Slideshow: 10 Cheap Vietnamese Snacks in Little Saigon, San Francisco

Banh Mi from Saigon Sandwiches ($3.50)
Banh Mi from Saigon Sandwiches ($3.50)
The banh mi from Saigon Sandwiches are listed on every "best cheap eats" list because they really are that good. While you can't go wrong with roast pork or chicken, I gravitate toward the tofu. Thick sheets of chewy fried bean curd nest above and below a tangle of pickled shredded carrots and bunches of cilantro (stems and leaves) that threaten to spill out with each chomp. Jalapeños are sliced lengthwise with several ribs left intact for a pleasant sting. And let's not forget about the baguette—warm and crisp with just enough chew.

If you go for lunch on a weekday, expect a line that snakes to the door. Don't worry. You won't wait long. Saigon Sandwiches employs a novel system in which the cashier goes down the line taking orders while the two cooks slice and stuff as if competing for fastest time. You pay upon receiving your sandwich, which comes wrapped in white paper and sealed with a rubber band for maximum portability.

Saigon Sandwiches: 560 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 (map); (415) 474-5698 

[Photograph: Colin Price]

Pho from Pho 2000  ($6.89 (small)/$7.89 (large))
Pho from Pho 2000 ($6.89 (small)/$7.89 (large))
San Francisco's damp fog and freezing wind creates perfect pho weather. There are plenty of options in Little Saigon, but my stomach groans for a steaming bowl from Pho 2000. The balanced broth has a clean taste that's neither salty nor muddled by too many spices. Though the #1 Combination swims with chewy tripe, tendon, fatty flank steak and every other cut of meat, the soup manages to be refreshing, particularly after a squeeze of lime and shower of bean sprouts and Thai basil. The rice noodles are chewy and so easy to slurp you may need to order more. No problem, it's a common request. Opt for the small size with whichever meat combination you like, and you'll leave with leftovers.

Pho 2000: 637 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 (map); (415) 474-1188

[Photograph: Colin Price]

Coconut Rice from Saigon Sandwiches ($1.50)
Coconut Rice from Saigon Sandwiches ($1.50)
Since everyone beelines for the banh mi, it seems odd that Saigon Sandwiches bothers to make anything else. But if you happen to catch the ladies behind the counter stealing nibbles between sandwich orders, you'll see that what they're eating are those other items—logs of sweetened sticky rice filled with banana, or caramel-colored drinks containing floating rice balls. One of the best snacks is the coconut rice, concealing a core of shredded coconut, ground peanuts, and fragrant sesame. A banana leaf wrapper keeps it moist and makes it easy to grab and go.

Saigon Sandwiches: 560 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 (map); (415) 474-5698 

[Photograph: Alissa Merksamer]

Banh Xeo from Ngoc Mai ($8.50)
Banh Xeo from Ngoc Mai ($8.50)
An aquarium in the window and a little boy coloring by the register all make Ngoc Mai feel like somebody's home. And it sort of is. Mom and Dad take turns cooking out of the matchbox kitchen while the daughter plays hostess when she's not in school. The menu is extensive, but I adore the banh xeo. This thin golden crepe is made from rice flour. It easily cracks under pressure of a knife to reveal a belly of mung beans, tender slices of pork, and ruby shrimp. Cut the crepe into small pieces and wrap them in romaine lettuce along with mint, cilantro, and basil. Dip each piece into a bowl of nuoc cham that brims with carrots and sliced jalapenos for a salty, sweet, spicy, herbaceous bite.

Ngoc Mai: 547 Hyde Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 (map); (415) 931-4899

[Photograph: Colin Price]

Banh Mi from Sing Sing ($3)
Banh Mi from Sing Sing ($3)
Sidle past the elderly gentlemen smoking outside the door and enter the first of two square rooms, each outfitted with a smattering of tables covered in white and red checked cloth. In both rooms, old men chat in Vietnamese and sip tea from silver pots. Behind the counter, the sole woman in the joint presides over a display case containing a mound of pork cold cuts. She doesn't speak much English, but it doesn't matter, because Sing Sing only makes one thing to eat —combination banh mi. The hollowed-out baguette comes with one or two slices of hole-y white pork roll, headcheese, and cold cuts. All but the headcheese are fairly bland, but that's where the squeeze of housemade nutty mayo makes its contribution as well as a spat of pâté and bundle of lightly pickled carrots and daikon. Stalks of pungent green onion, cilantro, and plenty of jalapeños add snap. Though Sing Sing's banh mi are smaller than the ones you'll find at Saigon Sandwiches, they're plenty filling.

Sing Sing: 309 Hyde Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 (map); (415) 885-5159

[Photograph: Alissa Merksamer]

Vietnamese Coffee from Hoang Dat Coffee Shop ($3)
Vietnamese Coffee from Hoang Dat Coffee Shop ($3)
Hoang Dat is like a less intimidating version of Sing Sing. It's limited to one room and brings in a more mixed clientele, though still dominated by older men. Stop by in the morning, and you will see everyone drinking Vietnamese coffee. The husband and wife who own this shop are ethnically Chinese but from Vietnam. He makes the banh mi, and she prepares the coffee. Each cup gets brewed individually using a traditional phin filter, which doesn't require any paper. A swirl of condensed milk pales the rich French Roast creating a flavor that teeters between bitter and sweet. You can order it hot or over ice. Both versions are equally popular. Hoang Dat Coffee Shop: 930 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 (map); (415) 923-5254 
BBQ beef from Pagolac  ($8-$9.50)
BBQ beef from Pagolac ($8-$9.50)
Pagolac is several notches nicer than the other spots on this list; the restaurant is dark and calm with a sweet staff that will bring your table a bowl of glowing pink rocks set over fire for everyone to warm their hands. The signature is the 7-course beef menu ($18.50), but you don't have to spend that much to indulge in the awesome BBQ beef. Thin strips with caramelized exteriors are tender and chewy, wafting lemongrass and a secret blend of other herbs. You can order the beef a myriad of ways—bun, pho, by itself —but I prefer it either on a bun or in rice paper wraps. The plain noodles and fresh herbs act as a counter to the meat's strong aromatics.

Pagolac: 655 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 (map); (415) 776-3234 

[Photograph: Alissa Merksamer]

Imperial Rolls from Anh Hong ($9.95)
Imperial Rolls from Anh Hong ($9.95)
You'll find many good imperial rolls in Little Saigon, but the ones at Anh Hong have a greaseless crunch and come with the best accompanying herbs. The rolls themselves taste mainly of pork, though they also contain silver noodles, chopped mushrooms, and supposedly shrimp, thought we couldn't detect any. To eat, you'll want to tear off a piece of lettuce and place one imperial roll on top of it. Then, add the herbs—mint, Thai basil, and purple perilla, a peppery relative of Japanese shiso with leaves that are purple on one side and green on the other. Add some rice noodles before swaddling the whole package and dunking it into nuoc cham. There are eight imperial rolls on the plate but only enough lettuce for four. Ask your surly waiter for more and just ignore his grimace.

Anh Hong: 808 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94109 (map); (415) 885-5180

[Photograph: Alissa Merksamer]

Anh Hong
Anh Hong
The interior.

[Photograph: Colin Price]