You might have missed it while zooming down El Camino Real in Palo Alto, unless the bright turquoise exterior or makeshift plywood signs advertising $1 tacos and boba caught your eye.
If they did, you might have already discovered one of Palo Alto's least expensive and most unique eateries: Valencia Asian Market.
Worlds collide at the diminutive 3487 El Camino Real space, sandwiched between a yoga studio and the Orthopedic Sports & Spine Center. What used to be a Mexican market (Valencia Market) now has the touch of New York native of Thai descent Zen Bunchien, his 14-year-old son Audi (a Gunn High School freshman, lover of Taiwanese milk tea, engineering and music) and many of Audi's friends.
Bunchien took over the space about two months ago, wanting to show his son how to build a business from scratch and also to create a fun, supportive place for Gunn students to hang out. Orlando Perez, a native of Mexico, is now the chef, cooking up traditional chicken, carne asada and al pastor tacos and burritos as well as Chinese BBQ pork with pineapple (the recipe is Bunchien's father's). Soon, there will be more fusion tacos: chicken teriyaki, Mongolian beef, crispy duck. An orange-chicken-fried-rice burrito is also on the horizon.
And because Bunchien and Audi are passionate about milk tea, customers can also build their own tea for the insanely low price of $1. (Comparatively, the same size milk tea goes for about $3.50 to $4 -- plus add-ons -- at other local milk tea shops.) The menu guides you through the steps to create your personal milk tea. Step one, choose milk or no milk; step two, green or black tea; step three, choose a flavor (mango, strawberry, honeydew, passion fruit, lychee or taro); step four, opt for any toppings you'd like (honey boba, popping boba, rainbow jelly, mango star jelly, lychee coconut jelly). On a recent afternoon, this reporter opted for green tea with no milk, plus passion fruit-and-honey boba, and was thoroughly satisfied with the refreshing and not overly sweet result. There's also coffee for -- you guessed it -- just $1.
The tacos, all with fresh handmade tortillas, are $1 or $1.50. The chicken taco was perfect; the meat came with crispy edges and was smothered in a mild verde sauce. You can also buy a dozen tortillas to take home ($3).
A super burrito with beans, rice, meat (choose from chicken, pork, chorizo sausage, steak or Chinese BBQ pork), salsa, lettuce, sour cream and cheese goes for $7.99; a regular goes for $6.99 and the veggie burrito is a dollar less.
For those who are more health conscious, Valencia offers a build-your-own salad. The menu guides you: Choose a veggie (shredded cabbage or romaine), a protein (meat -- no tofu here) and dressing (lemon tahini, fig balsamic or Oriental, which is creamy with sesame and soy sauce). A side salad is $6.99; a main is $9.99.
For those who want to pretend to be health conscious, order a salad -- but make it a piadina: a thin, Italian flatbread sandwich stuffed with a range of fillings, either sweet and savory. At Valencia Asian Market -- which if you're in the know is referred to as VAM -- you get a heaping serving of your custom salad on one paper plate and two large, fresh, warm tortillas on the other. Transfer salad to tortillas, wrap into taco form and try not to wolf it down. The Chinese BBQ pork with pineapple and oriental sauce go perfectly together. The salad came with chopped romaine, large chunks of tomato, cilantro and small pieces of pork and grilled pineapple. There was plenty to take home. Bunchien gets much of his produce from the Milk Pail Market in Mountain View.
There are also specials: For now, Friday is fish tacos and Saturday is birria de chivo, or goat stew.
The food is good, but the intention behind VAM is even better. Bunchien, who moved to Palo Alto recently from San Francisco so his son could take advantage of the high quality public school system, felt like there was no place for Gunn students to gather and hang out. He believed such a spot was particularly important this year, in light of several student deaths by suicide and the heightened focus on academic stress and mental health.
"They're under a lot of stress at Gunn. I was like, 'just come here, relax,'" Bunchien said.
And they do. On a recent Friday afternoon after school, the market was packed with high school students. They were inside and outside, waiting in line for boba, talking to Bunchien and each other. Almost all of the market's employees except Ruben, the cook, are also Gunn students.
There are no frills at Valencia Asian Market, with everything served on paper plates, mismatched chairs and the space still in the midst of improvements. Bunchien, his son and his son's friends are working on upgrades. They recently painted the entire thing bright turquoise and moved a set of large drink refrigerators to open up more space for tables, chairs and couches on the inside. They're planning to add free Wi-Fi and bar seating facing El Camino.
The menu will also continue to expand, Bunchien said, with plans in place to serve dessert crepes and dim sum for breakfast. Bunchien wants to stay open until 2 a.m. and might even add karaoke.
At lunchtime, you'll hear Bunchien switching from English to Spanish to Chinese as he takes orders. He said the market sees three main crowds: techies, construction workers and students. He calls the market a "family," and it actually feels like one.
Valencia Asian Market
3487 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.