Lunch With Tony
By Gary Singh
AS YOU READ THIS, the inaugural Silicon Valley Restaurant Week will have commenced. With such a variety of eateries in the valley, where does one begin? For me, the choice was easy: Alviso. Usually, this off-the-radar locale attracts lunchtime refugees from the concrete jungles of Cisco and TiVo right down the street, as high-tech development inches closer to what was once the last bastion of the simple life. Plus, a new restaurant called Lunch With Tony recently opened up, so off I went.
If you don't know Alviso, it was the South Bay's original port 150 years ago. To get there, just go all the way up First Street in San Jose until it ends near the salt flats. A primeval frontier from eons past, Alviso is a specimen pinned on the board, a discarded community that has irked San Jose's Department of Building, Planning and Code Enforcement for decades now.
Especially on a weekday at 10am when I recently visited, Alviso is the most desolate place anywhere around here. Bored seagulls hold court. Hallucinations of tumbleweeds begin to emerge. Sounds from roosters and distorted Mexican music emanate from unidentifiable places. It is the home of Vahl's, the celebrated throwback restaurant that makes O.J.'s look modern. And old-timers in these parts have detested San Jose ever since the city annexed Alviso in 1968.
Lunch With Tony occupies a parcel that can only be referred to as a microcosm of Alviso itself: A vacant lot sits across the street; taco trucks occupy the parking lot next door; across another road one finds the ever-encroaching cookie-cutter condos. The cafe is easy to find—you know, the 5200 block of First Street. Owner Tony Santos graduated with a business degree from Santa Clara University, but after becoming disenchanted with the corporate life, he went and got another degree from the California Culinary Academy.
"I knew right away who I was as a chef," he says. "No! to fine dining and white tablecloths. Yes! to gourmet, tasty but completely approachable food."
Tony comes from a legendary and colorful family of Alvisans. His grandfather Tony P. Santos served time as mayor and police chief way back when Alviso was still its own city. He passed in 2004 and a street now bears his name. Tony's uncle, Richard Santos, currently sits on the board at the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
After I showed up for some curried lentil and butternut squash soup, Tony's dad, also named Tony, rolled in with a pile of historic photos. Together, the father and son buried me with Alviso history, with the elder Tony managing to bash 40 years of San Jose politicians in a span of 15 minutes. It was fantastic.
"City workers have always been prejudiced against Alviso," the elder Tony told me, adding that if you grew up in Alviso, you were treated as a second-class citizen by folks in San Jose. "They could tell where you were from by the mud on your shoes," he said. "It was embarrassing."
I've heard some of these stories before. Alviso history is, um, awash in floods, environmental mismanagement, code violations, battles over slough restoration, property-owner soap operas, city and county neglect, economic conflicts of interest and much more. It goes way back. The Santos family owns mucho property in Alviso, and Tony loves to recount hostile exchanges with folks in the Planning Department, who he says are endlessly splitting hairs over nonsensical issues. Because they hate dealing with Alviso.
Anyway, the building now housing Lunch With Tony used to be a bar in the '40s, simply called Tony's. The current Tony eventually plans to cover one wall with the historic photos. When all is said and done, the people of Alviso just want the area to be properly preserved and attended to, while still retaining its small-town feel. However, the elder Tony cautioned, in some cases, that the seeds of progress just cannot be stopped.
"Vahl's now accepts credit cards," he said.