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Pho Town

By Stett Holbrook

What is Silicon Valley food? New Orleans has its gumbo, Chicago's got its hot dogs and Texas is known for its chili and barbecue. And here in Silicon Valley? We've got squat.

As one of the largest and most diverse metropolitan areas in the country, Silicon Valley needs a dish to call its own. Before housing subdivisions and corporate office parks paved over Santa Clara Valley, the area was affectionately known as the Valley of Heart's Delight. The name harkens back to the fruit orchards that thrived in the region's fertile soil and world-class climate. I have a friend from Sunnyvale who still gets a faraway look in his eyes when he remembers the cherry orchards of his youth. You'd think this agricultural heritage and the now defunct canneries that went along with it would have spawned a beloved local specialty. Cherry pie? Plum tart? Fruit leather? Nope. Nothing.

I say it's time to put a dish on Silicon Valley's culinary map. There are three criteria needed to establish a dish as a regional specialty. First, and most obviously, it has to have started locally. San Jose may be a good burrito town but it's never going to claim title as the burrito capital of the world because we didn't invent them here or make them best (San Francisco lays claim to that honor). Second, the dish has to have wide appeal. Fremont's Afghan restaurants may do a great job with sautéed lamb's brain but its appeal is rather limited. And third, a local specialty must be popular and not a throwback dish that no one eats anymore. Hardtack and salt pork were haute cuisine during the westward expansion but the attraction of those frontier victuals has faded.

With that in mind, I nominate pho as Silicon Valley's specialty of the house. If you think there's another local specialty that better represents us, Live Feed wants to hear it.

The arrival of Vietnamese immigrants here in the 1970s and the subsequent proliferation of Vietnamese restaurants introduced us to this wonderful, aromatic beef noodle soup. Now you can get a bowl of pho, pronounced "fuh," far and wide but Silicon Valley, and San Jose in particular, is where it's made best and where it was made first in the United States. (OK, Orange County has a large Vietnamese community too, but the OC is already known for Disneyland and as the birthplace of Richard Nixon).

Silicon Valley is home to dozens of pho restaurants. In San Jose, PHO HOA has grown from a one-restaurant operation into a chain that's taken the exotically spiced soup worldwide. Others are following suit. Restaurant chains like El Cerrito-based ZAO NOODLE BAR, ASIA FRESH of Minneapolis and Atlanta's DOC CHEY'S NOODLE HOUSE all serve versions of the soup.

So when you have friends or relatives in town and they want to eat the way the natives do, head for a local pho house and tell them it's Silicon Valley's signature dish.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the December 8-14, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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