Sac’s little concrete bazaar

A trip through Little Saigon offers a variety of authentic tastes

Green tea cakes, Chinese-style egg custards and other unique sweets are found at various bakeries located in Little Saigon.

Green tea cakes, Chinese-style egg custards and other unique sweets are found at various bakeries located in Little Saigon.

Photo by drew rhodes

There’s nothing like a Little Saigon craving. It’s somehow both specific and abundant, slowly spreading like the aroma of garlic cooking throughout the house: Surprisingly pungent at first, then all encompassing and lingering as it cooks. It starts with fresh spring rolls, then a hankering for a melon smoothie with lychee syrup-filled popping bubbles. Then it’s might as well swing by the bakery for a half dozen pork buns, or perhaps it’s a whole fried fish for dinner.

On Stockton Boulevard, roughly between 65th Street and Fruitridge Road, Little Saigon is a concentrated area of businesses predominantly owned and operated by Vietnamese immigrants. Officially established as “Little Saigon” in 2010, it is now a two-mile stretch of authentic Vietnamese cuisine.

A well-seasoned Little Saigoner knows where to go for certain dishes, but what about a novice to the area? Little Saigon can be intimidating with the busy traffic, perceived culture shock and seemingly vast possibilities. It’s a wonderfully chaotic smorgasbord of eateries, bakeries and tea shops. So how does one eat through this elephant? One bite at a time.

If you’re just dipping your toes, the best starting point is 85 C Bakery (5591 Sky Pkwy, Suite 411), a chain that started in Taiwan. With a corporate, Starbucks feel, you can get classic bites including tiramisu and New York cheesecake, or try a bit of culture with a curry bun or red bean cake.

But don’t leave the bakery without a stash of Chinese-style egg custards. Eggier and richer than its western counterpart, only Asian bakeries carry these by the dozens. Any of the bakeries in Little Saigon will have them, but they’re guaranteed fresh and out of the oven at Pegasus Bakery & Cafe (6825 Stockton Blvd., Suite 265).

For another treat, stop at one of the dozen or so tea shops for bubble tea—a Taiwanese-based drink containing a cold, milky, slightly floral-tasting tea and toppings such as tapioca balls (bubbles) or jelly. For something more familiar, have the same topping extravaganza in an endless selection of smoothies in flavors including mocha and strawberry.

Lollicup (6830 Stockton Blvd., Suite 250) is always a hit for a good tea experience. Sip on a classic black milk tea and munch on a few mini corn dogs. For the adventurous newbie, Cool Tea Bar is the spot for samples and the most adjustable menu; sweetness can be modified to your taste and mix and match toppings and flavors.

S.F. Supermarket in South Sacramento is a one-stop shop for authentic ingredients to recreate the tastes of Little Saigon at home.

Photo by drew rhodes

Little Saigon is especially busy during lunchtime when patrons can get an authentic and ever-popular Banh Mi sandwich. It’s typically a fusion of Vietnamese fillings (grilled pork, cilantro, carrots, daikon and cucumber) inside a French baguette. They’re everywhere in Little Saigon, but hands down the best spot to get them is Duc Huong (6825 Stockton Blvd., Suite 200).

“You can’t find a fresher Banh Mi than here,” says longtime Little Saigon patron Michelle Logsdon. “Duc Huong is a killer bakery … The raisin croissant is my go-to.”

Be prepared for a longer wait with a constant line out the door. But with prices starting at $5 for a large, fresh made-to-order sandwich, it’s worth it. While there, pick up a few baked goods and be adventurous by trying new-to-you flavors.

For dinner (or the occasional hangover), you can’t beat a classic—Pho. The best thing about Pho is it’s difficult to get wrong. With the smattering of condiments and aromatics such as chili oil, cilantro and Thai basil, Pho becomes whatever the diner wants it to be. There are more than a dozen places in the Little Saigon to get Pho, with most being similar in authenticity and taste.

The most notable are Com Tam Dat Thanh (5035 Fruitridge Road) for its ultra-rich broth and Pho Anh Dao (6830 Stockton Blvd.) for an exclusive no-soup-for-you experience: This hole-in-the-wall doesn’t have a menu, is cash only, ridiculously crowded and notoriously badly serviced.

If you haven’t yet, it’s perhaps time to graduate to a bowl of Bun Bo Hue, which is similar to Pho but with a spicer broth, served with beef and (here’s the kicker) congealed blood cubes. The cubes have a mild iron taste (like liver) with the texture of soft tofu. For a mild beginner’s version, go to Pho Saigon Restaurant (5304 Stockton Blvd). But, the most flavorful broth comes from Pho King II (6803 Stockton Blvd., Suite 180).

After dinner, cleanse the palate with a frozen dessert. Two trends coming out of Asian cuisine are shaved ice and stir-fried ice cream. Little Saigon delivers on both of these delectable and Instagram-worthy creations.

Stir-fried ice cream, or rolled ice cream, had a popularity boom a few years back with trending videos online. Ice cream is stirred, smoothed and rolled on a cold plate then served with various toppings. While delicious, most of the fun is the experience of watching your dessert being made. Get rolling at Ice Panda for their frozen delights (try the Thai tea, coconut or classics such as chocolate and vanilla) and unlimited toppings (fresh fruit including mango or strawberries, candy toppings such as M&Ms and gummy bears, or Fruity Pebbles and Cap’n Crunch cereals and more).

For another unique dessert, visit Vampire Penguin (6821 Stockton Blvd., Suite 110) for its shaved snow. Frozen cream is shaved to make a snow-like dessert. The result is light, airy and creamy. Feel free to DIY with the selection of toppings, but for a taste of the Philippines, order the halo halo made with taro snow, sweet beans, coconut, condensed milk and flan.

“[Little Saigon] was the perfect environment for a new unorthodox business,” says the owner of Vampire Penguin, Paolo Angelo San Luis.

San Luis opened his first location in Little Saigon in 2013 and now has 14 locations in the United States.

For those a bit apprehensive about a trip to Little Saigon, let that be your guiding light: In our little concrete bazaar, something truly different was born and then the rest of the nation craved it, too. Take it in one bite at a time and you will have your own Little Saigon craving tugging at your belly.