July 12-18, 2006

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Live Feed - Stett Holbrook

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In Praise of Fallen Silicon Valley Spots

By Stett Holbrook

THE CLOSING of two businesses and the planned closure of a third later this month has diminished Silicon Valley's food scene. Since 1912, Japantown's Dobashi Market was the general store for this tight-knit neighborhood. The store closed during World War II when members of the Dobashi family were interned but friends kept an eye on the store until the family was able to open it back up.

For an area that doesn't have a major supermarket, the store provided a sense of community and good food. The market offered basic groceries and specialty items like pickled vegetables, sake and bags of Japanese snacks like melon gummies, Milky candy, arare rice crackers and Ramune melon soda.

In January, third-generation owners Perry and Larry Dobashi decided to close the store and retire. Phillip Dobashi, 25, is Perry's son and worked at the store for 10 years. He was sad to see his family's store close and says he thought about taking over the store one day.

"Working at the store I felt like I was part of a big family," said Phillip. "I felt like I was working for the community."

Nijiya, a Japanese-owned chain of markets, plans to move into the Jackson Street storefront. The market already has stores in Mountain View, San Mateo and San Francisco and is known for its selection of organic produce, ramen noodles and bento box lunch specials.

I was also sad to see Empress of India go out of business. This Santa Clara restaurant was a classic Silicon Valley hole-in-the-wall. It was located in a dumpy El Camino Real minimall next to an Indian market and a Korean video rental store. Inside, the restaurant was sparsely decorated and a little rough around the edges. But the food made by the regal owner Jeanne Bonk was a favorite among Silicon Valley's Indian food aficionados. She would also prepare special dinners for whoever called to make a reservation. The restaurant had no menu and instead served whatever struck Bonk's fancy.

"It's not your run-of-the-mill Indian food," Bonk told me back in 2004. "I just believe in cooking up everything fresh every day."

Bonk said she closed after she received some bad press. I don't know what press she was referring to, but it definitely wasn't me.

Finally, Yasu, one of my favorite chef-owned restaurants, is planning to close its doors by the end of the month. The restaurant is located across the street from Dobashi Market on Jackson Street. Yasu's menu drew on local ingredients and a hip, yet down to earth, Japan-meets-California style. Chef and owner Brett Yasukawa says he's closing because he needs more space for a sushi bar and lounge. A kitchen bigger than a phone booth would be great, too.

In addition to the cramped space, Yasukawa said his restaurant didn't quite fit into Japantown. The restaurant would probably do better in San Francisco's Mission District than San Jose's sleepy Japantown. "I do believe that I needed to stay there for three years for it to take off since it is out of my demographic," said Yasukawa in an email. "But I grew up in Japantown and wanted to see the town grow with the times."

Yasukawa says he's looking for a new location in Silicon Valley but is also looking further afield in Sacramento. Here's hoping he stays close to home.

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