At 33rd and Santa Clara in East San Jose, the Portuguese language surrounds me. Inside Cafe do Canto, I order a double espresso.
“Now, that’s how you do it!” says a woman in the corner, approving my order, as she sits with a few men around a small table. I then sit down at another corner table, over by the fridge.
The espresso is so good, I decide to stay for a ham and cheese sandwich. For at least 20 years, this little cafe has catered to locals. They only accept cash or Venmo. I see no credit card systems with their corrupt little fees designed to gouge small businesses. Good.
Everything else in the cafe feels like Portugal. The customers are friendly. Everyone knows each other. Two Portuguese language televisions, in opposite corners, are showing footage of the Pope’s current visit to Lisbon. A sign near the front says, “Dogs welcome. People tolerated.”
A woman then briefly comes in with a German Shepherd and we all talk about dogs for ten minutes. Some customers might complain when a pooch ventures inside a cafe, but I would never do that. People these days.
The sandwich arrives. It is still perhaps the best ham and cheese sandwich anywhere around here. I devour it slowly just because we’re all still talking to each other across the café—myself, the customers and the proprietor. Like any real neighborhood joint.
As soon as the owner sees me looking up São Jorge cheese on my phone, he then comes over and shows me videos of cows in the Azores, from where he directly orders everything. Much of the Portuguese community in San Jose, and California, can be traced back to the Azores. I learned this years ago. He even brings over an extra slice of cheese just to show me what it looks like, compared to its melted form inside the sandwich. The cheese is delicious.
I’m only back in this neighborhood because the heroes down the street at the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza are still campaigning to create a new cultural hub, La Avenida. The strip across Alum Rock from the plaza is slotted for a new theater, a cafe, a family wellness center and other businesses. Much is already happening on this stretch of road. Bakeries. Murals. Tire shops. Corner markets connected to beauty salons. The Latino Business Foundation. Somos Mayfair. Much needed low-income housing. Plus, one of my zillion favorite Mexican places, La Costa, where, even from down the block you can always hear the music blasting from somewhere behind the palm trees, if there’s no traffic.
La Avenida, at least in theory, while revitalizing the neighborhood and fighting off conniving real estate gentrifiers, would connect the Mayfair neighborhood all the way to Little Portugal, creating an entire “Alum Rock Corridor,” although more money needs to be raised. It’s a killer project, a great idea.
So this column was supposed to be about all that stuff, but I never actually made it down there. Instead, right now, I am distracted by the double espresso, the São Jorge cheese and the German Shepherd. Such is life in Little Portugal.
As I finish the sandwich, I don’t want to leave because in this part of town, there is so much else to contemplate. If or when BART ever happens, the 28th Street/Little Portugal Station will be situated just on the other side of 101 from where I’m sitting at Cafe do Canto. This was the right choice. Nobody will ever take BART to San Jose if all they see is 80 square miles of indistinguishable suburbia. They will take BART to San Jose if it lands right smack in the middle of an active neighborhood hub, where Portuguese, Mexican and Vietnamese dynamics all intertwine in glorious fashion. And that’s what happens around here.
I consider staying for another double espresso, but I am already caffeinated enough. As I leave and saunter out onto Santa Clara, my gaze goes across the street, since there still isn’t really much traffic. One old-timer sits out in front of the Grupo De Carnaval Cultural Português, where several more sidewalk chairs wait to be occupied. He looks happy.