May 10, 2018
Italy is famous for its pasta, coastlines and fine cars. Barbecue though, not so much.
San Jose’s historic Little Italy lines the sidewalks of Almaden Boulevard. It sits just past the hustle and bustle of San Pedro Square under a busy, noisy overpass. The small strip is bubbling with delicately retained culture and overflows with Italianowned businesses.
It serves mostly as a testament to the large Italian population that settled in the area during the 1880s. Complete with a museum as well as refurbished historic buildings, it stands proudly as a monument to ancestors in an increasingly modern city.
Well, where does the barbecue fit in here? Frankly, it doesn’t. And we should be grateful for that. Amidst the small, robust array of Italianthemed shops stands one strange carnivorous outsider.
Henry’s World Famous Hi-Life is a hot, humid, musty, bustling barbecue dive. For years, dedicated customers have busted down their doors for top-notch nosh, but it was only this year that I was enlightened to this San Jose icon.
A while ago my buddy’s family invited me to get dinner there and I got excited. What’s not to love? Charred meat that I can get for free? Sure, I won’t be picky. Sign me up.We reached the restaurant around 7:30 p.m. in our rental, which had been hot-boxed by its previous occupants. My friend, his sister, his grandmother and I hopped out and wrestled our way into the overcrowded bar/waiting room. While it was near 40 degrees outside, I felt like I had jumped right into the pit with the cows and pigs I would later scarf down.
It was immediately apparent what made this spot so special. The wait time was ungodly, but the food was divine.
Thick, heavily priced cuts of smoked, smoldering meat were tossed at us alongside decadent baked potatoes. Each bite felt inviting, warming and savory.
However, it wasn’t just the charred muscle tissue that sold me wholly on this hole-in-the-wall. Instead, it was the charm and the history of the place that made me fall in love with it.
Even though its offerings fall far from the typical fare of any Italian joint, the decorations on the wall speak to the legacy of the building it stands in. In fact, it was midbathroom break that I discovered the building the restaurant stands in was built in 1900 and served as lowcost housing for Italian immigrants.
While the business opened its doors far after the building itself was erected, the restaurant has preserved its hominess and history throughout its decades of service. Even out in the dining area we mingled with other customers and shared thoughts with total strangers—an experience we owe entirely to the environment.
If you need a break from the usual dining experience, a place to take your family or if you need a heaping serving of delightfully artery-clogging goodness, head to Henry’s Hi-Life.
Contact Noah Sonnenburg at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.