Peek through one of the glass doors at the 160,000-square-foot Milpitas Square outdoor shopping plaza and you might see hundreds of guests enjoying dim sum in a massive banquet hall. Walk past the acupuncturist and you might need to dodge a line of teenagers ready to Instagram their bubble tea. All told, the horseshoe-shaped ring of storefronts is home to over 60 businesses. Almost all of them serve a predominantly Chinese clientele.
That doesn’t mean the Milpitas mall isn’t diverse in its own way. The restaurants here reflect a range of Chinese American experiences — whether they be traditional seafood restaurants geared toward Cantonese grandparents; trendy spots that cater to younger, food obsessed American-born Chinese; or regional specialists dishing out Shaanxi-style noodles or Shanghainese pan-fried buns. There are also Indian chain restaurants, Japanese fast-casual concepts, and an excellent kitchenware store (M V Trading Co) stocked with cleavers and imported ceramics. But the Chinese restaurants form the core of the mall’s identity.
Tourists feel attracted to urban immigrant neighborhoods like a Chinatown or Japantown, but it’s easy to overlook suburban malls like this one that cater to Asian immigrants — and that speak to how these immigrant groups have established themselves in America. When Milpitas Square opened in 1996, it provided familiar foods and a communal space for Chinese families settling down in the South Bay, which lacked the established immigrant commercial district like San Francisco’s Chinatown. At the mall, Chinese immigrants — first Cantonese, then other groups — have become owners of community businesses. Through bites of shrimp dumplings and Taiwanese fried chicken, it’s possible to see how a Chinese population drawn to Silicon Valley by the booming tech industry has gradually settled down.
Here’s a guide to the mall’s best restaurants — the ones that best tell the story of newcomers establishing themselves in Milpitas.
Mayflower Seafood Restaurant
The plaza’s first restaurant and its largest, Mayflower epitomizes the bustling Cantonese banquet hall. At dinnertime you might enjoy a soundtrack from a neighboring wedding, and at lunchtime you’ll have to battle just to get a seat. The dim sum menu features generous portions of all the classics, including juicy har gow (shrimp dumplings) and cheong fun (steamed rice rolls) filled with barbecue pork or beef and cilantro. At dinnertime, ask about the freshest live seafood on hand, which might lead to steamed fish with curls of scallion and sweetened soy sauce, or crab stir-fried with ginger. 428 Barber Lane
Inside Darda, calligraphy surrounds a painting of Mecca, and round tables are the site of loud family conversations in Chinese and Arabic. The extensive halal menu features an impressively wide range of dishes: Taiwanese breakfast like youtiao (aka Chinese doughnuts) and Chinese American standards such as plump walnut prawns. Some of the most popular dishes are the ones that are more traditionally Islamic Chinese — aromatic cumin lamb, which features a spice exchanged across the Silk Road, and thick sesame bread with green onion and a perfectly crisp crust. Serving utensils at almost every table reach for another of Darda’s specialties: thick, chewy stir-fried noodles. 296 Barber Court
This Shaanxi restaurant welcomes diners slurping bowls of smooth and chewy biang biang noodles. But also try the big plate chicken, or dapanji — a mountain of chicken, potatoes, and green pepper in sauce infused with dried spices (though your server might smile if you attempt to tackle the enormous portion alone). The paomo (a cross between noodle soup and stew) fills a clear, flavorful broth with noodles, chunks of steamed bread, and crisp bamboo shoots that cut through the richness. Add a fiery accent to any dish with the tabletop chili oil. 300 Barber Court
Fantasia Coffee & Tea
Even with the rise of gimmicky, specialized boba shops and international chains, this Bay Area institution remains a favorite. Opened in 1997, Fantasia has kept up with the trends that matter—sourcing high quality milk and fresh ingredients. Although the old-school menu has expanded slightly, enjoy the richness of their classic milk teas and the hearty chew of their perfectly cooked pearls. Many visitors enjoy another of Milpitas Square’s boba shops, Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea, for trendy drinks like their brown sugar pearl latte and fresh fruit teas. 528 Barber Lane
The Bento Box
Surrounding a steam table fragrant with the smell of Taiwanese classics stewed in soy, handwritten signs give this bento shop a mom-and-pop feel. Each lunchbox comes with a mound of lu rou fan (white rice topped with braised minced pork) and a choice of meats like fried chicken that comes stacked in wavy, crispy layers. 228 Barber Court
At this efficient noodle-bowl shop, the perfectly “QQ” — the Chinese expression for springy or al dente — noodles form a slippery base for all dishes. While your mouth waters over the giant pictures on the walls (complete with nutrition facts), order the house spicy-and-sour noodles, which balance rich meaty flavor with tart vinegar and diced vegetables. Or try the egg and tomato noodles, a classic Chinese comfort food with a luscious texture. 416 Barber Lane
Shihlin Taiwan Street Snacks
This Bay Area mini chain imitates a Taiwanese night market stall and dishes out famous street foods like its specialty: fried chicken, in popcorn-sized nuggets or massive “XXL” cutlets (ask for it whole if you want the photo op). The chicken’s cragged surface provides an indulgent crunch and nooks for the shop’s signature five-spice seasoning powder. 522 Barber Lane
Sugar Mama Desserts
Tucked behind a narrow doorway, Sugar Mama Desserts captures the charm of an all-American ice cream parlor — except that the rotating options tend to draw on Asian flavors and might include surprising ingredients such as Guinness, saffron, corn, or marshmallow Peeps. This ice cream shop doesn’t create these unlikely combinations to shock customers; instead, Sugar Mama draws upon its diverse clientele’s favorite comfort foods. For Asian Americans in particular, flavors like black sesame brittle or sake rosewater provide a sense of nostalgia. 492 Barber Lane
The experience here centers around the Chongqing-style spicy broth and the textured offal that soaks up the aromas of dried Guizhou chilis and fermented Pixian bean paste. However, this upscale Chinese hot pot chain also offers some other bonuses: baskets at the entrance supply hair ties, and the bathrooms even have toothbrushes for keeping your breath fresh. An elaborate interior fuses wood carving with colorful stained glass. The all-you-can-eat sauce and snack bar provides crunchy pickled vegetables, freshly fried sesame balls, and soothing herbal dessert soups. 286 Barber Court