One of my favorite parts about regional food is how sometimes odd combinations of flavors come together — under circumstances, not corporate focus groups — informing you about the history and culture of a place or the personal journey of the cook.
I ventured over to a part of San Jose’s "Little Saigon" (unofficial nickname, as a the city's attempts to make this an official business district sparked a huge controversy among the Vietnamese community). Politics aside, this area is chock full of Southeast Asian eateries. Amongst the banh mi and pho shops, one sign caught my eye: Grand Opening was written in both English and Vietnamese, underneath the name Powderface. At first, it appeared to be a new salon or makeup boutique, then I saw word ‘beignet’ and immediately made a U-turn into the strip mall parking lot.
“The name Powderface comes from the idea that when you eat beignets, you get powdered sugar all over your face,” says owner Michael Tran, a former high-tech engineer who reached back to his roots to open up this cafe, specializing in coffee and beignets. The cheeky name is reinforced by Powder Addict t-shirts and photos of patrons with powder all over their faces.
The beignets are made to order: you can watch them being rolled and cut from dough, then deep-fried. Once golden brown, the pastries are served three to a plate in a cloud of powdered sugar, just like at Café du Monde in New Orleans. Beignets can
also be ordered with cinnamon, caramel or chocolate toppings. Coffee drinks include chicory coffee, espresso drinks and the Vietnamese specialty café sua da — French roast served iced with condensed milk.
The unusual menu combination is a legacy to the Vietnamese diaspora following the fall of Saigon. Tran left Vietnam as a child in the 1975, landing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he grew up amidst the large Vietnamese community and attended Louisiana State University. While a student at LSU, he worked as a waiter at a five-star restaurant, picking up the techniques of French cuisine. Tran put that culinary expertise on the back burner, while working for years as a network engineer at Cisco Systems.
After teaching himself the art of deep-frying dough and testing out various recipes on his colleagues, Tran decided to go into the beignet business full-time. “You only have one life to life. If it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to work.”
Text and Photos © 2011 Grace Hwang Lynch