The entrance entices with its sloping roof of ornamental green tile. At New Year’s, you’re greeted by dragons and a curtain of red lanterns. Year-round, the food court at Garland’s Cali Saigon Mall is among the best in town, with specifically Vietnamese treasures.
Enter from the parking lot on the far left and find yourself inside Lee’s Sandwiches, a chain known for its standard cold-cut sandwiches and coffee. A machine off to the side extrudes the plump, bite-sized custard-filled waffles that burn your lips and are toasty and sweet. The counter has other take-away snacks: pandan-leaf-green crepes filled with sticky black rice and sweetened mung-bean paste, sprinkled with a bronze shag of toasted coconut. They look like neon-colored tacos. Translucent rice dumplings, like mochi, stuffed or topped with coconut, give your teeth something to tug. There is candy, too, and fresh-baked sweet buns.
But continue beyond coffee to the rest of the food court, a light, bright industrial space with skylights and kids romping, their circles inevitably drawing nearer the Sesame Street and Marvel comics characters you can ride in the tiny play area at the back.
The second stand on the left serves a bank of savory dishes—complex-looking offerings, like barrel-shaped braised morsels of gourd stuffed with seasoned pork. They’re some of the most authentic and appealing versions you’re likely to see.
Farther down the line, bowls of pho steam, topped with thatches of bean sprouts and fresh herbs. And everywhere the stands have “extras” out front: a thicket of decorative bamboo or tidy displays of moon cakes and sesame cookies amongst the sweet and savory snacks. Desserts in take-away containers come in colors like midnight-black (from rice, dark and forbidding), pandan-green, taro-root purple. They swim in white swaths of coconut milk.
And here we come to the banh mi. The place is called Banh Mi #1, and the sandwiches run in the environs of $3.50. The attending efficiency experts, always wearing baseball caps, dominate the spread of charcuterie and fresh trimmings and paté. Any number of people working the neighboring stalls will tell you the sandwiches here are amazing, and they’re very good. (Some might save up their banh mi trips for Quoc Bao Bakery, an 8-minute drive south on Jupiter Road. I’ve found the baguette here crisper, the sandwiches on the whole superior. To each his own.) The shattering crust might hold a freight of cold cuts—ham, marinated pork with bits of creamy fat you can shed if you like—and smears of potent paté, mayo, and a soy-inflected spread that gives it all extra umami power. The roll is bursting with green bell pepper, cilantro, carrot and daikon ribbons—the whole thing crisp with the cool crunch of fresh vegetables. One bite and you see why the banh mi became a national treasure.
At Bambu is another classic: the extraordinary and kaleidescopic dessert-drink chè. Order from the list of over a dozen and you’re handed a mosaic in a glass: beans and coconut milk, jelly cubes and squirmy basil seeds in a visual tutti-frutti. One has purple taro. Another is green with smashed avocado with sweetened condensed milk and squiggles of coffee jelly. A fruity option has long strips of coconut meat, jackfruit and longan, cool and slippery and chewy. They come topped with a snow-cone shaving of ice. You can customize.
At the very back of the food court is That Thao, another sweets haven with whole coconuts, their tops lopped off, waiting for you to plunge in a straw. Smoothies come in honeydew, kiwi, and soursop, and a bar of toppings of all kinds has more longan fruit, lychee, slippery strands of jelly.
Like a Starbucks, newcomer Phi offers a modern take in the mall’s second wing. Jazzy drinks are listed on a screen along with slicker takes on Vietnamese classics: a few savory breakfast dishes and rice salad, a street-style snack. This is the place for a plain, velvety avocado smoothie.
Outside the mall, around the corner, you’ll find a quaint tea shop that serves, among other things, some luxuries that have no cross-overs inside: durian smoothies, fresh passion-fruit juice, and the jasmine sea-salt tea drink that’s all the rage at places like the Taiwanese 85 degrees bakery. Pretty summer rolls accompany your libations.
Return to your starting point. The men who were there when you started are still there, sitting at tables, talking, smoking, and drinking iced coffee.
Cali Saigon Mall is located at 3212 N. Jupiter Road in Garland.