. They’re known for a wide variety of quality rolls, and without fail, I will always order:
- Nabeyaki Udon, an udon soup dish served in a clay pot. It’s not quite Chankonabe stew (sumo stew), but I think it’s a hearty soup that’s perfect for a cold winter night.
- An Orange Ball, essentially a salmon roll laid on an orange-slice bed, with a ball of minced salmon on top. Salmon-lovers will go crazy for this one.
- One wildcard item on the menu, usually another sushi roll. Most of my random picks off the menu have been pretty good, so I’ve been confident that if I throw a dart on the menu it’ll be good.
8. Uzumakiya Udon Izakaya
Great udon was pretty hard to come by for several years in the Bay Area, until the addition of Marugame Udon in San Francisco sometime last year. Fortunately for us in the South Bay, Uzumakiya Udon is a much closer and more convenient option to satisfy udon cravings.
There’s really only one thing to get here, and that’s the Uzumakiya Udon, a beef broth udon with slices of beef chashu, burdock root, and bok choy. To be frank, I was pretty underwhelmed by the Tsukemen (dipping udon served with a rich broth) so I wouldn’t stray too far from the regular beef broth udon.
I wasn’t expecting that much when I first tried the flagship udon. It looked like a super small bowl, but the portions are generous and hearty. The broth itself is savory, beefy, and comes out piping hot — I burned my tongue a few times there. The udon is chewy, and beef chashu tender. The underrated star of the dish is actually in the burdock root. They pack a surprising amount of flavor and they’re usually in every spoonful as you’re slurping down the last bit of your soup.
7. Mayflower Restaurant
Not to be confused with the Cantonese-style dim sum chain that commonly appears in Asian strip malls, this Mayflower Restaurant could be considered its lesser-known-cousin.
With the feel of a family-owned restaurant, Mayflower has pretty much all of the popular offerings of a Chinese takeout place. I like to go there for their XLB (Xiao Long Bao), their Zha Jiang Mian (black bean noodle), and their spicy chili wonton.
Best of all are these amazing pumpkin red-bean-filled dessert things. Apparently, they’re pretty similar to pastries you can get in Taiwan. Actually, my mouth is watering just thinking of it right now.
Mayflower’s a hit; anytime you feel like some comfort Chinese food, you should make it out there. And seriously, try those red-bean pastries.
6. Gaku Yakitori
If you’re looking for late night meat, stop scrolling through your contacts and come to Gaku Yakitori. This my favorite yakitori place in the Bay Area. In 2017, it was Sumiya, which is actually the sister restaurant to Gaku.
I like Gaku better because it opens later — til 12 midnight. Anytime that I’ve felt snack-ish for something meaty, salty, and savory, Gaku always comes to mind.
If you’re looking for late night meat, stop scrolling through your contacts and come to Gaku Yakitori.
If you’re not familiar with yakitori, it’s a type of Japanese skewered chicken, grilled over a binchōtan charcoal fire. You can get all cuts of the chicken: liver, heart, gizzards, knee cartilage (!), and of course thigh-meat. Sometimes I’ll treat myself to a skewer of tender beef tongue, too. The knee cartilage skewers have always been my favorite — it has a good contrast of texture in its crunchy cartilage and plenty of fatty meat for flavor.
I only come to Gaku for the skewers. I’ve tried other things on the menu before too, but really it’s the skewers that keep me coming back for my late night cravings.
5. Ramen Nagi (Valley Fair)
Ramen Nagi’s flagship “Original King” ramen is the definition of what a tonkotsu broth should aspire to be: a broth that was cooked and simmered over 20 hours to culminate in a creamy, savory, and umami work of art. It’s an intense, meaty bowl topped with sliced pork loin, garlic, green onions, and tree mushrooms.
The ramen shop deserves its infamously long lines. The location I’m recommending is in Valley Fair, although there’s one in Palo Alto that opened earlier this year. This international noodle shop got its start in Tokyo, where there’s already fierce competition in the ramen world.
They’re known for all sorts of experimental ramen, like the “Green King” and the “Black King”. Personally, I liked neither. The Green King tastes like a pesto soup, and the Black King tastes like it looks. Trust me and go with the “Original King”.
I haven’t really experimented with this myself, but you customize your bowl of ramen. You can get firmer noodles, chewier noodles, more pieces of meat, savory-er broth, spicer broth, you name it. There are all sorts of options, but usually, I’ll get the original with the chef’s recommendation, which is all “normal” selections down the middle.
If you want to get seated quickly, here are some tips: 1) Go alone or with one other person MAX, and 2) go an hour before closing time — that’s about 2:00pm for lunch and 8:30pm for dinner. I just went by myself yesterday and skipped a line of 15 people. Follow these tips and you’ll be seated with a delicious bowl of ramen within minutes.
4. Amami Shima Sushi
Whenever I’m feeling like big cuts of sushi, I look to Amami Shima Sushi. The restaurant is known for their affordable Omakase special — a ten-piece nigiri set for $36. Placed on a large marble-esque slate is myriad nigiri: a distinct orange Alaskan King Salmon, a torched lobster tail, a marbled fatty tuna, an overflowing negitoro, and more.
I once took a friend for his birthday who claimed to love sushi but refused to try the Omakase set. He felt that he wasn’t going to be satisfied or full. I insisted: he needed a true birthday experience, he needed to try it, and that he was only going to live once. After he gave in and the order came out, he stopped living with regrets.
As he was eating, I could see him savoring every bite, every chew. Each piece is massive, so it turned out to be filling for him. One by one, until ten pieces and some green tea later, he was grinning ear to ear with the unique pleasure of food happiness.
3. Arusuvai Indian Restaurant
Arusuvai is my go-to Indian restaurant. It’s nestled along Homestead Road, next to local-foodie-legends Sumiya Yakitori and Stan’s Donut Shop. It’s also conveniently located in the same plaza as a Safeway. I mention this because my usual routine is to go to Arusuvai, put leftovers in my car, then go to Safeway for groceries. Ideally, this happens on a Sunday, making it a full-blown errand experience.
My regular order is:
- Masala Dosa. A giant crepe/pancake with spiced potatoes inside. The creamy masala potatoes contrast its crispy dosa exterior. Unlike some other places, the masala dosa here is prepared full-sized.
- Tandoori Chicken. A sizzling hot-plate of tender tandoori chicken complemented by bell peppers, onions, and lime.
- Goat Biryani. A massive plate of spicy goat biryani made even spicier by its gravy. You’ll need the raita to balance its delicious heat.
It’s kind of a lot of food, but I usually end up taking enough leftovers to last two more meals. There are few better ways to spend a Sunday.
2. Cali Spartan Mexican Kitchen
Cali Spartan Mexican Kitchen, otherwise known as Spartan Tacos, is super popular with San Jose State University students as it’s only a few blocks off from the campus. It started off as the Spartan Taco Truck, a Mexican food truck that opened late, until 3:00am. The line was usually an amalgam of students dressed in sweats, women dressed in clubbing outfits, and me, dressed like normal. It’s a food-place for everybody, and with the addition of the brick-and-mortar, it’s now a food-place for any time.
The line was usually an amalgam of students dressed in sweats, women dressed in clubbing outfits, and me, dressed like normal.
Spartan Tacos are known for their “crispy tacos”, which are essentially tostadas. Each one has a fried tortilla base sturdy enough to hold the large quantity of meat, sauce, tomatoes, et al. placed on top. My favorite meat is the juicy and fatty cabeza (roasted head), but the lengua (beef tongue) and pastor (shawarma pork) are also good. Each bite packs a huge punch, especially if you top it off with the spicy roasted orange sauce.
This is a San Jose classic that trumps La Vic’s in my book. I’ve converted at least a dozen friends with this place. Bring cash, bring a friend, and spread the word.
1. Back A Yard Carribean Grill
Back A Yard earns my #1 spot for best San Jose restaurant in 2018. They offer Carribean-style meats galore: jerk chicken, jerk pork, beef oxtails, and even curry goat. But really, the name of the game is the juicy, tender, dark meat jerk chicken. Don’t ever get white meat here, how dare you.
A classic jerk chicken plate comes with two drumsticks, two thighs, rice, beans, and fried plantains. It’s also served with a small plastic cup of savory, spicy sauce — you’ll find that the chicken is already glazed with it. If you’re looking for a harder kick in the teeth, look for the bottle of mango habanero sauce, or ask the counter for one. I squirt the sauce all over my chicken, all over my rice, and proceed to simultaneously live and die from the savory heat. That’s where their delicious pineapple guava juice comes in; its sweetness kills off the heat and commits you to a vicious cycle of spice versus sugar.
I squirt the sauce all over my chicken, all over my rice, and proceed to simultaneously live and die from the savory heat.
There are two locations – one on Market Street, close to San Pedro Square, and the other on Capitol Expressway in South San Jose. The former has become my go-to place before a night of drinking, but I think the latter serves better portions.
If you mention that we’re going downtown, I immediately think of Back A Yard. I once went three times in one week. This is Carribean food at its finest.
Wrapping it Up
That ends my top 10 for San Jose in 2019. I’m really looking forward to 2020 for the Bay Area food scene — I try to keep up on what’s coming out and what I should try. Speaking of which, I didn’t even scratch the surface on my favorites outside of the San Jose.
How do you think? What are some restaurants that you couldn’t stay away from this year? If there’s a restaurant that you think I should try, let me know.