There are about 450,000 Vietnamese people in California – the largest population of all the fifty states. Most people know of Little Saigon in Orange County and the maybe-soon-to-be Little Saigon in San Jose. Our eyes are drawn along the coastline but there’s a burgeoning Vietnamese-American population in Sacramento, the state capital.
You may think that Sacramento (or Sacto as the locals call it) is an unlikely place for Vietnamese people. But hey, that’s where the Vietnamese nail salon businesses first got started after actress Tippi Hedren, who regularly visited the refugees there, decided that Viet people had the knack for nails. On a weekly basis, Hedron flew in her nail person to teach Vietnamese refugees how to get started in the profession. (Read details in the LA Times article on the history of Vietnamese nail salons.)
But that’s not what drew me to Sacramento a while ago. I’m fascinated by suburban enclaves of Asians because that’s where you can experience the most unexpected things – and some of the most wonderful foods too! Immigrants don't all settled in urban ghettos these days. As it turns out, Asian are more likely to be suburban than other ethnic groups. Who doesn’t want good schools, larger homes, and room to do whatever you please?
In Sacramento, the hub of the Vietnamese community lies along a two-mile stretch of Stockton Boulevard, located on the outskirts of the city. It’s downright sleepy, as is most of Sacramento, but an economic revitalization and building boom is underway. At the top of the quiet corridor, near Fruitridge, the 1960s-era Asian kitsch is a little worn down at the Chinatown Plaza, but inside the cavernous King Palace restaurant on a Saturday, it was a cacophonous scene of happy families tucking into freshly prepared dim sum. Nearby, my husband and I found a Vietnamese radio station, Lao community center, and casino. On side streets was a Fijian market, and a brand new Vietnamese temple, Christian church and Islamic center.
S acramento is one of the more integrated places in the nation, according to Time magazine a number of years ago, and I was experiencing it. In fact, on Stockton, there’s a Taco Bell and a Wienerschnitzel. A KFC sits next door to the tidy and splendid Vinh Phat market, where produce is beautifully fresh. The long beans, eggplant, and water spinach made my knees weak. Tons of vegetables being sold most likely came from nearby farms, many of which are cultivated by Southeast Asians.
Given the multiethnic mix of businesses and patrons, I never expected good food but there was surprisingly well-crafted pho noodle soup at Pho Bac Hoa Viet. The bowls are humongous and can easily two people. According to Hewn and Hammered, Sacramento’s pho offerings rocks.
Beef pho is such a big deal and there’s so much competition for good bowls that people have gotten creative. Yes, there are crawfish places. But I met a young man who was focusing on high-quality chicken. His restaurant, which was kind of like a nightclub in that funny Viet way like you’d encounter it in Vietnam, had an amazing menu of chicken dishes – pho, rice dishes, and chao rice soup. He even had bun thang, a noodle soup from Hanoi, which he sadly said people don’t know about so he had to give it up. Topping it off was that he made his own fine banh hoi noodles. The restaurant is upstairs toward the side of the Chinatown Plaza.
Even more remarkable was the super fresh Vietnamese baguette at New Paris Bakery and Café in the Pacific Rim Plaza, which cost $2 for 6 baby loaves. We ordered a couple of banh mi sandwiches for the drive westward back home and the bread was perfectly light and crisp. I would have like more mayo but the bread was so fresh and good, like in Vietnam. The bread actually froze well, which I’ve never experienced before in Vietnamese baguette.
Sacramento is a major city that’s a small town in feeling. People are super friendly, easy going and open, perhaps a reflection of the agricultural surroundings. The farming and ranching that goes on nearby no doubt keeps people in touch with their traditional foodways. At the same time, they are looking forward. In fact, diagonal from the shopping center where New Paris Bakery is the Florin Towne Centre, a new huge open air mall that once finished, will be anchored by a Wal-Mart Supercenter. That’s a lot of new customers for pho and banh mi.
For more information on other Asian enclaves in California, see Saveur magazine's June 2008 road trip issue. That fried chicken recipe is delish, by the way!