In a Men’s Journal interview, Anthony Bourdain shared his best advice for getting to know a destination: Head straight for the town’s central food market. “You see what’s for sale,” the late chef, writer, and travel icon said, “you see what’s in season, you see the fundamental color palette of a cuisine. You really get a sense of what a culture loves most dear.”
It’s hard to find fault with Bourdain’s strategy, but visitors to San Jose might want to make a slight adjustment and explore multiple markets when they first arrive in Northern California’s largest city. That’s because San Jose is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the U.S.—and one of the best ways to experience this rich culture is to explore the many international markets that celebrate these flavors.
Start your San Jose getaway by thinking about your favorite international cuisines: Dine at authentic restaurants, visit nearby historic sites that detail the history of those communities in San Jose, and browse the unique shops. Then, hit the markets for ingredients to create the cuisine yourself and to indulge in ready-made delights. Here are seven cuisines to plan your trip around:
Some of the Bay Area’s best Japanese food is in San Jose, such as the award-winning sushi at Sushi Confidential in downtown San Jose, or the heavenly Tonkatso ramen at Santouka—a gem tucked in the West San Jose branch of Japanese market Mitsuwa.
San Jose has its own Japantown, too, which is one of just three historic Japanese communities left in the United States (the others are in San Francisco and Los Angeles). To do your own tour of the area, start on Jackson Street, which is dotted with murals, benches, and plaques that tell the history of the area dating back to the 1900s. Visit the Japanese American Museum of San Jose to learn more about the contributions of Japanese Americans in San Jose. Then, take the museum’s app-based Hidden Histories of J Town neighborhood walking tour, which uses your phone and augmented-reality technology to illustrate Japanese history.
While you’re walking, browse Nichi Bei Bussan for kimonos, pottery, and unique gifts like tabi, Japanese split-toe socks. Stop in a branch of Nijiya supermarket for Japanese produce, sushi-grade fish, or ready-made sushi rolls. Nearby, Santo Market offers more Asian goods, including Japanese pickles, poke bowls, and Hawaiian cuisine. Don’t miss a stop for manju confections at Shuei-Do Manju Shop—even the Emperor of Japan came here during a recent U.S. visit for the delicious sweet rice treats. To sit down for lunch or dinner, head to local favorites Kazoo and Minato. After dark, enjoy another great Japanese import—karaoke—at 7 Bamboo.
Italian immigrants began arriving in San Jose and the surrounding Santa Clara Valley as early as the Gold Rush and continued to move here in the early 1900s to work at farms, orchards, and canneries. While there have been three Italian neighborhoods in San Jose over the years, the biggest presence today is set along three blocks within downtown San Jose, marked by its 31-foot Little Italy arch. To experience the neighborhood, start by sitting down for lunch or dinner at Paesano Ristorante Italiano, known for its fresh pastas and classic cannoli. To focus on wine, head to Solo Vino by Enoteca La Storia for tastings of domestic and international wines, paired with small plates.
For some Italian ingredient shopping, head southwest to Willow Glen—another longtime local Italian-American community—where Bertucelli's La Villa Gourmet Italian Delicatessen offers up plenty of cured meats, fresh ravioli, cheeses, and Italian groceries. Or, peruse the shelves and deli counter at Zanotto’s Family Market, with its imported dry goods and classic deli options like mortadella and meatball sandwiches (Zanotto’s has a location in the Rose Garden neighborhood too). At West San Jose’s Westfield Valley Fair mall, you’ll find Silicon Valley’s branch of Eataly, with its own pizzeria, pasticceria, and gelato counter.
San Jose is one of the few cities in the United States that has a “Little Portugal” neighborhood, a community whose history stretches back to the Gold Rush. Today, the four-block stretch between 33rd St. and U.S. Highway 101 is comprised mostly of restaurants and shops. Start at Five Wounds Portuguese National Church, the pretty 1914 parish that has become one of San Jose’s most famous landmarks. Take a selfie in front of the stained glass windows, then stop in neighborhood stores such as L & F Fish Market, where you can stock up on Portuguese rolls, seasonings, cheeses, and sausages. Then head to The Bacalhau Grill, which offers fresh seafood, Portuguese wines, and ready-made pork sandwiches called bifanas.
For an afternoon break, don’t miss Popular Bakery for custard-filled queijadas or Pateis de Nata (Portuguese tarts) paired with a coffee from nearby Café do Canto. Also, set aside one dinner to treat yourself to Adega, which earned San Jose’s first Michelin star and is only the second Portuguese restaurant in the U.S. to receive that honor. The family-owned restaurant—where the nightly tasting menu may include bacalhau (codfish) with cannelloni—offers the largest selection of Portuguese wines outside of their home country; indeed, “adega” means “wine cellar” in Portuguese. You can find more great Portuguese cuisine at ADEGA’s two sister restaurants in downtown San Jose: Petiscos by Adega serves what the Portuguese calls tapas—petiscos—while Pastelaria Adega offers up more tarts, sandwiches, and malasadas, or Portuguese doughnuts.
San Jose’s vibrant Middle Eastern community is scattered around the city, with some great spots located near Downtown. For an easy lunch, choose from falafel, gyros, and burgers and fries at Falafel's Drive-In in West San Jose. Finish your meal with one of their famed banana shakes—just one reason the spot has made an appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
For some ancient Middle Eastern culture, head to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, in the Rose Garden area. Housed in a building inspired by the Temple of Amon at Karnak, the museum has the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts—including jewelry and mummies—in western North America.
Ready to cook? In Willow Glen, International Food Bazaar offers an excellent butcher counter of fresh halal beef, chicken, goat, and lamb, as well as an enticing array of olives, spices, fresh pita, and ready-made kabobs.
Since San Jose is home to the second largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, it’s no surprise that the city has a thriving Little Saigon, located just southeast of downtown. It makes a great place to begin your explorations of San Jose’s Vietnamese community: Start at the Viêt Museum, which brings to life the stories of Vietnamese refugees who came to the U.S. in the 1970s.
Explore the upscale shops and restaurants of Vietnam Town and the pastries at The Sweet Corner. Next door, Grand Century Mall channels Vietnamese and East Asian culture from the shops to the food court. Nearby, Pho Ha Noi San Jose serves Northern Vietnam-style noodle soups such as pho bo (beef noodle soup) or pho ga (chicken noodle soup). To pick up your own pho ingredients, as well as fresh seafood, produce, and boba ice cream bars, head to Thein Thanh Supermarket on 10th St.
Peruse more Asian markets in the nearby neighborhoods of Alum Rock and Evergreen, such as the Filipino-style Manila Oriental Market, the Korean chain H Mart, and the pan-Asian McKee Seafood Supermarket and Lion Supermarket.
San Jose’s Indian community spans all of Silicon Valley, but there are a few key spots to explore, especially south and east of downtown San Jose. The Evergreen neighborhood is home to the Sikh Gurdwara Sahib, the biggest gurudwara, or Sikh worship center, in North America. Come for an all-are-welcome service, or just enjoy the sweeping views of Silicon Valley from outside. Then, enjoy a dinner at Swaad Indian Cuisine east of Japantown.
West San Jose’s Santana Row—known as the Rodeo Drive of San Jose—is home to Amber India Restaurant, which is a locals’ favorite for both classic and contemporary Indian cuisine, such as butter chicken, Hyderabadi chicken biryani, and cauliflower and cashew bezule. (Santana Row is also an excellent spot to enjoy more global cuisines, from the Taiwanese dumplings at Din Tai Fung to the Singaporean laksa noodle soup at Straits to the Spanish tapas at Oveja Negra.)
To make your own Indian feast, pick up naan, noodles, and sauces—or ready-made rotis, curries, biryanis, and samosas—at markets such as Heritage Indian Market in Sunnyvale, Desi India Bazaar in South San Jose, and the area’s various branches of India Cash & Carry and Trinethra Supermarkets.
In East San Jose, Mayfair provides the heart of San Jose’s Mexican-American community, in part because it was the former home of civil rights and labor activist Cesar Chavez. Start your explorations with a self-guided history tour along the four-mile Cesar Chavez Memorial Walkway, marked with small, olive-colored signs. The seven stops begin in downtown, at Plaza de Cesar Chavez, and include the Chavez home as well as Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the National Historic Landmark where Cesar Chavez organized activists. The finale is the Mexican Heritage Plaza, which often hosts performances such as the Aztec dancers of Calpulli Tonalehqueh.
When it’s time to eat, dig into classic tacos and burritos at Mayfair’s El Pirrin or browse San Jose’s Mexican supermarkets that tend to include their own taquerias and tortillerias. The Alum Rock area has a branch of the longtime family-owned Arteaga’s Food Center chain, while the city also has several locations of Chavez Supermarket. Two locations of Fresco Supermarket, one in the Mayfair area, offers gourmet cheeses, sausages, and homemade salsas, as well as an on-site panaderia and tortilleria.