Big taste in Little Saigon

By Jonathan Mendick, News Review

Bodhi Bowl’s vegetarian “shrimp” arrives on a plate, crescent-shaped and fried to a golden crisp, its seaweedlike aroma and flavor conjuring the sea.

Food from Mai Nguyen’s restaurant, Bodhi Bowl, located in the Little Saigon neighborhood in south Sacramento. PHOTO BY TARAS GARCIA

Mai Nguyen spent only weeks planning the vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant, which she opened near Stockton Boulevard in January. Now, her artfully plated vegetarian dishes encompass a wide range of the country’s food and attract a “diverse mix” of diners from outside of the neighborhood, she says.

Already, the restaurant boasts a four-and-a-half star rating on Yelp, but it’s hardly a neighborhood anomaly: Across the parking lot there’s Cafe Monaco, where elderly Vietnamese men socialize over ice coffee late into the night. Elsewhere, teens and young adults frequent popular karaoke spots, dessert cafes and bustling shopping plazas.

Those outside the neighborhood have also noticed. In recent years, as Little Saigon’s undergone a seemingly unlikely renovation, it’s turned into a must-visit destination for adventurous eaters.

Still, when Nguyen told people where her business was located, some asked, “Do I have to wear a bulletproof vest to go down there?”

Funny? Sure, but wry comments aside, these dozens of bright new restaurants like Bodhi Bowl along Stockton Boulevard signal a huge turnaround for Little Saigon, Sacramento’s only officially recognized ethnic neighborhood.

Now the area’s decades-old reputation as a dirty, crime-ridden, forgotten-about suburb is fading as foodies flock to the district in search of new, hip eateries, especially Vietnamese ones.

For Elaine Corn, a local writer and food reporter for Capital Public Radio, it’s no surprise Little Saigon has evolved into a foodie destination.

“People who enjoy food will go anywhere to get good food and explore,” she says.

A downward slide and then, a turning point

Terre Johnson sits at a small table inside Bodhi Bowl where a complex aroma, with hints of wet herbs, frying oil and peanut sauce, fills the air. A waitress brings fried faux shrimp and chicken, vegetarian spring rolls and egg rolls, each with its own tiny bowl of dipping sauce. With napkins, extra silverware, hot chili sauce, jalapeños, hoisin and Sriracha sauces—Little Saigon’s ubiquitous condiment selection—already spread in one corner, this table seems to hold a feast rather than a meal.

Johnson’s served as executive director of the Stockton Boulevard Partnership since 2008. It’s part of his job to help maintain the image of this organization’s Property and Business Improvement District, keep it safe from crime and make sure it thrives economically. Over the years, he’s seen the neighborhood’s ups and downs and says he enjoys taking advantage of the district’s culinary variety. His favorites include a pizza place with Russian-speaking owners near his office and a restaurant serving traditional Mexican menudo, which he often visits with his Latino relatives. Both are located on the 2-mile stretch of Stockton Boulevard between Fruitridge and Florin roads, Little Saigon’s official boundaries.

Back when Johnson first came to Sacramento from Monterey in 1972, however, he found a different place altogether. Then, the Florin Road area housed a vibrant, growing community. City dwellers flocked into the region’s new suburbs and the Florin Mall and Southgate Plaza boomed with development, he says. The area also housed several now-defunct department stores, including Weinstock’s and Rhodes—where Johnson worked at the time.

However, throughout the ’80s and ’90s, as employers such as Procter & Gamble Co. and the Sacramento Army Depot closed, people followed the jobs out of the area.

This created a vacuum, says Johnson. And that vacuum attracted trouble.

South Sacramento’s Huong Lan Sandwiches is one of Sacramento’s oldest banh mi shops, and it also sells grab-and-go food items. PHOTO BY TARAS GARCIA

“When shifts in populations adjacent to commercial corridors go through that kind of transition, it can’t help but have an impact,” he says. “Stockton Boulevard had an area of blight that was considered a magnet for a lot of miscreant behavior.”

Redevelopment funds started to kick in during the ’80s, Johnson says, but the area was still stifled by crime and neglect.

The neighborhood also became a new home for a large immigrant population that sought new life in low-income housing. Ethnic grocery stores and restaurants started popping up. Among the first were Viet Ha Vietnamese & Chinese Cuisine and Vinh Phat Market, both of which opened in the early ’90s.

But Little Saigon still hadn’t hit the bottom.

Read the full article by Jonathan Mendick from News Review.

Báo Người Việt hoan nghênh quý vị độc giả đóng góp và trao đổi ý kiến. Chúng tôi xin quý vị theo một số quy tắc sau đây:

Tôn trọng sự thật.
Tôn trọng các quan điểm bất đồng.
Dùng ngôn ngữ lễ độ, tương kính.
Không cổ võ độc tài phản dân chủ.
Không cổ động bạo lực và óc kỳ thị.
Không vi phạm đời tư, không mạ lỵ cá nhân cũng như tập thể.

Tòa soạn sẽ từ chối đăng tải các ý kiến không theo những quy tắc trên.

Xin quý vị dùng chữ Việt có đánh dấu đầy đủ. Những thư viết không dấu có thể bị từ chối vì dễ gây hiểu lầm cho người đọc. Tòa soạn có thể hiệu đính lời văn nhưng không thay đổi ý kiến của độc giả, và sẽ không đăng các bức thư chỉ lập lại ý kiến đã nhiều người viết. Việc đăng tải các bức thư không có nghĩa báo Người Việt đồng ý với tác giả.

Traditional meals for Tet

Titi Mary Tran/ Nguoi Viet English Tet, the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year, is this weekend - Friday through Sunday.  Relatives from overseas and out of states are arriving to visit loved ones and gather around their "anchored"...

Little Saigon prepares flower market for Tet 2018

Titi Mary Tran/ Nguoi Viet English WESTMINSTER, Calif. (NV) - When the sun sets on Thursday, owners of flower shops and Tet's games and trucks start pouring in Asian Garden Mall, preparing for the opening of Tet's flower market Friday,...

When going to the market is not a chore, but a joy

Titi Mary Tran/ Nguoi Viet English ANTONY, France (NV) - If going to the grocery market is a daily chore, a number of reasons would spring to mind: not enough time, two many options, ingredients are tasteless, generic modified food,...

Dual-language program hailed by parents, community

Don Luong’s son won’t enter kindergarten until the fall of 2019, but he’s already starting to think about his educati

Stephane Gauger, noted Vietnamese American director, die

Stephane Gauger, a Vietnamese American director known for his work in films including “Owls and Sparrows” and “Saigon Electric,” died Wednesday of heart failure. He was 48.

Contest updates:

The drawing and writing contest announcement has been sent to 5 school districts around Little Saigon.

Volunteers needed to serve on Orange County grand jury

The Orange County Superior Court is seeking volunteers to serve on the grand jury.

When there is no place to call home, home is where the heart is

Home is where the heart is. Home is where all the loved ones are with you.

Nguoi Viet Daily News announces writing contest for Vietnamese American children, teens

Nguoi Viet Daily News announces writing contest for Vietnamese American children, teens. Finalists' work will be published and awarded.

A Letter from London: Cinema and History

Lately, I haven’t wanted to follow anything related to Vietnam, including all the things people write about the Vietnam War.