Every sandwich-loving San Franciscan knows that Saigon Sandwiches, located in the Little Saigon section of the Tenderloin, makes outstanding banh mi. Yet few customers direct their attention toward the display of Vietnamese snacks spread along the counter and stacked in the refrigerator—and that's a real shame, because Saigon Sandwiches has much more to offer than their namesake implies.
Poor or nonexistent labeling is partly to blame; a Crayola palette of coral, purple, and lime scares some people; the rushed ordering system during lunchtime peak makes it difficult to ask questions; plus, the ladies who run the shop speak limited English. But if you like coconut, sticky rice, and/or tapioca, you would do yourself a favor to try some of the other offerings. Most of the items fall into two categories: banh la and che.
Banh la are parcels of glutinous rice stuffed with meat, beans, coconut, or fruit and then wrapped like a present in murky banana leaves before being boiled or steamed. We discovered the coconut and peanut ones a while back and were hooked. The banana leaves keep the filling incredibly moist and easy to transport. Most are pyramidal shape, but one exception is a hefty log of glutinous rice filled with pork and yellow mung beans called banh tet. It's traditional for Tet, the Lunar New Year.
Che is a general term for dessert, which encompasses sweet soups, puddings, and drinks. The majority of the che at Saigon Sandwiches are thick tapioca puddings made with coconut milk and flavored with a variety of produce, from mango to taro to corn.
Besides banh la and che, you'll see plastic-wrapped plates of colored sticky rice packaged with a round pat of bean paste as well as green gelatinous molds flavored with pandan and striated with bean paste or coffee and coconut. Don't confuse them with Jell-O. They're not too sweet and rely on agar agar or tapioca starch for their wiggle. Some things are made in-house and others come from outside sources. Except for the ones stamped with a vendor's name, it's impossible to know which is which.
Now before you check out the photos, let's clarify one thing: we are not advocating you skip your banh mi. That would be like going snorkeling just to see the plankton. We're simply suggesting you consider some of these other bites in addition to your banh mi. Everything costs less than $3, except for the the banh tet, which costs $5 and is heavy enough to feed two people.
About the author: From San Francisco to New York and back to San Francisco, Alissa Merksamer is a food adventurer who'll try almost anything once. She's a frequent snacker and seeker of free samples. Check out her blog Glamorous Snacker and follow her on twitter @glamsnack.