Quán Nhậu: The Secret Bars of San Jose
Hidden from view in East Side neighborhoods are Vietnamese restaurant bars frequented only by those in the know. De-Bug writer Patrick Thanh An Ngô gives us a rundown of what these establishments are and who goes there.
Throughout the Vietnamese community in San Jose there are businesses that operate on the edges of the law. I’m not talking about criminal or organized gang activity. I’m talking about Vietnamese quán nhậu which are basically Vietnamese restaurant-style bars (Vietnamese “coffee shops” are a different discussion). For the average person that wants to get some drinks in San Jose, you head downtown. Most bars and clubs exist primarily in downtown San Jose. It’s the place to go to lounge, bar hop, watch live comedy, and hit up dance spots. And downtown gets packed on the weekends. There are alternative places where Vietnamese people go to drink all over East San Jose and the general population have no idea these places exist. They are businesses that Vietnamese people call quán nhậu and they are hidden in plain sight.
In Vietnamese, the word nhau carries a cultural meaning. The word itself means “to eat and drink.” It can be beer, rice wine, or any type of hard liquor. And when we drink, we love to eat. The food can be anything from fried foods, soup to intestines. Quán basically means a restaurant or some sort of store. So the word quán nhậu literally means “a restaurant in which you drink and eat.” In Vietnam, the quán nhậu restaurants are more in the open. The more mainstream places will be brightly lit with live Vietnamese singers on stage. Many places people will nhau in the street with friends. There would be hot pot seafood on the side of the curb drinking beer, sitting on small plastic chairs. With family in Vietnam, I had the opportunity to nhau with my relatives. Cousins went out to purchase a crate of beer and a huge block of ice. With over a dozen aunts, uncles, cousins, and loved ones, we sat in a circle, drinking, eating beyond full and celebrating life. The quán nhậu in San Jose, I would say carries a certain image. Back here in San Jose, it might even be part of society that’s accepted by some but not all people.
These businesses exist throughout San Jose, if you live or work in the area or just dropped by the East Side to get some phở, you’ve probably have passed one without noticing it. They are next to restaurants, they are next to grocery stores, they are next to nail salons, they are behind Chuck E Cheese. Although the tinted windows may exclude them from your normal American store/restaurants, they are not as common as liquor stores, but definitely not in short supply.
Hidden behind tinted windows, these businesses are often mistaken for a normal restaurant with some interior lighting issues. But I can assure you, this is no typical restaurant or bar; the experience is unique. The moment you sit down in the dimly lit restaurant, Heinekens are dropped on your table before any menu or request for any other type of beverage. Beer is filled into glass mugs with ice. Yes, ice. Its a custom that comes from Vietnam, because there it’s cheaper to purchase giant blocks of ice rather than refrigerating beer. Tobacco smoke hovers in the restaurant like it’s still legal. Depending on which place you go to, there will be a mix of Vietnamese, Paris By Night, Chinese Melodies, Euro Dance beats, and Hip Hop music playing. Eventually the karaoke will make its way towards the end of the night. The waitresses are usually very attractive Vietnamese women, dressed in revealing clothing, high heels with Barbie doll makeup. In many places they will come around and sit at your table and talk to the customers. The food is usually a great mix of what we call the typical nhau food. They have hot pot soup where you throw everything in; fried squid, french fries, this amazing raw beef dish, and tons of other food that go well with drinks. Its food quantity doesn’t come cheap, but quality never does. As long as you keep drinking, waitresses will keep cracking open bottles to refill your mug as empty cardboard boxes at the foot of your table will start to fill with empty glass Heineken bottles.
The term quán nhậu evokes negative connotations in many Vietnamese households. The unique culture is hidden and unspoken to mainstream San Jose. Most of them are modeled after the more edgy quán nhậu from Vietnam. There are bars there that will not be frequented by those outside the Vietnamese community. I know quite a few Vietnamese people that grew in San Jose and have never step foot in one of these bars. Their parents wouldn’t approve if they went into one of these places because the nature of some of these businesses operate on the edges of the law. Some will consider these places filled with alcoholics, gangsters, and not the type of girl you would bring home to your mother. Many places don’t card when guests walk in. The result of all this is under-aged drinkers present in certain bars, but not most. The places that have a younger crowd (20s) often have many patrons that are involved in gangs or part of that lifestyle. The Vietnamese bars were a result of several Vietnamese homicides and drive by shootings last year. Poverty, gangs, short tempers, alcohol and dark lit places that operate on the edges of the law don’t mix well, especially on the East Side of San Jose. None the less the nhau quans that have drama are the minority. The occurrences are not as often as people might think. Most places people just drink, smoke, eat, sing karaoke, and have fun. I’ve been to many places where the restaurant is a place to unwind after work. Coworkers, colleagues, and friends come out after a day of work to have a couple of drinks and eat excellent food.
A hidden treasure or a sore on society? You be the judge. They are ingrained in part of the Vietnamese culture and have etched their way into society here in San Jose. A place where drama and mishaps may ensue but good drinks go with good food and good food will spring great conversations. Accept it or not, it's how the Vietnamese community stays together here in San Jose or anywhere they exist.
Patrick Thanh An Ngô is a writer for Silicon Valley De-Bug.
Photo courtesy of vnexpress.net.
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Neat article. I grew up on the east side and always wondered what the whole story was with these shady little spots. And i don't use "shady" in a derogatory sense, they were literally darker than would seem appropriate, always. So there's always been a kind of dingy-seedy cloak of mystery hovering around them, but now the cloak is (somewhat) lifted. Now, is it normal for white dudes to patronize these establishments?
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