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Our Utopia

Eating abroad at home, on South De Anza Boulevard

By Stett Holbrook

A LONG time ago, I purchased my first BMX bike in a shopping center on South De Anza Boulevard near Prospect Avenue. Up the road was California Surfer, a surf and skate shop where I hung out. Both stores are long gone now. The bike shop is a Chinese restaurant now, and the surf shop is a ginseng and Chinese herb store. But I welcome these changes. Especially when I'm hungry.

This section of De Anza Boulevard, which runs between San Jose and Cupertino, has been transformed by Chinese immigration into one of Silicon Valley's best neighborhoods for Asian food, particularly Taiwanese food. Back when I was popping wheelies, the most exotic food I ate in the area was at Taco Bravo, home of the "bun beefer," which I realize now wasn't even Mexican food but just a glorified sloppy Joe.

For a great sampling of the area's culinary transformation, the shopping center once home to my bike shop is the place to go. It doesn't have a name, at least not an English one. It used to be anchored by an Alpha Beta supermarket but has been carved into a number of restaurants and businesses that cater to the area's Chinese community. I could spend days grazing in the food court at 1600 S. De Anza Blvd. Inside there's a casual sit-down restaurant called Food Topia serving a great menu of Taiwanese and Chinese food. There's a buffet restaurant, Sunny Tasty, serving much of same stuff as Food Topia only not as fresh. There's also an excellent bakery and Q Cup, a milk tea shop. You can also shop for sandals, herbs, jewelry and real estate.

The walls of Food Topia are papered with signs written in Chinese describing the menu and specials. There is also an English menu, and if you're lucky, the friendly waitress Sandra will be there to make recommendations. On a rainy day, she suggested the beef noodle soup ($4.95), or niu rou mian if you want to order it in Chinese. While the noodles aren't homemade, the broth is deep and rich and the beef tender and flavorful. Just as good is the pickle and fish fillet soup ($5.50). Made with pickled Chinese cabbage and sparkling fresh cod, the opaque soup has a light tang and clean, refreshing flavors. I asked for some Taiwanese specialties, and Sandra suggested the fried chicken roll ($3.50) and the pork heart ($3.95). The fried chicken roll isn't made of chicken at all but seasoned ground pork wrapped in tofu skin. The tofu, which comes from the top layer of soy milk as it's being made into tofu, is wrinkled and blistered and could pass for fried chicken skin. It's great, especially with the spicy sweet-and-sour sauce. The pork heart, which is meat from outside the heart, takes a little getting used to, but the accompanying garlic-peanut sauce would make anything taste good.

Sogo Bakery, located at the entrance of the food court, bakes a huge variety of Western and Asian pastries. The pork sung bun ($1.25) is a donutlike pastry filled with a rich, sticky paste of ground pork, five-spice seasoning and other stuff. It's quite good. But best of all was the Portuguese egg custard ($1). Served in a tiny, flaky crust, the custard is as rich and creamy and delicious as any I've had. Crème brûlée and pot de crème, you've been beaten.

A few storefronts down from the Taiwanese food court is Sogo Tofu. This small store turns out an astounding variety of tofu and soy milk products, all made with organic soybeans. Behind the small store is a full-blown factory that turns the magic beans into dozens of sweet and savory creations. Whether you're a vegetarian or not you need to sample some of the wares at this tofu specialty shop. Head right for the counter to look over the array of prepared dishes. If it's available, order the tofu skin with green beans, tomatoes and noodles ($3.49). Tofu skin is something of a tofu delicacy and its multilayered texture adds an interesting squiggle to each bite. Seitan (wheat gluten) with pickled vegetables ($3.49) is also a winner. And don't miss the delicious, tiny, spongy bread sandwiches filled with fried tofu and peanut sauce (50 cents). Think White Castle burger only with no meat. And tastier.

The changes on De Anza Boulevard have been good to the belly of Silicon Valley. Goodbye, bun beefer. Hello, niu rou mian.

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From the December 29, 2004-January 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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