Gallery: We Try All the Vietnamese Snacks at Saigon Sandwiches in San Francisco

Banh Tet
Banh Tet

Heavy as a doorstop, these dense tubes of glutinous rice contain a ring of yellow mung bean paste that surrounds fatty roast pork. They’re traditional for Tet, the Lunar New Year. During the holiday, you’re not supposed to spend much time toiling in the kitchen, and banh tet can be prepared in advance. To eat, slice off a portion and warm in the microwave or pan-fry to create a crisp edge. Saigon Sandwiches will warm it in the microwave upon request.

Banh Bao
Banh Bao

This mondo bun is denser than its Chinese counterpart and not sweet. Its plainness works to counter the knot of ground pork and wood ear mushrooms that tastes the same as the filling in the banh gio. This mixture, however, also includes glass noodles, green onions, chewy Chinese sausage, and a hardboiled egg. One banh bao should satiate a hulk for at least twelve hours.

Mung Bean
Mung Bean

Pastes made from mung beans are common in Vietnamese desserts. Here, a pyramid of what tastes like barely sweetened mochi cradles a golden pocket of mashed mung beans that’s mild, peppery, and just a bit sweet. This is one of the few items with a label: “B-E-A-N” is taped in black and white on each package.

Sticky Rice with Banana
Sticky Rice with Banana

Saigon Sandwiches makes two versions of these logs of sticky rice filled with plump finger bananas. One is wrapped in a banana leaf and contains red beans. The other has no red beans and no banana leaf. The rice is tangerine colored (thanks to food coloring) and fairly plain, which makes it a good foil for the sweet soft banana lurking inside.

Banh Gio
Banh Gio

A gust of fragrant pork sauteed with onions and skinny strips of wood ear mushrooms smacks you in the nose when you unwrap this banana leaf package. The white rice mixture encasing the meat tastes like flavorless gelatin whose main function seems to be keeping the filling juicy.

Taro Pudding and Mango Pudding
Taro Pudding and Mango Pudding

Cubes of soft starchy taro lurk in this pale violet tapioca pudding with a layer of coconut milk is spread on top. Stir it around before eating to add some richness to this mild treat.

Despite the real chunks of mango, this one was too sweet for me.

Parfait
Parfait

Depending on the day, you’ll see more than one tri-colored parfait. All have thick coconut milk on top, which has a semi-gelatinous texture. In this one, a smooth blend of yellow mung beans mixed with rice composes the middle layer followed by black eyed peas mixed with rice. To fully appreciate the harmony created by the meatiness of the beans, creaminess of the coconut milk, and texture of the rice, blend the parfait with a spoon. It’s tricky to do in the narrow plastic cups, so if you can, wait until you get home and plop the mixture into a bowl.

Vietnamese Yogurt
Vietnamese Yogurt

Did we discover the next “big thing” in yogurt? Alas, this Vietnamese version tastes pretty much like a standard American variety, though less sweet. Cold and creamy, it’s still a refreshing choice for breakfast or light dessert.

Banana Pudding
Banana Pudding

One of my favorites. At first, this mauve tapioca pudding tastes vaguely of coconut. Then your spoon nudges fresh banana followed by more banana and more banana—the aroma permeates your entire cup.

Coconut Milk with Red Bean and Tapioca
Coconut Milk with Red Bean and Tapioca

Don’t be alarmed by the hue of this carnivalesque dessert. Hong, who has worked at Saigon Sandwiches for twelve years, explained that the more color, the more attractive these desserts are believed to be. The minty-looking liquid is actually lightly sweetened coconut milk. Floating about are huge maroon kidney beans and long pieces of gummy tapioca that look like iridescent green beans. Sitting beside it in the cold case, you’ll also often spot a similar concoction that’s pink and yellow.

Corn Pudding
Corn Pudding

If you like sweet corn, you’ll dig this viscous tapioca pudding. It’s scattered with chewy yellow corn kernels and tastes strongly of the cob. If you’ve ever tried corn ice cream, it’s a similar flavor sensation—surprising, but it works.

Jujube, Longan, and Seaweed Soup
Jujube, Longan, and Seaweed Soup

This soup and the mango pudding were the only two desserts too sweet for my taste buds. The liquid’s carmely hue and matching flavor result from the cooked jujubes and squishy longan fruits that bob around, occasionally getting tangled in the winding ropes of chewy seaweed.