Monday, May 01, 2006

Desserts from Banh Mi Che Cali - Westminster

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
(714) 839-8185
15551 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA 92683

*Special thanks to Christine and chair for helping out with the Vietnamese translations.


At 10:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do the little green wormies taste like cendol? I've been craving those for a while. Haven't been home for about 6 years. Thanks.

At 11:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I don't know much about these, elmo, but I am willing to give them a try the next time I see them.

However, I reserve the right to not complete the task if I see a French bakery along the way. :o)

Great report! I learn something new all the time from your reviews.

At 11:56 PM, Blogger Christine D. said...

if i remember and no one posts before me, i'll ask my dad about those che names.

Haha i love those "little wormies!" I call them "the slugs."

We love these delectable desserts so much, that there's even a few folk songs about them.

"Che dau xanh! Che dau phong! Ai dau bung?"

"Mung bean che! peanut che
who has a stomach ache?" and then something something. haha i can't remember.

At 4:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have be craving for those green wormies 'cendol' for 3 years now. Is just too bad I didn't get to taste all those yummy colorful desert when I was in O.C. Never know where to buy it. I love their yummy sandwich too. Thanks Elmo


At 5:07 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Would you believe I've never tried any of the fried stuff? Not once. I guess I lucked out!


They're exactly like cendol! Which is probably why I like them so much. Only difference is that no palm sugar is used here. In that sense it's a lighter dessert than cendol.


I hope you do get a chance to try them. But outside of Vietnamese communities, these will be a rare find.


Hey a song! Cool! I'm glad it didn't sound like "milk, milk, lemonade..." HAHA!


Yeah, it completely slipped my mind that they are indeed the same as Indonesian cendol. I actually prefer these to cendol now...a lot less heavy and you can control the sweetness.

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Christine D. said...

Haha around the back, fudge is made! eww

Ok, here's what we think:

- Che ba mau (3 colors). There should be red beans and coconut juice, but maybe you didn't put it in yet?

- Che ba ba (not sure what it means. Maybe it's the name of the people who made it?)

- Che banh lot (lot means pandan i think)

- And I have no idea what is the name of the last one! lol

Che sounds more like a downward "ch-eah" that sounds like "yeah" without the "y."

At 11:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Elmo - Those colors and shapes always stops me in my tracks. The Missus loves them, though.

At 3:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My fave was the corn one. Shame they changed the formula to substitute tapioca for rice.

At 5:43 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Thanks! I added the pronounciation clarification you suggested. Will wait and see if anyone else can figure out the name of that last one.


I think Anthony Bourdain was even afraid of the unnaturally vibrant colors when he was in Vietnam. This is the man who ate a live beating cobra heart!


I don't believe I've tried the one with corn...that's one in the steam tray I believe.

At 8:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the pomegranate one is "che hot lu" hot lu = pomegranate.

the last one is called "che thai". no idea if thailand contributed in any way..

-chair (formerly oyshii!)

At 11:18 PM, Blogger Kathy YL Chan said...

Hi Elmo,
Awesome post! I did a review on the Banh Mi Che Cali in Rosemead last month but was so lost on how to describe all the ches - you did an excellent job :) The "wormy" one is definitely one of my flavorites, love that texture and flavor on the tongue!
It is indeed the cheapest place for banh mi. The buy 2 get 1 deal sure doesn't hurt. lol

At 4:39 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Thanks for helping me out with the translations!


I just read your post on che. You did a pretty good job describing it yourself!

At 6:21 PM, Blogger Passionate Eater said...

Now that you put it that way, I have to say that agar-agar sounds infinitely more appetizing than Jello. Seaweed is always preferable to meat scum! ;)

At 1:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Che is reminds me of gulaman sago and the halo halo mix I find at Filipino eateries. Fortunately, it's not as sweet.

At 2:08 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Added to that, Jell-O has that chemical aftertaste to it. Most the agar-agar powders yield nothing but texture and a clean finish.


I like gulaman, but you're right, it's like a sugary punch to the teeth if you're not expecting it.

At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Never been here, but I gots to go! I pass by it all the time on the way to Mile Square Park, what's my problem? Thanks for another informative and delicious post!

At 1:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahh, I love that place! The only thing I don't like is how busy it gets, and how you have to elbow your way to pay and get out of there! Try the triangle /pyramid wrapped item on the wire shelf along the back/side wall. It is green, and is a steamed rice paste with a pork/mushroom center wrapped in banana leaves I believe. I love the stuff!

At 7:46 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...


You gotta try this place! First for the banh mi and second for the che. Heck, buy them both at the same time!


Aha! You're going to the one on Magnolia and Bolsa. I avoid that one now, after finding that the Brookhurst location existed. Much calmer and much more civilized.

At 6:54 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Thanks and welcome to my little blog! I've got more OC posts in the pipeline! Hope you like em!

At 7:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, the other day I went to a restaurant in Dk: Restaurant Saigon. They served for me a drink/dessert called Che Thap Cam, but now I want the recipe and I can't find it. Has any of you heard of it before?

This is the only info I can find about the dessert on the internet:

Che thap cam(sweet soup of many kinds) is the combination of many ingredients like green beans, che dau huyet, che bot loc. Each contributes to the common flavor of che thap cam.

Che Thap Cam -- yam, taro, yucca, and coconut milk

At 11:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thai desserts are so delicious!

At 10:09 AM, Blogger Jeannie said...

Just passing through! Googled "che thai" and found myself here. This blog is amazing, hope you don't mind that I become an avid reader/drooler b/c I love all things food. :P

At 10:34 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Sorry I don't have the recipe for that particular dessert...but it sounds awesome!

Thai Radio,

I agree!


Welcome! And no permission needed to become an avid reader or drooler. Hope you'll like what I have to write next!

At 2:38 AM, Blogger Big Brother said...

Che Ba ba has many origins, but the one that makes the most sense is that it's the name of the woman who made it. "Ba ba" means Ms. "Three" (don't ask, to us, each number represent a different stereotype. for example, if someone call you "Ms. Eight" it means you have a big mouth). aniways, Che Ba ba is comfort food. The coconut milk is extra creamy in che ba ba, there's yam, fungus mushroom, tapioca pearls. those are the basic ingredients.
ok, let me break it down for you guys so people won't be afraid to try exotic desserts. there are 3 types of desserts, and coconut milk dictates all three:
1. The first type: the coconut milk is reduced to a thick gravy-like consistency, which is poured over desserts like the corn chowder, black eyed peas, ground tarot, etc. Caution: should be eaten hot and maybe addicting. do not leave it out in the heat too long because the coconut milk will go sour.
2. The coconut milk is light and frothy. it's used as a broth in stew-like soups like Che Ba ba.
3. The coconut milk is light and frothy too, but it's cold. Used in Che thap cam (beans, beans and more beans) che 3 mau (3 color Che. made with black beans, pomegranate immitation and ground mung bean. see, 3 ingredients, 3 colors: black, red and yellow)
Elmo, if you're looking for THE dessert place, try the Che Hien Khanh. On Bolsa going from Asian Garden mall toward brookhurst, turn left into T&K Food market. It'll be on your left. It's one business building over from Com tam Tran Quy Cap. I used to work in Che Hien Khanh, and well, there's so many things in there that I'd need to write a whole new blog to describe it. Most of it is made with rice and beans and well, you'll see for yourself (or I can take you there. Always have a native to show you around, so you'd be sure to know what you're eating)

At 2:00 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...


Thanks for the reminder on Che Hien Khanh. I came close to trying it once, but I was tooooo full!

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

My favorite is che ba ba except for the fungus things. I suck the sweet broth out then toss them lol.

I love the baguettes here--perfectly crispy on the outside and light and fluffy inside, with a wonderful buttery aroma and taste. Lee's is way too doughy and tough. Other than the pate chaud (flaky pastry stuffed with pork or chicken meatball), I'm not thrilled with any of the snack items (sesame balls, banh bo (fried, flourescent green cake), etc.

Vietnamese not born and raised here tend to ignore lines of any kind and just push themselves where they want. I used to just ignore it (especially if they're my parents' age) but I make a scene now lol.

At 12:32 AM, Blogger Silly Bus said...

Great blog! It's always so nice to be inspired


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