Across the street from Henry’s Hi-Life, I ordered a $16 True Romance right where the $3.50 breakfast used to be.
The old building at the corner of St. John Street and N. Almaden Boulevard has transformed itself yet again into a glorious interconnected mesh of component parts. The former Enoteca La Storia restaurant space now contains multiple Italian-themed businesses. The people behind Enoteca still have the center area, now called Ancora Vino, but in the front corner space, closest to the freeway, one finds Birre by Pour Decisions Taproom. Another business called Torino Panino Italian Deli and Sandwich Shop occupies the other end of the building. Also in the mix one finds Bibo’s Little Italy Pizza. Each business has its own separate identity, but anyone can order food from any of them at any nook or cranny throughout the complex. Collectively, the whole building is now called “The Littlest Little Italy,” which has been painted on the façade. The “True Romance” is a small Italian sandwich with sausage, sweet peppers, onions and DiNapoli tomato sauce. Other sandwiches include “The Wrigley” at $18.95 and “The Godfather” at $15.95.
The history of this building is a testament to resilience. The Murillo family built out the structure in 1925 as the Alameda French Bakery, which endured for decades. Back then, what’s now St. John Street was called San Augustine, while the cross street was Pleasant Street and Henry’s Hi-Life was the Torino Hotel. The Murillos were Italian, but they decided to call their place a “French bakery,” because in those days Italian immigrants were often subjected to discrimination. They used the name as a cover.
The park behind this area, right next to the Shark Tank, is the former location of River Street, where the first generation of Italian immigrants settled in the late 19th century. More recently, several houses here were either destroyed or relocated during the construction of the Guadalupe River Flood Control project, a mammoth undertaking.
It was during that era that someone took several killer black and white photos of the building’s exterior and interior. Oddly enough, all of them remain freely downloadable from the Library of Congress website. At the time the photos were taken, the bakery was long gone and the corner portion functioned as the All Amigos Club, a heroic ecosystem where fellowships of people gathered to free themselves from habitually trying to satisfy thirsty cravings.
Several of those black and white photos now adorn the walls inside the space currently known as Birre by Pour Decisions. Even if the photos are way too small, any connoisseur of San Jose underbelly will eventually gravitate toward them. The history is rocking.
In one particular shot, we see a man in a beanie sitting at the counter of the All Amigos Club, which was open to the public, for anyone, regardless of predicament. I was never there during the era depicted in the photo, but I remember that counter still being operational in 2008.
The photo is a masterpiece, not least for the details. It was taken back when smoking was still allowed, so there were ashtrays on the counter. Coffee and Styrofoam cups were aplenty. The menu board behind the counter reveals a goldmine of information. A breakfast of oatmeal and toast was one dollar. The ham, egg and cheese sandwich was a whopping $2.50. For lunch, a burger with potato salad was $3.50 and a BLT was $2.50. The chalkboard even advertised a roast beef special at $4. All in all, the place was a serious and humble refuge for many people who should not be forgotten.
Nevertheless, after surveying the history of the bakery and the All Amigos Club, I’d say the Littlest Little Italy is an adequate follow-up. It’s just one corner, but the stories told by this building, and inside this building, will continue to inspire people.
Other buildings have come and gone. Ugly concrete freeways have emerged. Historic houses have been torn down. Nearby industry has vanished and cranes are looming. But this 5,000-square-foot structure remains, like some old European war hero that carries on and disseminates lessons from life. It’s still here and it won’t give up. Now that’s true romance.
Well said about some interesting history of San Jose. Thanks, Gary Singh.