Banh Mi Che Cali is the best and possibly the cheapest place for banh mi, those Vietnamese sandwiches made of crusty French bread and stuffed with all manner of meats, pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro sprigs, and fiery jalapenos. But did you know that this modest Little Saigon chain also sells delectable Vietnamese desserts too? Yes! It's true!
What most people tend miss is that the Vietnamese word for dessert is, in fact, in their name.
Che, pronounced "ch-eah" (rhymes with "Yeah!"), is the general term for a sweet dish or dessert, which in Vietnam, is usually soupy and can sometimes contain sweetened coconut milk, some sort of starch, fruits, jellies, or all of the above. Some che is served chilled while others, hot.
Banh Mi Che Cali's selection boasts an eye-popping palette of colors usually reserved for a Nickelodeon cartoon or a psychedelic head trip. Slimer green, bubble gum pink, vibrant sports car red -- these are artificial colors, but the flavors are geniune.
Sold by the tub for $1.50 a piece, each small plastic container holds a single but generous serving of a palate pleasing treat. The third tub is free when two is bought, so I often load up on them in multiples of three, fishing out the cold che from the fridge myself and then asking the friendly ladies behind the counter to ladle and pack some of the hot che from the steam trays.
One of those hot che's, called Che Ba Ba, resembles thick chowder -- milky white and chock full of goodies. Although coconut cream is used instead of dairy cream, this is still a rich dish. It's perhaps better enjoyed when your stomach isn't quite yet full. The fragrant and hearty sweet cream of the coconut binds the items of the "stew" together, which if you aren't familiar to Asian ingredients, may read more like a shopping list for your aquarium.
Among others you'll find are squirmy clear agar-agar, tapioca pearls the size of BB pellets, crunchy julienned pieces of black seaweed, and crinkly white fungus, which when eaten, feels like chewing on something between tripe and celery.
Before you recoil in disgust, remember that Jell-O gelatin is made from the scum skimmed off after boiling down beef bones and cow hides. For che, nothing comes from an animal, just seaweed and plants -- all existing to enrich your senses with playful textures without bothering poor ol' Bessie.
My favorite of all che's comes from the refrigerated side. Named Che Banh Lot, it looks like small, green and stubby worms. In fact, we affectionately call it "The Little Wormies", since there really is no better description.
Made from cooked tapioca starch batter which is pushed through a sieve and dropped into an ice bath to set, these "worms" wiggle on your tongue like seals on a Slip N' Slide. But most of the flavor comes from the thinned and sweetened coconut milk which accompanies an order in a smaller container.
The aromatic punch of pandan, a tropical leaf that echoes vanilla, is the star attraction of another chilled, coconut milk soup called Che Thai. This one is thin and cold, featuring bright yellow jackfruit pieces, luminous white balls of longan, and emerald green cubes of agar-agar. It's the most refreshing che of the bunch -- light on the palate and waist-line.
The most striking to the eye is Che Hot Lu, which features clusters of flourescent red spheres made to resemble pomegranate seeds or cherry red fish eggs. The exterior has a jelly-like texture, but the core bites like a water chestnut. These chewy/crunchy morsels are set atop more agar-agar, clear ones cut into strips, and a cube of sweet mung bean paste on the side.
Che: a dessert worthy enough to follow banh mi.
Banh Mi & Che Cali Bakery
15551 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA 92683