Big taste in Little Saigon

As foodie culture revitalizes south Sacramento's Little Saigon, some joke that you still need to wear a bulletproof vest to eat there

Mai Nguyen has helped revitalize Little Saigon—both as a community advocate and restaurant owner.

Mai Nguyen has helped revitalize Little Saigon—both as a community advocate and restaurant owner.

photo by taras garcia

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.

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.

Bodhi Bowl’s food, cooked by chef Helena Nguyen, attracts a diverse mix of diners from all over the greater Sacramento area.

photo by taras garcia

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

“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.

• • •

April 4, 1991, still stands as one of the most infamous days in the region’s history. That’s when four Asian-American youths held 41 people hostage inside a Good Guys electronics store on Stockton Boulevard, ultimately killing three.

Before three out of the four young men were shot and killed by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, they requested weapons, body armor and passage to Southeast Asia to help fight the spread of communism. Saigon, after all, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after it was captured by communist forces in 1976.

The hostage incident made headlines worldwide.

“There were a lot of turning points in the community, [and] that was a sad part of our history,” says Tido Hoang, owner of Tido Financial Inc., near the corner of Stockton Boulevard and 65th Street.

For some, the shooting represented the struggles of many in south Sacramento’s diverse immigrant community: struggles brought on by relocation from one country and its culture to another.

“Our history has always been [full of] war,” says Hoang. “Now [we’re] here, and you mean to tell me that everything is all clear and clean, and [we] can just focus on a new life and future? We are trying to make sense of being at peace in a foreign land.”

Still, Johnson says that he, as well as many others, has moved on.

“There are hundreds of positive things happening in the community today,” he says.

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

PHOTO BY taras garcia

Many of those changes were born out of efforts to respond to immigrant struggles with nonprofit mental-health groups such as Asian Resources Inc., Southeast Asian Assistance Center and Asian Pacific Community Counseling providing assistance and counseling to local residents.

Some of the most significant changes, however, sprung from sheer entrepreneurial will.

When Nguyen of Bodhi Bowl moved to the area in 2006, for example, she says the region was already home to a growing Vietnamese food scene. At the time, she had no restaurant experience—but she had fresh ideas.

Nguyen wanted to open a healthy place that was “calm and peaceful,” to reflect the feeling that a vegetarian diet had brought into her own life. Now, she says, new restaurants such as Bodhi Bowl don’t just fill a neighborhood niche, they represent a welcoming gateway to other communities.

“[Little Saigon] had so much to offer in terms of food,” she says. “[But] we have something that I know not many people have, and that’s why I did this. And I get customers from Folsom, from Elk Grove, from Roseville. That is really our goal—to have them come in and say, ’Oh, this is nice. I didn’t expect that.’”

Fixing the broken windows

Hoang wraps a spring roll with rice paper at Quan Nem Ninh Hoa and asks for extra fish sauce. Now in his late 30s, Hoang grew up in the Kennedy Estates Apartments, a fence-enclosed low-income housing project that’s located just down the street from this restaurant, near the corner of Stockton Boulevard and Elder Creek Road. When he settled in Sacramento more than 20 years ago, the area didn’t have as many eateries and shopping plazas as it does now, he explains, moments before finishing the spring roll and digging into a bowl of hu tieu—clear soup broth with shredded chicken, skinny rice noodles, bean sprouts and herbs.

“I remember biking on 47th Street with my dad when I first arrived in America, carrying what felt like 50 pounds of Three Ladies brand long grain rice sacks,” writes Hoang on, a website he created for the district. “I rode that same bike to My Tho Restaurant, where I would buy one order of hu tieu and ask for extra broth so I could share the portions with my siblings.”

With an uncle who already lived in the area to help his family settle into life in Sacramento, Hoang succeeded where some others didn’t. Eventually, like many in the Sacramento Vietnamese community, he went into business for himself. After earning a dual degree in psychology and economics from UC Santa Cruz, he opened Tido Financial in 2007 and eventually expanded with an Elk Grove location.

He says he always felt compelled to give something back to the community—this led to teaming with Nguyen to help boost the business climate.

“[When] I came in 2006, I knew that Stockton Boulevard was a hidden treasure,” says Nguyen. “People that I spoke with said this … was really an area that was pretty much abandoned, not noticed by the city and county.”

Actually, the city as well as the Stockton Boulevard Partnership had taken notice, uniting as part of a long-term collaborative effort with public and private groups, as well as ordinary citizens.

First, in the early 2000s, both the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and the Stockton Boulevard Partnership started promoting the district as an “international marketplace” with a logo on street banners to promote the area’s large influx of international businesses, says Johnson.

Even simple decorative touches, Johnson said, can prove crucial to change.

“We like [to follow] the broken-windows theory,” says Johnson. “If there’s a broken window, it could mean a lot of different things, [but one should] fix it immediately, so you don’t allow the next person to think, ’Oh, they don’t care about this. Let’s break the rest of them.’”

Terre Johnson, executive director of the Stockton Boulevard Partnership, stops by Huong Lan Sandwiches on the corner of Stockton Boulevard and 65th Street, one of Sacramento’s oldest banh mi shops.

PHOTO BY taras garcia

Rebranding efforts further increased when Nguyen, Hoang and other Vietnamese business owners formed the Little Saigon Committee in 2009. The group wanted to create a new identity for the region, one that would recognize the Vietnamese community, which owns approximately half of the 400 or so businesses in the area, according to Hoang. The committee moved quickly, and within a year, aided by Sacramento City Councilman Kevin McCarty and Sacramento County District Supervisor Jimmie Yee, the 2-mile stretch of Stockton Boulevard was officially named Little Saigon by February 2010—the first neighborhood in the Sacramento area to receive such distinction.

Nguyen—now the president of the Greater Sacramento Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, formed in 2011—continues to help Vietnamese-owned businesses work together to help bolster the area’s economic climate. And there are many others like Nguyen, Hoang and Johnson who are committing time and energy to improving the community.

Tim Do, an entrepreneur and founder of the Vietnamese American Community of Sacramento group, started organizing annual Vietnamese New Year festivals, or Tet, in 2004. These festivals bring parades and traditional Vietnamese cultural entertainment to the district. Do also opened up the new Vietnamese Community Center of Sacramento in July. The $2 million project is still in development but already features classrooms, a recreation room and a library.

In conjunction with the plethora of new shopping centers with Asian supermarket chains, community resources and myriad small businesses, the Stockton Boulevard Partnership and Florin Road Partnership brought in Paladin Private Security, a private security company, to patrol the street in the mid-2000s.

Even though Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department statistics show that dozens of crimes were reported in the area in the past month, local efforts have also helped stabilize its safety: Property crime and violent crime lowered by 26 and 33 incidents, respectively, from August 2011 to August 2012, according to statistics provided by Paladin.

There’s a direct correlation between such reports and business growth.

“Any time you can increase the population of [visitors], it’s naturally going to enhance the safety of the area,” says Matt Carroll, vice president of Paladin. “If you can get good people involved, it’s naturally uncomfortable for the bad guys.”

Certainly, there’s much good going on: Drive down the streets of Little Saigon after dark and find late-night karaoke, pho restaurants that serve the post-midnight clubbing crowd, and cafes offering coffee and desserts into the early morning hours. There’s even a 24-hour casino raking in gamblers’ cash.

All this stands in stark contrast with Oakland’s and San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhoods. There, most stores and restaurants close in the early evening, and tourists clear out because of the regions’ reputations as urban crime havens.

Meanwhile in Sacramento, more changes are on the horizon with new restaurants and shopping plazas currently in development.

Still, despite the growth and influx of visitors, the region “still hasn’t reached its full potential,” says Nguyen.

“Our goal is to make this the designated attraction to come to in Sacramento,” she says. “With all the groups working together, collaborating with each other, we can bring a vibrant economic growth and vitality to this area.”

Noodle heaven

Elaine Corn orders the No. 1 from the menu at TK Noodle. Soon, a salty bowl of hu tieu arrives at the table. It’s filled with beef balls, pork slices, shrimp, vegetables and wide, hand-cut rice noodles. She grabs a dipping plate, pours hoisin sauce into it and adds a few sliced jalapeños into her bowl of soup. Corn, petite and dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, explains that she likes to “mess it up” with a bunch of condiments.

“[Dining] is the best way to travel, [because] you learn about people [through food],” says Corn, a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and chef who’s been exploring area restaurants for 20 years. “They want us to have a nice meal. That is one thing you can learn about culture through food.”

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

It’s true. Little Saigon is all about the food, but the food world here is miles away—literally and figuratively—from restaurants in downtown Sacramento: You generally don’t know who the chefs are because they’re “hiding in the back,” says Corn. Sometimes you barely see the waiters. But the trade-off is a quick, cheap and tasty meal with a condiment selection on every table for diners to adjust the dish to their individual liking.

But with such a vast selection, some are left with the question of how to find good restaurants.

“If you see a line, then go,” says Corn. “A nice, busy pho restaurant is a great welcome. If you have to wait a minute, wait. Something’s going on there that’s good.”

She says that nowadays, there’s such a large number of restaurants in the area, the quality is good across the board. Accordingly, Corn’s comfortable picking a pho restaurant at random and eating there because “something just tells me to trust [them] all.”

“If there’s bad pho, it’s going to be very obvious.”

Corn says she’s also noticed that improvements in traffic flow and landscaping have created an overall feeling that Little Saigon is now a cohesive district. That, plus the sheer number of great Vietnamese restaurants make for a welcoming environment.

“The degree of artistry that goes into a cuisine like this gives you an example of how the culture feels about you as a customer eating their food,” says Corn. “They don’t give you stuff that embarrasses them; they want you to come back.”

After the meal, walking around the plaza that houses TK Noodle, Corn visits an orchid store whose owner she knows by name. Lastly, she wanders over to Shun Fat Supermarket, the shopping center’s anchor tenant, to peruse the produce.

“Food is the lure, then the shopping,” she says.

Instead of buying produce, she ends up spending most of her time in the kitchen-goods aisle. Here, she buys a rice-paper dipping bowl used to make spring rolls. Corn often makes her own rolls at home using leftovers from her fridge, bean sprouts and homegrown cilantro.

But is the neighborhood truly dangerous? What about those bulletproof vests that Nguyen heard jokes about?

There are safety issues in any area, Corn says. Besides, people will always seek out new restaurants, new adventures.

“K Street is dangerous and [has been] for a long time. Downtown can be dangerous. You’ve had people killed in front of the Crest Theatre. So [what]? Nothing’s going to happen here.”

Nguyen describes the crime in Little Saigon a bit more pragmatically.

“Reality still kicks in, and in the evening times—especially in the fall and winter times when it gets dark faster—I still see [prostitutes] walking by, I see drugs coming in [to the area],” she says.

“That’s why the Stockton Boulevard Partnership, the Florin Road Partnership and the Greater Sacramento Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce—these are all important organizations.”

Indeed, under the watchful eye of these community-minded groups—not to mention the restaurants, customers and residents—Little Saigon stands a solid chance of shedding its legacy of crime and blight.

“We came from pretty humble beginnings,” says Hoang. “But I’m optimistic that my generation is going to help build [a Little Saigon] not just for Vietnamese Americans, but all Americans.”