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.

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