You don’t have to drive to Orange County’s Little Saigon to find good Vietnamese desserts. Just head to a food court in the San Gabriel Valley city of Rosemead, where you’ll find a branch of one of Little Saigon’s leading dessert purveyors, Thach Che Hien Khanh.
Usually shortened to Hien Khanh, the food court stall has a great selection of Vietnamese desserts and beverages lined up in containers in the display case. Unfortunately, they are not labeled, which can make the colorful array of rainbow-hued items a bit overwhelming to someone unfamiliar with them. Simply ask — though one shouldn't hold up the line of folks who know precisely what they want. Another option: just point to what looks interesting to you.
A touchstone might be the Thai desserts, found at places like Bhan Khanom Thai in Hollywood. Desserts from Thailand and Vietnam do share similarities, such as the use of glutinous rice flour and coconut milk. Coconut, banana, tapioca and cassava are other ingredients that turn up, as do pandan and durian. Pandan, a plant with a distinctive flavor described as somewhat vanilla-like combined with a vegetal taste, usually is indicated by desserts colored a bright green. The notoriously odorous durian, with its distinctive flavor, is another favorite. Which brings us to the various versions of sticky rice. Bright green designates pandan; bright orange is a distinctive sticky rice that uses gac, a spiky, orange fruit of southeast Asia known by various names; and the yellow sticky rice with a custardlike smear is durian, should you either wish to avoid it or seek it out. These are served with a small container of coconut cream on the side.
Aside from the sticky rices, there are other items that might be somewhat familiar: fried bananas swimming in coconut milk, mochi, cassava cake and sesame balls. Then there are the bright green cakes made with pandan, coconut and mung beans, such as da lon tron, a chewy, circular, gelatinous, layered dessert nicknamed “Pig’s Skin Cake,” with its translucent top and bottom layers. If ordering this, you’ll be asked if you’d like sesame seeds sprinkled atop them. Sweetened beans also feature prominently, as ingredients in desserts and included in beverages. One of the most popular is che bau ma, or “three-color dessert.”
About those sweet beverages. At Hien Khanh, you get to pick the number of add-in items based on the size of your drink. You can choose from 10 ingredients: red beans; white beans; mung beans; either chewy or soft tapioca; grass jelly; clear or rainbow jelly; pomegranate; and, of course, boba. While most beverages come with coconut milk poured over, a few others feature a sweet syrup over various items. Another Vietnamese favorite, pennywort juice — nuoc ra ma — is also available.
Hien Khanh Dessert isn’t new, as it’s been in the supermarket-adjacent food court for at least eight years. Place your order and either adjourn to a table in the food court or, if you’re lucky enough to live nearby, take it home to enjoy.
8150 Garvey Ave., Ste 117i (in the GW Supermarket Food Court in Garvey Square), Rosemead; (626) 288-8128.