Success Reflects Back on an Original
535 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
(South of Japantown)
Open daily, 10 a.m.–3 p.m., 5–9 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
If there were a so-called dynasty behind the elegant Vietnamese restaurants Tamarine in Palo Alto and Bong Su in San Francisco, you could trace its roots to a non-descript, old coffee house-looking restaurant at the corner of East Santa Clara and 12th Streets in San Jose. That’s where you’ll find Vung Tau, the restaurant whose family went on to open two other similarly named restaurants in Milpitas and Newark and the aforementioned fine dining establishments.
Vung Tau was started by Chac Do in 1985 and since then it has grown into the Vung Tau Group, where family members have gone on to open and manage various Vietnamese restaurants around the Bay Area. I used to eat at Vung Tau when I worked in San Jose, and recently returned after many years for lunch with my friends Jessie and John.
The interiors were noticeably spruced up from what I remembered—a clear sign that the family is doing well with their many restaurants and they’ve funneled money back to where it all started. But it wasn’t really the renovated surroundings that caught my attention when I first walked in; it was the strong aroma of grilled meat that hits you like a brick wall. No matter how dressed up Vung Tau has become, I knew from the smell that it was still about the food.
Vung Tau offers an extensive menu with more than 120 items, ranging from the typical pho and bun dishes to rice plates and claypots (including a couple of frog leg entrees that I wished I had seen earlier before I ordered my lunch). Its flavors are typically Southern Vietnam (well, it is named for a resort beach town in South Vietnam after all) with a few Hue-inspired dishes from the central region.
We started with a plate of Cha Gio, the fried egg rolls that are served with lettuce leaves that you can wrap around the roll with some herbs. Since I don’t really eat fried foods, I only ate one roll. But it was the most plump and crispy egg roll I’ve had in a long time.
For our lunches, Jessie ordered the Tam Bi Suon Cha, a rice plate with a slice of omelet, shredded pork and grilled pork chops all over broken rice. It was the Vietnamese version of brunch food. I didn’t really remember the name of John’s dish, but it was similar to chicken curry with rice. John actually didn’t like the various spices in his dish, but I liked the aggressive flavor. It definitely wasn’t a dish I would expect to find in a Vietnamese restaurant (probably more Indian or Thai), but I thought it was nicely done.
I kept it simple for myself and ordered the Bun Thit Nuong, or grilled pork over rice noodles. This was typically the dish I ordered when I used to go to Vung Tau for lunch a few years back. I always enjoyed drizzling the fish sauce-based dressing over the bowl of pork and noodles, and then discovering the fresh herbs and pickled vegetables in the bottom of the bowl. Mix everything together and its like a refreshing noodle salad.
In this visit, the bowl of bun seemed larger from what I remembered, with a lot more noodles but less variety in the vegetables on the bottom. (I missed not having strips of cucumber.) It’s hard for me to eat a bowl of bun these days without being critical of the noodles since I ate the best bowl of bun at this Vietnamese restaurant. I like the noodles to be fresh and loose, playfully dancing in my bowl. But in most restaurants in the Bay Area, the noodles are sticking together in a clump, oftentimes because the noodles are prepared ahead of time and divided into serving portions to help the kitchen deal with the lunchtime rush.
Despite the noodles being a big clump of white carbs, the thinly sliced pieces of grilled pork on top were delightful. It had the slightest glaze of fish-sauce and sugar and was cut thinly to make the eating experience enjoyable.
Side note: Service was friendly and attentive. We had a late lunch and it was near the end of the lunch crowd, so the restaurant manager even stopped by our table to see how our lunch went.
After all these years, Vung Tau still draws the crowds of Vietnamese families looking for traditional dishes in a beautiful setting. While some might dispute the authenticity of some dishes (changed up I’m sure with California flavors), they’re still very tasty and filling. The prices are probably $1 or $2 more than what you might pay for at a hole-in-the-wall in the Tenderloin, but it’s still a worthwhile trip to visit an original.
Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (hearty family meals)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner