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Explore San Jose’s Thriving Cultures

Explore San Jose’s Thriving Cultures

Three locals talk cars, cuisine, and a famously bizarre house

Posted 2 months agoby Katrina Hunt

Take a weekend drive through San Jose, and you’ll see how this Silicon Valley city is so much more than just a tech hub.

Cruise along Santa Clara Street to Alum Rock, says local artist Ricardo Cortez, “and you're going to see the city change from high-rise buildings to mom-and-pop shops, and some amazing eateries and bakeries.” You’ll likely also see some locals and their very cool cars. “On pretty much any Saturday or Sunday,” he says, “you'll find some low riders cruising around.”

On the latest episode of the California Now Podcast, Cortez and two other San Jose residents tell host Soterios Johnson about unique ways to experience San Jose. They emphasize the city’s lowrider car culture, its incredible international cuisine, and a downright fascinating mansion.

First, Cortez talks about lowriders, which began as part of Chicano “pachuco” culture in the 1940s. “Car owners would weigh their cars with concrete blocks or bags of rocks to create a profile that was lower in the back,” says the lowrider expert who’s also known as Tijuana Rick. “It was a form of self-expression, like a moving billboard." Today, he says, “lowriding is 100 percent an art form. There's so much skill and thought that goes into creating these cars, from the customization of the paint to the hydraulics that allow the car to go higher or lower.”

To see the current versions, Cortez suggests taking that drive to Alum Rock with a few stops along the way—like Mark's Hot Dogs. “It's this orange bubble that you walk into,” he says. “You order a footlong hot dog with the works, and a lot of times you'll see classic cars pull up.” He also recommends a few more museums, galleries, and parks to soak up the history and art of San Jose, from the César Chávez Family Home to Kelley Park, where you can see 32 original San Jose homes. “Some have been turned into museums,” he notes, “and there's everything from a trolley to an old ice-cream parlor.”

Next, Johnson chats with Walter Magnuson about a totally different aspect of the San Jose real estate scene: the Winchester Mystery House. It’s a 160-room Queen Anne Victorian that, as Magnuson says, “has bewildered people for the last 100 years.” Between 1886 and 1923, the house was continuously renovated by Sarah Winchester, the eccentric rifle-company heiress who was hoping to ward off evil spirits through sheer confusion.

“It has a lot of odd architectural features,” says Magnuson, the attraction’s general manager. “There are stairs that lead to the ceiling, doors that lead to nowhere, and skylights in the floor.” Some people believe the place is haunted, too. “There have been a lot of odd things that happen here,” he says. “It's never been a menacing, spooky kind of thing—it's more that you don't feel alone.”

You can take a variety of tours of the house—ranging from 25 minutes to a few hours—or take part in activities such as axe-throwing in the stables. People also just love exploring it because “it’s an architectural marvel,” Magnuson says. “We don't want it to feel old and dusty. We want it to feel very much like Sarah's still here—as if she just stepped away to lunch.”

The next guest proves that there are countless spots for a good lunch or dinner in San Jose, thanks to its wide range of international communities. Jessica Carreira, the head pastry chef at the Michelin-starred Adega, grew up in San Jose’s thriving Little Portugal neighborhood. She trained in Lisbon before coming back to San Jose to help open the restaurant with her family.

“We wanted to serve traditional Portuguese food,” she tells Johnson, “but present it in a more elegant way.” Adega also has an award-winning wine list, which is “all my dad,” she says. “He curated the list, which has over 500 types of Portuguese wine.” The family has also opened a nightclub Noite, the casual restaurant Petiscos, and the bakery Pastelaria Adega, the last showcasing pastéis de nata. “It's quintessentially Portuguese,” Carreira says of the egg-custard tarts. “It's a puff pastry shell, and inside it’s creamy, with lemon and cinnamon. It's very simple, but very special.”

Carreira shares her picks on her other favorite international restaurants around San Jose—including Swaad, an acclaimed Indian restaurant east of Japantown, and Acopio, a Mexican restaurant in Naglee Park.

“We have a huge Vietnamese community, a very large Mexican community, and a lot of Indian restaurants as well,” she says. “You go to Little Saigon and it's some of the best pho you'll ever have in your life. It's very fun to go out to eat in San Jose, because there's just so much to choose from.”

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