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Photographer Unknown

Notes From the Underbelly

San Jose

Riveting Experience No. 87

By Eric A. Carlson

"Any city gets what it admires,will pay for and, ultimately, deserves."
--"The New York Times" on the razing of Pennsylvania Station

ON A RECENT SUNDAY AFTERNOON, I girded my loins--a cumbersome and complicated procedure--and set sail for downtown San Jose to engage in some no-nonsense urban exploration. I parked near San Fernando and Third streets, and waded into the morass of earthquake-unretrofitted buildings, struggling left-for-dead local concerns and gaping holes where noble monuments are slated to rise into the sky. A sudden yelping of coyotes was a bit unnerving but turned out to be exuberant Raiders fans whooping it up at Waves Saloon & Smokehouse. A tumbleweed skittered across the street and bounced over a curb. I was alone in downtown San Jose.

I walked over to Almaden Boulevard and immediately made a significant find: a weathered photograph tacked to a wooden fence surrounding a construction site. The photo was grimy with dust and curled at the corners. The image depicted a rascal of a little girl perched on the grass, presumably at a family picnic. She held a silver fork to her mouth, and one knee was covered with a Band-Aid. Superimposed on the photograph, in red ink, was a single word: "phobia." On the back of the picture, in small caps, were the following directions: "as a means of bypassing the gallery system of artistic dissemination and value determination, i have made a small number of these works which will be posted publicly. if you have taken this down it is because it interests you or you feel it is an eyesore ..." The writer then suggests that comment and/or money be sent to a PO box in Oakland. It is signed B.P. Wherever you are B.P., your photo art is beautiful and mysterious. I sent you a letter, I hope you got it.

Later, I met up with John Olson at Inca Gardens on San Fernando Street for lunch. John has been threatening to move to Humboldt County to raise goats. I think he means it this time. John is one of the guiding lights on the Preservation Action Council (PAC) of San Jose, an organization very much in accord with my personal philosophy of "any change is for the worse." PAC and John are engaged in the eternal struggle to keep San Jose politicians and developers from extirpating all of San Jose's local businesses and historical buildings. Inca Gardens is a perfect example of a unique local concern fighting for its life in downtown San Jose.

Olga Encisco Smith is the owner of Inca Gardens (87 E. San Fernando St.), a restaurant featuring Peruvian and South American fare. This place is in the heart of downtown, in the old Lawrence Hotel Building, which also hosts a shoemaker, Woodruff & Thush Used Books and the swank Cinnebar cocktail lounge. Experiencing the décor and music of Inca Gardens are not unlike being in the heart of a tropical bird. And the food is so good, I was kicking myself for not having ventured in before. It is, of course, not receiving any nourishment, encouragement or promotion from the mayor, the Downtown Association or the Redevelopment Agency. Perhaps Inca Gardens is a bit too ethnic for the guiding lights of San Jose, or too downscale and affordable. Olga believes there is room for everybody: "Even the upscale is OK, but don't drive the small retailers out." Support a local business. Don't crawl, don't walk, but run to Inca Gardens and stuff yourself without breaking your wallet in half. If Olga is forced out of San Jose, I believe I will move to Humboldt County myself. The Borg will have conquered. Perhaps John and Kathleen and their goats will take me in--Kathleen is a baker of fine scones, so there are clear advantages.

Christina Waters wrote a glowing review of Inca Gardens in Metro, circa 1996. I made an effort to sample the same fare she did, which included a bottle of Cristal (a Peruvian Pilsener-style beer), a glass of chicha morada and a plate of chile-roasted pine nuts. The steak dishes are superb. And Christina recommends the papa rellana. Hell, it's all good.

Final Note: I made up the part about tumbleweeds blowing down San Jose's avenues. One needs to drive to Lodi for that kind of perfection.

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From the January 30-February 5, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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