The Best Restaurants In San Jose guide image

photo credit: Carly Hackbarth

SJCGuide

The Best Restaurants In San Jose

Our favorite spots for nacho-style fries, plant-based Vietnamese, and burnt almond cake in San Jose, California.

San Jose’s restaurants have long lived in the shadow of San Francisco. But while SF gets all the column inches and hype, this city (the tenth largest in the U.S.) has a sleeper scene that’s less focused on celebrity chefs and flashy interiors, and more on truly excellent food.

The hub of Silicon Valley and home to multiple immigrant communities, San Jose’s food is distinctive and delicious. On this guide, you’ll find savory Vietnamese recipes like sizzling pâté-topped steak and eggs, spicy East African dishes like ingudai tibs, comforting Korean stone pot, and much more. And unlike in San Francisco, reservations are rarely needed (or even taken) at most restaurants.

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NICER SIT-DOWN SPOTS


Acopio review image

Acopio

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399 S 24th St, San Jose, CA 95116, San Jose
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It took almost a decade for contemporary Mexican restaurant Acopio to rise from the ashes of a taqueria that burned to the ground in 2012. It was worth the wait. Acopio feels like a modern Mexico City or Guadalajara restaurant with a menu that makes the most of California’s excellent produce. Dishes like chile adobo duck confit with pipian verde and lemon-thyme masa and mushroom and hibiscus flower tacos are so delicious they haunt our dreams. Reserve a table for dinner, when the succulent-and-tile-filled restaurant is buzzing, or drop in, grab a seat at the bar, and sip on a cocktail with agave spirits, chili, and tepache.


Adega, whose walls are lined with an unexpectedly elegant display of farm tools, has an intimate, rustic-chic atmosphere ideal for special occasions. The Portuguese restaurant in East San Jose uses local seafood and produce to put a California spin on classic dishes like arroz con mariscos and cauliflower, almond, and pear soup. The seven-course, $229 tasting menu comes with the option of one of three wine pairings—ranging from the $149 regular to the $499 reserve, all pulling from a wine cellar stocked with more than 500 Portuguese bottles. If you’re looking for something more casual, Adega’s spin-offs Petiscos and Pastelaria Adega are worth checking out.


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La Foret is located in a creekside boarding house that dates back to the mid-19th century quicksilver boom in the hills above New Almaden. This place is all about rustic French food and wild game is always on the menu—it’s one of the few Bay Area restaurants serving dishes like elk and wild boar—along with decadent wine- and butter-based sauces. At dinner, you can either go a la carte or choose from one of three tasting menus, but we’re partial to the six-course option for its seared scallops in saffron herb cream and elk loin in a portabella cognac reduction. Request a seat out on the stone patio just across from the 4,000-acre county park and feel a million miles away from any Silicon Vally tech bro.


CASUAL DINNERS


photo credit: Thane Phelan

Momosan review image

Momosan

OK, we know we said celebrity chefs aren’t exactly driving the San Jose food scene (they’re not), but one new restaurant is breaking the mold for the better. Whether you recognize Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto from TV, or have to ask the waiter who that guy on the giant mural is, his buzzy new Momosan is a great spot for a Japanese meal. Come for ramen fueled by dashis packed with pork, braised beef ribs, wood ear mushrooms, and soy-marinated eggs, but don’t stop there: the appetizers, including roasted duck tacos with apricot sweet chili, tuna sashimi pizza, and more mash-ups of French, Italian, Mexican, and Korean flavors, are worth ordering, too. Designed with sleek black accents, the perpetually busy restaurant works well for any situation or celebration, big or small.


Don’t be put off by the generic name and San Jose State-adjacent location: California Wet Burrito is a treasure of a taqueria that also happens to be a student favorite. Get their dry or salsa-drenched California-style burritos, made with french fries instead of rice. Our favorite is the Mazatlan, made with smoky chipotle fish, served dry, but the carnitas and shredded chicken options are also big hits. If you’re with a crowd, forgo the burritos altogether and get an order of their nacho-style fries to eat on the cute outdoor patio strung with colorful papel picado streamers. The restaurant is always busy taking orders, but groups can usually find a spot to sit with no trouble, even on weekend nights.


We love this low-key Korean joint for its classic soups and stews. You’ll find plenty of dishes that expertly balance spicy and sweet, like spicy fried chicken, stone pot dol sot, and budae jjigae with a broth studded with spam and American cheese. The well-lit dining room is pretty plain, but it’s large enough that you’re likely to find a table any time of day.


Most San Joseans will tell you that Zeni has the best Ethiopian food in town. We beg to differ. Yes, Zeni is fantastic, but Walia, a restaurant in a nondescript shopping center in West San Jose, has a wider-ranging menu of both classic and less-common dishes that are uniformly delicious. Dig into food loaded with flavor and spice in the dining room hung with floor-to-ceiling drapes and lined with portraits of legendary Ethiopians. Try the ingudai tibs, a mushroomy take on a meaty standard, or ayib, a zippy Ethiopian cottage cheese that we’ve rarely found elsewhere.


For more than 50 years, Falafel’s Drive-In has been a San Jose landmark. And while it’s neither a drive-in nor owned by a guy named Falafel, the mid-century fast-food joint is a local institution for a reason: falafel that is crispy on the outside, marbled with herbs and spices on the inside, and topped with a delicious housemade hot sauce. Better still, it all comes in a pita sandwich the size of your face for just $7. Grab a spot at a picnic table outside and don’t skip the fresh banana shake.


GOOD FOR GROUPS


There are two contemporary Mexican restaurants on The Alameda, but the one we keep returning to is Zona Rosa, with a menu of creative dishes like tempura scallop and asparagus tacos and chile relleno filled with carnitas and chorizo. We’re especially fans of the weekday Happy Hour when refreshing margaritas made with ingredients like prickly pear, hibiscus, and chili are just $8. The front and back patios are always great choices for large groups and celebrations.


The only thing better than a busy biergarten is a busy biergarten with excellent, bready German snacks. That’s exactly what you’ll find at Ludwig’s German Table, a Munich-style restaurant built into the historic music venue, Germania Hall. In addition to the requisite liters and boots of almost a dozen German lagers and pilsners, they’ve got a range of things to eat, from currywurst and sausage bites to elevated beer hall classics like spaetzle cheese croquettes. Make a reservation or risk waiting while the party goes on around you, especially during Oktoberfest.


Popular Caribbean joint BackAYard cooks up some ridiculously good jerk chicken. Since opening in 2004, they’ve added three more locations, including our favorite, a brick-walled fast-casual spot on the Capitol Expressway, and one with an outdoor patio adjacent to San Jose State. The atmosphere is easygoing and virtually everything is worth ordering—from the jerk chicken and beef oxtails to the Jamaican fried cornbread and daily specials like ackee and codfish. With plates and combos that range from $11-19, and snacks and sides under $10, you can (and should) try a little bit of everything.


This downtown restaurant serves up coastal Mexican cuisine with a side of live Norteño music. The stars of the show are the aguachiles, ceviches, and hearty seafood molcajetes, but if you’re craving something meatier, the menudo soup and taqueria classics hold their own. Grab a few friends for dinner, order up some double super chavelas, and get the party started inside the dining room or out on the oversized tented patio.


LUNCH


This Japantown restaurant is our go-to for comforting dishes like tangy teriyakis, breaded cutlets, and savory udons. Don’t expect any overly involved presentations—Gombei’s real strength is its simplicity. Even the space is pretty bare bones, with just a handful of tables that are easier to snag at lunchtime than during dinner hours.


Pho Ga Nha is a shrine to all things chicken. Though a relative newcomer to San Jose’s Vietnamese restaurant scene, their phở, made with free-range, local chicken in a delicate broth, is already on its way to legendary status. Hainan chicken rice and other dishes based on family recipes, like côm gà rô ti with red rice and egg, duck congee, and filet mignon- and tripe-filled phở tài sàch round out the menu. With nearly every dish costing under $15, Pho Ga Nha is, not surprisingly, always busy. Come in the mid-afternoon or after 8pm for the smallest crowds.


San Jose’s best city’s best bo ne, or sizzling pâté-topped steak and eggs, can be tricky to find—it’s inside a shopping center in Little Saigon—but Bò Né Phú Yên is worth getting a little lost for. The kitchen has the regional delicacy down to a science, perfectly searing its beef and serving it with a crispy on the outside, soft on the inside baguette.


This restaurant puts a spotlight on hot and spicy Somali food. Although Jubba’s flavorful goat, beef, and chicken dishes share some of the flavors found in greater Africa and India, they are something entirely unique. It’s worth a visit even though the dining room is often hectic and waits can be longer than when ordering food to go. Free hot tea laced with ginger and cardamom makes the slow service a little easier. Try going for lunch on a weekday to beat the rush on the weekends and at dinner.

Green Lotus is a plant-based Vietnamese spot in a small sunlit space in the Little Saigon shopping plaza where we like to go for lunch or an early solo dinner (they close at 8pm). Dishes like caramelized faux fish claypot and sweet and sour hotpot bring all the Vietnamese flavors you’d expect, just without any meat. The crowd is a mix of in-the-know locals and monks from the nearby monastery.


BEST SPOTS FOR TAKEOUT

This food truck run by a husband and wife team serves popular street foods like bean-topped mamelas, potato and chorizo molotes, and crispy tlayudas alongside harder-to-find plates of yiki and barbacoa cooked underground in a stew thick with red chiles and corn. Monday through Friday (and some Saturdays) the truck is posted up outside a gas station for lunch and dinner. Grab it all to go, and check their Facebook page for location changes.


This old-school deli and grocer in Willow Glen is your San Jose stop for all things Italian. Their extensive menu of sandwiches (get the meaty Italian Combo) pales in comparison only to their prepared foods, a smorgasbord of cannelloni, lasagnas, and handmade ravioli that run the gamut from meat and spinach to lobster. Browse the shelves of dry goods and bottles of Italian reds while you wait. You’ll probably have to stand in line, but it moves fast—the friendly staff know how to hustle.


This nearly 100-year-old bakery’s claim to fame is the invention of burnt almond cake, a local favorite that’s filled with custard and rolled in toasted nuts. While no one knows for sure if Peter’s originally came up with the recipe, there’s no disputing that their version is the best in town, and it’s our go-to for everything from special occasions to unexpected sugar cravings. Peter’s also makes a huge selection of other cakes, cookies, pastries, doughnuts, and pies, along with holiday specials like hot cross buns and German stollen bread. You can’t skip the line if you order in advance online, but at least it might stop you from bringing home one of everything.


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