The sago continues: best Asian dessert cafes in San Francisco


Oscar Rendon

A bowl of coconut milk sago with black rice from Golden Island Cafe in the Sunset District on Wednesday, Apr. 11, 2018. (Oscar Rendon/GoldenGateXpress)

Sago is a semi-sweet dessert that can be eaten cold or warmed up, making it a perfect selection for any weather. Throughout San Francisco, small Asian cafes harbor the delicious yet relatively unknown dessert.
According to a study done by the Department of Biosource Production Science at Ehime University, Japan, sago is a vital and versatile raw substance for island nations. The origins can be traced back to Indonesia where it’s actually not harvested for taste but as a supplement for the lack of food supply.

A bowl of coconut milk sago with papaya and coconut milk sago with mango from ETC Dessert Cafe in the Sunset District on Tuesday, Apr. 10, 2018. (Oscar Rendon/GoldenGateXpress)

Sago has almost no nutritional value being composed almost completely of carbohydrates but is extremely filling, so harvesting large amounts of it can provide sustenance in times where crops fail. This is especially true in island nations such as New Guinea and the Pacific Southwest where sago is still heavily relied on as a primary food source.
The starch is extracted from the pith of palm stems, dried out into a powder, and then rehydrated into various shapes and sizes. This is often done with a strainer, where the starch begins to take on the shape of pearls. While it looks similar in texture and shape to tapioca, sago is different in that the two come from different plants.
In San Francisco, sago is becoming more of a trend than a need-based staple. While restaurants that serve sago have
been flying under the radar for the past few years, a few have risen above the rest and made a name for themselves in the Bay Area.
Ginger Milk is a hidden cafe in Chinatown that sells boba drinks, desserts and sago. Although it can be served hot, it is poured in a regular beverage cup with a boba straw. It can be somewhat hard to consume, but once it is cooled down slightly it’s enjoyable.
Elaine Chin, the manager of ETC Dessert Cafe, one of the more prominent spots for sago in the city, says that it is one of the most popular dessert options she serves.
“A lot of people come here for sago, hot and cold but most prefer to order it with fruit and served with coconut milk,” she said of customer preferences. “People don’t realize it is different from tapioca.”
Although someone could be a bit skeptical by the idea of fruit mixed with hot milk, it’s a delicious combination that will leave you wanting another helping. It’s not very sweet, and the base is thicker than most, but the taste of the coconut milk compliments the mango.
The dessert itself can take on various forms. The most popular, as Chin describes, is served as what looks very similar in texture and color to tapioca pudding but slightly thinner in texture — often accompanied by tropical fruits such as mango, papaya and melon.
It can be served hot or cold, depending on your preference, but the popular option seems to be hot.
Golden Island Cafe, an Outer Sunset spot that boasts great sago reviews, has not only mastered the art of sago but for an extremely reasonable price. While their menu spans five to six pages ranging from variations on sago to other specialty desserts, it’s hard to find something outside of the $5 or $6 price range.
However, bring cash because the minimum charge to a card is $20 — that’s a lot of sago.
At Golden Island Cafe, they also have a sago dessert made with mango, but it’s served cold and the dish is icy. The consistency is almost like a slushy. Whether it’s the way they prepare the sago or the taste, each place offers something different.
Fan favorites include black rice with coconut sago — best served hot for a warm, comforting bowl of pudding — or go classic with the fresh mango sago with coconut milk.
The texture may seem off putting at first but sago being smaller, smoother, and less dense than tapioca, is less alarming than at first glance. The taste is mild in the coconut milk-based desserts as sago itself is tasteless and takes on the flavor and aroma of whatever it is paired with.
When living in San Francisco, you may be desperate to find a place that makes this kind of dessert.
These three dessert cafes satiate many of your sweet cravings and offer unexpected, unconventional and extremely cheap dessert options that Bay Area students should take advantage of.