By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
Photo by Sasha ContrerasVietnamese restaurateurs are legendary for their speedy, tasty, sometimes impersonal craft, but the assembly line churning over at Thach Chè Hiên Khánh is Little Saigon at its most relentlessly Fordian. Pass by this dessert shop before its 8 a.m. opening, and the comfy shop appears as bustling as the Buena Park Nabisco Factory—no tables, no menus, not even napkin or spoon dispensers; just a couple of corner Pietà statues looming over nothing. Once the day debuts, however, two human conveyer belts in the form of customers and workers buzz without pause until nightfall. The workers, armed with spoons and aprons, shuffle around a formerly bereft counter that now hosts a buffet steaming with various Vietnamese sweets. They shovel up the yens of customers who peer through the buffet's pristine sneeze guard to simultaneously point and shout their orders as if identifying a niece in the maternity ward.
It's Industrial Revolution-hectic at Thach Chè Hiên Khánh, partly because of the space's prime nook just beyond the imperial gates of Westminster's T&K Food Market but primarily because of its reputation within the Vietnamese diaspora for its homeland's desserts, furtively sweet confections virtually unknown to the Western palate. Specifically, Thach Chè Hiên Khánh specializes in the alchemy of xôi (steamed sticky rice) and chè (sugary porridge). In the former category, Thach Chè Hiên Khánh keeps hills of various hues and tastes ready for scooping: earthy saffron-yellow grains pared with tiny potato dumplings and caramelized scallions; fire-engine-red waves studded with steamed peanuts; the coconut-flavored, black-eyed-pea miracle known as xôi dua. The fastest seller, though, is a Styrofoam canister containing a slab of mung bean paste (the dense, custard-like bean that's the foundation for most Vietnamese pastries) below pencil-thick and -long strands of coconut meat and gelatinous balls of com gao luc, a nutty obsidian rice strain; this gustatory Gestalt deserves a reputation as beloved as See's for its gradual kidnapping of your senses.
Hiên Khánh's namesake chè is even better—the tao xoan variety is like flan with panache; one concoction of boiling coconut milk, tiny tapioca pearls and plantains seems more Caribbean than Indochinese with its blossoming rumba; the chè dau xanh, green-tinted tapioca flour mixed with coconut shavings, is the Elysian Fields of desserts. But of a different cavity altogether is the chè ba màu (three-colored dessert), a sort of smoothie prepared by cramming a harvest of sweet beans, Jell-O noodles, crushed ice and cold coconut milk into a cup. Chè ba màu tastes like the most nuanced cereal milk in the world: each sucrose legume tweaks a different note of sweet, gelatin noodles provide some gummy texture, and the manna that is coconut milk baptizes everything with its matronly caress. Combine the chè ba màu with any chè or xôi, and you'll never need Snickers again.
By the way, every order serves at least two and sets you back $1.50.
Thach Chè Hiên Khánh, 9639 Bolsa Ave., Ste. A, Westminster, (714) 839-8143. GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM