Van’s Bakery

This is it! I can finally declare I have a FAVORITE BAKERY! What a momentous occasion indeed. This is no fine French patisserie boasting macarons and dainty mousses layered upon crisp meringues nor is it your Manhattan Chinatown bakery with the most delightful $.50 sponge cakes and little baos filled with red bean paste. Oh no. This is Van’s Bakery.

I’ve come here in the past with my aunt to pick up café su das (Vietnamese Iced Coffee) and pate soua (flaky pastries filled with spiced ground pork). When we craved sweets, Van’s was our stop for a variety of che’s, a myriad of Vietnamese desserts based off beans, rice and most importantly, coconut milk. I did a post on Van’s a while back, but have only recently realized how crazy in love I am with this place. Every time I come there’s a bazillion things I’ve never seen, heard of or tried. I eat it all. And I love it all. They specialize in Vietnamese desserts but also venture into “American Sweets” with fruit tarts and strawberry shortcakes – all of which are enjoyable in that Asian-nized (meaning not as sugary) American dessert way. During special seasons they’ll fill the entire bakery with mooncakes or baos you never knew existed. It’s never boring! And always scrumptious.

I was lucky enough to be able to make a venture to Van’s because my aunt and uncle (to whom I’m infinitely grateful!) came down from SF for a weekend visit. Some treats we picked up for a midday snack:

Banana and some kind of mysterious fruit tapioca with coconut milk. This mysterious fruit is similar to taro in terms of how it is used in desserts. I have no idea what it is called – but would eagerly accept any help! It is yellow in color and slightly grainy in texture. It is a firm fruit, easily peeled and cook while retaining it’s shape. You can boil it into bits and mash it down to get the mochi-like sweet I had below. The banana & mystery fruit tapioca is a very common che and simple to make. Like the majority of Vietnamese desserts, the sweetness comes from fruit and the flavor from COCONUT. Ahhh! I love coconut. Coconut anything! Especially in hot liquid form. Mmm.

This is the mochi dessert. I’ve posted on this before only I didn’t know that it was made with the same fruit in the che. So it’s like fruit mochi, only not fruity tasting? Ho boy, that must be pretty confusing. You see, this baffling fruit is not very sweet, more on the starchy side and with a thick, grainy, heavy on the carbs kinda feel. You just need to try it. It’s not as chewy as butter mochi but simply melts into a liquid mass on your tongue when hot.

The Bao of my dreams.

Could anything be more beautiful? A soft pandan flavor bao (still warm!) encased savory steamed pork with mushrooms, little chunks of carrots and peas. It in the heart of it was the elusive salty duck egg yolk that makes everything taste a million times better than it should. Don’t let the alarmingly green shade of the bun turn you off, think soft, milky dough with a slight sweet smoky flavor that you cannot quite put your finger on, but know it’s there…like umami – indescribable but you know it’s right. Sigh. Describing the flavor of many Asian tastes is really hard! I really admire all food bloggers who do such an excellent job, while I’m like “ahh, it’s just SO GOOD!” I tend to get too excited and forget to tell people how the item actually tastes. I apologize. But I love to eat! Again. No connection between the sentences. Just appreciate the enthusiasm.

Sticky rice che with taro and sweetened coconut milk. Yes. Rice extends itself all the way from breakfast to dessert. The single most important food. Here, mochi rice is dyed and boiled down to a thick “jook” with cubes of taro. The thick, comforting mixture is sweetened with rock sugar and topped with warm coconut milk. The che is traditionally eaten hot but is just fantastic cold for breakfast the next day.

It would be a shame to leave without a cup of durian yogurt (they also make honeydew, taro and strawberry…but when durian’s an option, how can you refuse?!) It’s an ingenious dessert made from two simple ingredients: durian, condensed milk and water. I don’t know what the heck they do with it (my mom used to make it when she was living in Vietnam – so I’ll go check with her) but the result is a wobbly, soft flan dessert tasting of pure durian. It’s pudding soft with a subtle hold, sweet only to the point of enhancing the creamy milky-ness of the durian. Do they process the fruit till it’s liquid or mash it down? Then boil the whole mass with condensed milk? Whatever they do, please continue do to so.

Please stop by Van’s if you have the chance. The bakery is about the size of a college dorm but you could spend hours, even days in here and still be intrigued, reaching to pick up the tender green-brown square of steamed cake, smelling the strong scent roasted coffee while your eyes are raptly engaged in the rainbow of hot che’s on the stove and cool ones that fill the open refrigerator case. It’s magic land! Where you’re eternally happy, surrounded by edible delights and a sweet Vietnamese family behind the counter, inquiring about your day and answering any questions in you have in a broken English that’s so eager to please. You can tell they love what they do, love what they sell. And that love, that relentless passion for creating such delights – that is what makes me happy. If only I could live there for ever…

Van’s Bakery
121 East Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 288-7272

  • Kathy YL Chan
    November 30, -0001

    Not by a long shot, it’s creamy and gritty, not very sweet at all. I’d recognize jackfruit and plantains in a flash!

  • Robyn
    February 28, 2006

    I’ve never eaten most of this stuff (or any Vietnamese desserts in general)……god, I’m so jealous. ;P Durian yogurt sounds intriguing.

  • Kathy YL Chan
    February 28, 2006

    Hey Robyn!I’ve seen one supermarket in Chinatown that carries a selection of ches. There’s not a huge variety but it’s the only place in nyc that I’ve come across. Coconut, lots of sweet starch and condensed milk…it’s hard not to love. We shall go during break – less than two weeks. Yay!

  • anonymous
    February 28, 2006

    Hi Kathy – You know, I was wondering what that green “bao” was. Thanks for clarifying all those snacks and treats!

  • Kathy YL Chan
    February 28, 2006

    Hi Kirk!It’s almost like a puzzle, trying to figure out these Vietnamese desserts. The bakery bombards your visual senses – everything is “colored” (naturally or unnaturally), hinting what kind of fruit or flavoring is used.

  • J. Lo
    February 28, 2006

    Jackfruit? Plantains? Just some possible answers to what your mysterious fruit could be….

  • Christine D.
    May 4, 2006

    Hm, mystery fruit? At first i thought it was just mung beans because it’s widely used in che, but then you said it was a fruit… How grainy is it? Perhaps it’s a palm seed, which is very dense but soft, and maybe a teeny bit grainy.I dunno if Kirk will check back, but that green bun is called banh bao. It’s weird…if you add another word to the end of it, it’s a completely different kind of bun. Nothing in addition to the meat, egg, carrots, etc. It’ll have completely different fillings. i.e.- banh bao xa xiu has the steam bun, but it’s filled with bbq pork.

  • anonymous
    February 18, 2007

    I think the “mystery fruit” is called Cassava =)

  • anonymous
    December 16, 2008

    the mystery “fruit” is called cassava or “khoai mi” in vietnamese. It’s used as a starch similar to potato in central american, south american, caribbean, african, and asian cuisine. also known as yuca and manioc. the general flavoring ubiquitous to vietnamese desserts is the pandan leaf. it’s a fragrant green leaf that has a subtle similarity to vanilla. They use artificial pandan flavoring “la dua” for most desserts that you see colored green (also used to color the banh bao)

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