Like many who dwell in the northern reaches of Alameda County, I can go for months on end without giving much thought to the south-county city of Fremont. If I do call up a vision, it’s of the endless subdivisions and strip malls that replaced former farms and vineyards when the region became a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. But as a gal with a hankering for multi-cultural eating born of worldwide travel, I have not been able to ignore rumblings about good eats in Fremont, both exemplary meals that represent the city’s diverse cultural traditions and unusual fusion items, like Lahori burgers and chicken tikka pizzas.
These reports prompted several south-county treks last fall, most often with my teenage kids in tow. There in Fremont, we discovered a fascinating and surreal treasure: a global village plunked down in the middle of the suburbs. The strip malls abound, but they seem more attractive to my eyes when populated by lively restaurants and shops full of items that speak of places I once thought of as far away. In Fremont, Mexican markets, pearl tea joints, halal butchers, and Indian grocers stand shoulder to shoulder in the strip malls. A typical Yelper’s comment: “It’s like someone dropped a Pakistani restaurant on top of a MacDonald’s.” Most of Fremont feels this way.
Fremont has a history that’s pretty typical for California: Native American past; Spanish and Mexican Mission period; the gold-rush era, when people poured in from all over the globe; and the ongoing absorption of folks seeking a different life on this edge of the continent. But it was in the 1970s that a dramatic demographic shift began to take place in Fremont, as huge numbers of Pacific Islanders, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Indians, and Filipinos arrived for a variety of reasons. Now home to the largest Afghan community outside of Afghanistan—a detail also noted in Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 novel The Kite Runner—and the nation’s second-largest Sikh community, today’s Fremont shows fewer than one-third of its residents as white.
In 1797, Mission San Jose, the 14th of the 21 Spanish Missions in California, was established at a place known today as 43300 Mission Boulevard, northwest of Mission Peak. John C. Fremont mapped a trail through Mission Pass 50 years later, providing access for American settlers to the lands along the San Francisco Bay. Washington Township was established soon after (1853), taking in the communities of Mission San Jose, Centerville, Niles, Irvington, and Warm Springs. On January 23, 1956, these communities incorporated to form the City of Fremont.
A Day In Da Niles District
Nestled at the base of the hills west of Alameda Creek and dominated by the tracks of the Western Pacific Railroad, Fremont’s Niles disctict has the aura of a small town from a bygone era In fact, it’s the former site of the Niles Essanay Studioswhere Bronco Billy and Charlie Chaplin made silent films in the 1910s. On a balmy afternoon, we found nearly all of the town’s quaint shops in historical buildings along Niles Boulevard displaying American flags. But Niles, like Fremont as a whole, is home to Americans of many national origins. As we crossed the street to check out the taco truck near the train tracks, I should not have been surprised when a bearded old man clad in a white turban and robe pedaled lazily by on a three-wheeled bicycle. It was early for lunch, but we joined the faithful following gathered at Tacos Negris for the eatery’s excellent al pastor and shrimp tacos.
Wandering off Niles Boulevard onto I Street, we found The Nile Café, which is as famous for its Vietnamese coffee and Vietnamese/French inspired food as it is for the chalk drawings and paintings on the wall, stickers on the door, and lush little patio at the back. Visit the patio after 4pm Friday through Sunday and you’ll find chef/owner Han Tran grilling burgers, which go so well with the café’s salad of mango, cucumber, and onions dressed in sesame vinaigrette.
Wander to the west end of the Niles business strip, and you’ll find a little market that typifies Fremont’s multicultural style. At Mr. Mikey’s Country Store and Deli we found Mr. Mikey’s father, Sam from Jerusalem, at the counter selling his wife Wafa’s baklava alongside fresh tamales from a local purveyor named Sergio. He also offers Mexican sodas, local honey, pies from Niles Pies, and fishing gear, in case you have a mind to cast your line at Lake Elizabeth in Fremont’s Central Park.
Heading west out of Niles, we were again taken by surprise, this time by an ornate gilt temple that suddenly appeared, glittering behind a screen of trees. “It looks like a piece of Thailand flew over the rainbow and landed in suburbia,” wrote one Yelp reviewer of the Thai temple called Wat Buddhanusorn. Stopping to take a look around, we found saffron-robed monks moving about the beautifully landscaped grounds in preparation for the upcoming visit of Thai princess Soamsawali Mahidol. Following our noses to the savory aromas wafting from one building, we saw women placing steaming bowls of broth at tables neatly set with white tablecloths. Unfortunately, the meal was not open to the public, like the brunch offered at Wat Mongkolratanaram in Berkeley. Apparently this temple in Niles once offered community repasts, but they were forced to stop, since their permits did not allow them to operate a restaurant.
To satisfy our urge for the tastes of Thailand, we sought out the recommended Sala Thai, located in the center of Fremont at 39170 State Street. A beautiful Buddhist altar there is part of the décor, and the fried soft shell crab in a light and pungent sauce of chile, green bell pepper, and onion is certainly a highlight. Before we departed, I peeked in the kitchen to see a gleaming battery of traditional ornate Thai pans queued up on the stove.
A World Garden Grows in Fremont
Located near the Thai temple is another sight for strip-mall-weary eyes. The city-owned 21-acre California Nursery Historic Park has functioned as a nursery almost continuously since the 1880s, supplying date palms to the 1915 San Francisco International World Expo and Hearst Castle. At the end of 2013, a half-acre site within the park became the new home for LEAF (Local Ecology and Agriculture Fremont), a non-profit nursery dedicated to learning and action toward community building, sustainability, and local food production. Since its founding in 2010, LEAF has offered workshops on topics such as water-efficient gardening, drip irrigation, and winter cover crops. With a doubling of its size at the new site, LEAF is planning to build a new nursery center, three greenhouses, and 34 raised beds, many accessible to people with disabilities.
When I visited LEAF in its new home, I found Afghanis, Chinese, Filipinos, Indians, and Mexicans working side-by-side in a unique community garden. The LEAF World Garden Project was conceived in 2008 by Dr. Richard Godfrey, a retired Kaiser oncology surgeon, and Justine Burt, who sought to connect people with the land, Fremont’s rich agricultural heritage, and each other. Burt’s idea of creating a garden to celebrate Fremont’s five main cultural groups came about with the help of grants from the Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit Program and StopWaste.org.
“Fremont has this amazing ethnic diversity, but the groups are kind of balkanized,” says Burt. “They tend to hang out with their own. I wanted to engage people from different backgrounds, give them a way to get to know each other over fresh, healthy, delicious food that represents their cultures.”
Last fall, LEAF hosted a series of well-attended international cooking demos showcasing the five cultural groups represented in the World Garden. For example, one night, they cooked pinakbet, a dish from the northern Philipines that consists of mixed vegetables steamed in fish or shrimp sauce, served with pancit (Filipino noodles).
At seven percent of Fremont’s population, Filipinos constitute the city’s fourth largest cultural group. Maharlika Restaurant, a Filipino barbecue at 3671 Thornton Avenue in the Centerville district, is the place to go for broasted chicken (fried chicken cooked under pressure); sinigang (beef and vegetable soup in a sour tamarind base served over rice); and lumpia Shanghai, which are spring rolls traditionally made of ground pork, minced onions, and chopped carrots. The lumpia, as well as other Filipino dishes, are often served with banana ketchup, which was invented during World War II when a tomato shortage prompted the Filipinos to improvise and produce this now-beloved condiment.
Agricultural Remnants and Revivals
On most of my November visits, I kept trying to visualize Fremont’s pre-1970s agricultural landscape, and one day, a piece of it appeared before my eyes at the intersection of Walnut Avenue and Guardino Drive, less than a mile from the Fremont BART station. The only harvesters I saw working at Ramírez Farm were a flock of gleaning blackbirds, but I later learned that from spring planting until late in the fall, farmer Ramon Ramírez can be found there working the land and selling his sunflowers and row crops. Ramírez grows true Mexican corn, a crop intricately linked to Mexican history and agriculture. People come from as far away as Sacramento for a taste of the corn they remember from their childhood.
Another farmer growing food in Fremont is Ramavtar Singh, an emergency room physician who grew up in small agricultural village in India. At his Ramavtar Singh Farm near Mission San Jose, Singh produces very large and meaty certified-organic Lamb Hass avocados, which he sells to the Fremont and Los Gatos Whole Foods Markets.
Flavors of Little Kabul
It’s hard to find much left of the old township of Centerville, but as we drove into that district, we passed grazing horses and a peeling old water tower: more reminders of Fremont’s agrarian past. The heady scent of grilling kebab wafting through the streets was a clue that we were in Little Kabul, the commercial center for the Afghan community, which makes up five percent of Fremont’s population. We parked behind Maiwand Market (37235 Fremont Boulevard), intent on finding the yard-long loaves of flatbread (naan) I’d been hearing about. A warm, yeasty aroma was in the air, and sure enough, as we rounded the corner from the parking lot, we nearly collided with a man balancing a formidable tower of 10 to 15 such loaves. Inside the market, it seemed like everyone was ordering several loaves each. I followed suit, ordering three, an enormous amount of bread for my family. Mohammad Karimi, native of Kabul, whose father, Abdul Karimi, opened the store in 1992, told us that the bakery puts out 800 to 1,000 loaves per day. The store, including its large halal butcher shop, is owned and run by many members of the Karimi family.
As I stood in line to pay, the piping hot naan burning through the butcher paper to my forearm, I noticed a box of powdery white balls. The gentleman at the cash register explained this was qurut: strained, salted, and dried yogurt balls used to thicken soups, add flavor to stews, and balance rich roasts. It is also the base for a savory Afghan bread pudding called qurooti. This method of preservation was particularly useful for nomads who were able to tuck precious milk into bags to be pulled out when they set up camp.
For a meal in Little Kabul we tried De Afghanan Cuisine (37395 Fremont Boulevard), which was filled on a weekday with multi-generational Afghan families, who were no doubt enjoying the deliciously spiced beef chapli kababs with the ubiquitous naan as much as we did. On a later visit to Salang Pass Restaurant at 37462 Fremont Boulevard down the block, we lounged cross-legged on pillows at one of the traditional low tables and guzzled pitchers of the cucumber- and mint-laced yogurt drink, called dogh, noticing that other patrons had brought their own wine and beer to this halal restaurant.
A long and painful era of war in Afghanistan has brought Fremont many refugees from rural communities who are lacking the modern, high-tech skills needed to compete in local job markets. The Afghan Coalition, a Fremont-based nonprofit serving various needs within the Bay Area Afghan community, has created a microenterprise program, which includes a project called the Afghan Community Co-Op Kitchen. The kitchen is a place where women can get affordable commercial workspace, marketing assistance, and business knowledge aimed toward starting and building food-related businesses.
The Coalition’s office manager, Seema Farhad, mentioned an arrangement with Whole Foods, which has recently opened a beautiful new store at 3111 Mowry Avenue in Fremont that seeks to serve the local multi-cultural community. “The collaboration with Whole Foods is to form a potential market to regularly sell the products made by the Community Kitchen. It is also an opportunity (for Afghans) to get more professional opinions on marketing and on adjusting their products to the general community’s tastes.”
The new Whole Foods serves this community with a prepared-foods bar offering Indian dosas and chaat. Harvindar Singh, the regional Whole Foods forager, is always scouting for packaged foods produced in the local community. One Fremont-made product he found is the Asian Seasons line of curry pastes created by Narith Yos. Yos was born in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge years and says that he lost half of his extended family during that terrible reign. His mother cooked for 200 to 300 refuges per day while the family was in a refugee camp in Thailand. Yos describes the Silicon Valley where he grew up as a place covered with orchards, and he even had the experience of working in the fields beside Latin immigrants before moving into a career in technology and banking. Realizing that he cared more for cooking, he decided to refine a four-to-five-generation family recipe for curry paste. Working through the Community Alliance with Family Farms (CAFF), Yos found local farmers producing the ingredients he needed, such as lemongrass, Kaffir lime, and galangal, and he’s now actively looking for a grower of fresh turmeric. Currently, Asian Seasons’ biggest customer is Apple Inc, but local Whole Foods and New Leaf stores proudly offer Yos’s red, green, and yellow curry pastes.
A Paradise of Indian Cuisine
Exploring the warren of strip malls around Whole Foods, we found a little Korean market, Manna Oriental, hidden in a very modest location at State Street and Mowry, and whet our apetites on some kimbap, a gim– (dried laver seaweed) wrapped roll of steamed white rice (bap) usually filled with vegetables, such as radish, spinach, and carrots, plus crab and egg, all flavored with sesame oil.
Far more prominent in this location is Saravana Bhavan (3720 Mowry), a South Indian vegetarian restaurant that is part of an international restaurant/hotel chain. We ate idli, a puffed pancake made of rice flour; rava kichadi, a roasted wheat porridge cooked with onions, tomato, carrot, green chile, green peas, and herbs; masala dosa with potatoes; and a coconut chutney made with lentils and mustard.
Here, I was coming to appreciate the size and importance of Fremont’s Indian community, which represents roughly 18 percent of the city’s population and is closely tied to the high-tech industry of Silicon Valley. Fremont Gurdwara Sahib, the Sikh Temple of Fremont (located in Niles), serves the largest Sikh community in the United States.
Working behind the scenes in this community is a small producer of packaged chai. Bhavna Shah says that in India, every household makes its own version of the spiced tea. When Bhavna started Chai Walli in 2012, it was her grandmother’s recipe she worked from. “My mom was my guinea pig,” she says, adding that she now keeps her mom busy grinding the spices fresh as Chai Walli orders come in. When Shah first started making her blend of Indian black tea, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, sugar, and powdered milk, her friends liked it so much they encouraged her to start selling it online and in her local Indian community. “There are lots of similar products, but they come from India. The freshness is not there. I wanted to make something fresh and local.”
Looking for an Indian market, we headed down to the Mowry Landing Shopping Center, where we were lured in the door at 5113 Mowry by some powerfully savory aromas. Inside New India Bazar I was amazed by an array of produce items that I have never seen in my Oakland neighborhood: gourds labeled opo, sin qua, tindora, and snake gourd; bright-green deeply textured bitter melon; guar beans; round orange dosakai cucumbers; and such herbs as methi (fenugreek) and curry leaves. Tucked away in the back was the cash-only Chapatta Corner, where we picked up some samosas and vegetable-filled puff pastries with the full intention of taking them home. However, after tasting the pastries while parked at the next stop, we had to turn around and go back for more, leaving the store with two grocery bags of food and only $19 less in my wallet.
Further down Mowry, we found ourselves in yet another large asphalt parking lot as we looked for Chaat Bhavan (5355 Mowry). Inside, we were greeted by gilded members of the Hindu pantheon and the menu for a wide variety of South Indian vegetarian chaat, or roadside savory snacks. Deciding to try the pani poori, we received a platter of very delicate and crispy semolina flour puffs accompanied by a delightful assortment of textures and flavors: spiced potato cubes; spiced garbanzos; a pile of something like dried fried vermicelli, bright-green mung beans, chopped onions, and a bowl of sweet tamarind dipping sauce. We also received a bowl filled with a chilled beverage the waiter called “green water.” Made of mint, chile, ginger, cumin, Himalayan black salt, and lemon juice, it tasted bracing, delicious, and tonifying. The couple sitting at the table next to ours ours explained that we were supposed to break the top of the pani pooris and carefully fill the hollow shells with the assortment of ingredients, then dip them in the green water and pop them into our mouths. It turned out to be a charming explosion of crisp, tang, and spice.
On our way through the Irvington district, we couldn’t help stopping at 40645 Fremont Boulevard to check out the halal supermarket with the cool name of Zam Zam, which turns out to be the name of a well near the Ka’aba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Inside, we found some enticing baklava—several different styles of both house-made and local—plus fresh goat meat at the butcher’s in the back, and bins of the mysterious dried mulberries Afghanis call toot.
While in the store, we heard a boy of about 12 years old cry to his friend, “Look! They have gyro slices! We can use this for shwarma at caf!” (“Caf” is what the kids call the school cafeteria.) The last time I heard the word “shwarma” (a meat preparation, originally from Lebanon, where lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, veal, or mixed meats are placed on a spit) was when I was living in Saudi Arabia, when I myself was 12.
Irvington is known for its popular farmers’ market, where you’ll find many Southeast Asian varieties of vegetables brought in by Khmer, Hmong, and Mien farmers working land as far away as Merced and Fresno and as close by as Sunol. You can also buy balut, a delicacy I first encountered while traveling in Viet Nam. A long, late-night bus ride had deposited me hungry on a street corner in an unknown town, where I found a little shack beneath a bare light bulb hanging from a tree branch. I thought the vendor was selling hard-boiled eggs, so imagine my shock when I broke the shell and found a web of veins threading the walls and an embryonic duck inside. The vendor handed me salt, lemon juice, and ground pepper. The truth? It was delicious and tasted just like a chicken omelet.
Runway to Silicon Valley
Head west from Irvington, and you’ll find yourself in a community of large, widely spaced homes in the vicinity of old Mission San Jose. Follow Mission Boulevard south toward the I-880 onramp to San Jose, and you’ll be passing through this community’s busy commercial area in the Warm Springs district. Here, more than anywhere in Fremont, you sense the connection to Silicon Valley, since Warm Springs is headquarters for many domestic and international high-tech companies. Named after Agua Caliente Creek, Warm Springs was indeed the site of a hot spring where native Ohlone, then Mexican and Spanish followed by American settlers all bathed in their turn through the ages. The first hot springs resort on the West Coast opened on the site in the early 1850s and catered to the elite of the new state of California. The spa was destroyed in 1868 when a 7.5-magnitude earthquake shattered the East Bay along the Hayward Fault.
There are plenty of spa-type stores here today, with acupuncture and herbs offered nearby as well. Signs in the strip malls are often in both English and Chinese, and real estate agents and city planners here routinely apply feng shui. During after-school hours, you’ll see teenagers gathered to sip sweet Taiwanese bubble (also called boba or pearl) milk tea through fat straws as they look for those chewy tapioca beads at the bottom of their cups. You’ll find 99 Ranch, largest Asian supermarket chain in the U.S., with stores throughout the western states, as well as Marina Food, a smaller chain of Asian-American food stores that has yet to spread beyond San Francisco’s South Bay. Inside Marina Food at 46196 Warm Springs Boulevard, we found live (food) fish swimming in tanks, dragon fruit, sea cucumber, and fresh ginseng root, as well as an in-store Chinese bakery and a bubble tea joint.
Asking around for the most highly recommended restaurants, I heard about Asian Pearl Seafood Restaurant in the Pacific Commons Shopping Center off Auto Mall Parkway below I-880, and the Shanghai Noodle House on Fremont Boulevard at Grimmer in Irvington. I made it to Teo Chow Noodle Shack, which sits nearly stranded beside a construction zone on Cushing Parkway in one of the many ubiquitous strip malls with an international gauntlet of eateries. The superb bowl of springy egg noodles I ordered was suspended in a delicious clear broth and topped with a generous portion of roast duck. Teo Chow is owned and operated by Calvin Ng, a UC Davis food science graduate, who calls on the talent of his father, Kwong, who started his chef career in mainland China.
Diversity in Fremont Runs Wide and Deep
By the end of my Fremont food foray, I noted that we had travelled all over the globe except maybe to Europe. But then I remembered marveling at Münchner Haus German Deli—complete with an A-frame roof—cozied up in one Centerville strip mall beside a restaurant serving both Chinese and Filipino food and a falafel joint. According to the menu, the German owners serve classic old country fare including German bologna, Black Forest ham, Reuben sandwiches, and sauerkraut. But, wait! Tucked three-quarters of the way down the menu is curry bratwurst. Still, as one Yelper said, “This is as German as it’s ever gonna get in Fremont.” Another hint of Fremont’s more Euro-centric past is evident at Sousa’s Discount Food & Liquor. But I’ll leave that story to artist Gary Handman. •
From Mango Pickle to Bacalhau
A Berkeley Foodie’s Foray in Fremont
by Gary Handman
SWEET BREAD ◆ OLIVE OIL
LIGUICAS ◆ BACALHAU
Olá! I stepped inside Sousa’s Discount Liquor, introduced myself to the genial owner, Abe Sousa, and fell in love. Over the course of the next half-hour or so, Abe proudly toured me around his shop, a pleasantly stuffed little place vaguely redolent of cinnamon, coffee, and olives. We strolled down aisles filled with wondrous provender from Portugal and Brazil: four or five brands of olive oil, cans of whole figs in syrup, vacuum-packed coffee from Brazil, and a whole aisle of sweet and savory breads. We stopped to admire a cold-case crammed with several varieties of linguiça, Azorean and Portuguese cheese, and Abe’s pride and joy: stacks of the quintessential Portuguese foodstuff, bacalhau (salt cod). The booze portion of the tour was equally dazzling: bottles of lovely, pale-green vinho verde, and liqueurs galore, including the massively cool Anis Escarchado, anise liqueur with a sugar crystal-encrusted aniseed flower mysteriously blooming inside the bottle. And perched cockily among this seductive collection of bottles was a whole gaggle of iconic, brightly painted ceramic and wood Portuguese good luck roosters (galos de Barcelos). I could have stayed much longer, but Dolores and the rapidly occluding late-afternoon highway were calling. As I was heading out, Abe invited me to a barbecue he was throwing for his friends and customers the following Saturday in the parking lot outside of his shop. He sent me off with good wishes, a huge slab of cheese, and a loaf of cinnamon bread for the road. Adeus, Abe! Dolores and I will see you again soon. •