Monthly Archives: May 2012

It didn’t seem fair to post on Heng Heng Pho and ignore the old reliable Banh Mi Ba Li – a place just down the street that I’ve been happily patronizing for years.

Banh Mi Ba Li is in yet another one of those small El Cerrito strip malls, several blocks to the south of Heng Heng, but still just to the north of the spot (around Central, I’d say) where San Pablo Avenue goes from somewhat trendy to not at all.

The location borders on grim, with a perpetually vacant storefront to one side and the “Video Station Adult Emporium” to the other, but since it is mainly a take-out place, with only 1 table inside and 2 out, that doesn’t matter so much.

Like the name says, Vietnamese sandwiches are the main items on the menu, although there are some noodle options available as well, along with the usual selection of pork buns, shrimp rolls, etc.

I personally quite partial to the generous Vietnamese-style pork bun ($2.00) – stuffed with a meatball wrapped around a hard boiled egg and a piece of sausage. When I’m really on the run I just grab one of these and a soda, and that’s lunch.

Still, the place is all about the sandwiches, and they have always been a bargain, although I recall that when Banh Mi Ba Le was “discovered” by the Contra Costa Times some years back (5 or 6?), the prices seemed to “jump” by at least $0.25 overnight. Still, at the current prices of $2.75-$3.00, it’s hard to complain.

Last time I was by, I was with my wife, who had a BBQ chicken.

I had a ham and head cheese. I thought mine was very good, as usual, although I found her chicken a little boring (but that’s often the way it is with chicken, isn’t it?).

Overall, I don’t say that these are the best Banh Mi in the world, but they’re fine – tasty and fresh. (The biggest knock on them, in my opinion, is that they are a little light on the meat.) And, while it’s true that you can get better at various Oakland spots, those places are in Oakland, not El Cerrito. So, when I’m in El Cerrito…

Banh Mi Ba Le
10174 San Pablo Ave.,
El Cerrito, CA, 94530
(510) 528-8882

(Banh Me Ba Le also has an Oakland location, which I visited once, years ago. As I recall, it is run by the sister of the El Cerrito store’s proprietor and, I think, predates the northern branch.)

I have a new listing in El Cerrito, so I’ve been over there a lot lately doing the usual Realtor things – meeting contractors, taking pictures, holding open houses, etc.  This has given me the chance to branch out a bit from my habitual El Cerrito lunch choice – the always reliable Banh Mi Ba Le – and try some new places.

A few days ago, late in the afternoon, I decided to give Heng Heng Pho a try.

Like the typical El Cerrito restaurant, Heng Heng Pho is located in one of the anonymous-feeling strip malls which dot San Pablo Avenue as it heads north from Albany.  (It does actually have a name though – if you notice the faded blue sign reading Cerrito Galleria, you’ve come to the right strip mall.)

The restaurant features an extensive menu of all kinds of items – most non-Pho, in spite of the name.  (The cook is apparently Cambodian and the menu says that it serves “Cambodia, Chinese & Vietnamese” food.)
The interior is modest and I’ve never seen it very crowded. The staff is friendly and the prices are right.
In spite of the extent of the menu – 101 items, not including drinks and sandwiches – I’ve only sampled the Banh Mi so far.  My first time in I tried the “Combo Meat (Ham & Steam Ham)” – not quite accurately described, but still quite satisfactory, especially at $3.25.
The sandwiches are generous – a bit larger than the usual I’d say – and don’t skimp on the meat. The roll wasn’t the best I’ve had, but was decent.

One distinctive feature of the Heng Heng banh mi is that they actually put some sliced dill pickle on the sandwich. To me, this gives it an interesting (but not overpowering) sour tang which I like, although some of the Yelp commentators on the restaurant strongly disapprove. I’ll admit that they are right that this is not “authentic” but, not being Vietnamese myself, I can’t claim to be an arbiter of authenticity when it comes to Vietnamese food. (For that matter, since the banh mi is a classic case of fusion cuisine – French colonialism meets Southeast Asian tradition – it seems like refusing to allow it to adapt further is unconvincing.)Anyway, I liked it enough to go back again today and try the grilled beef.
I liked that too.

Overall, food-wise Heng Heng Pho is credible lunch/dinner option when you are in El Cerrito and it has the added bonus of staying open until 9PM. Stop by – maybe you’ll see me there, since I’ll be back again…

Heng Heng Pho
10386 San Pablo Ave.
El Cerrito, CA 94578

By the way, one of the other great things about Heng Heng is that it’s just a block from El Cerrito’s fabulous free bookstore – the Bay Area Free Book Exchange.
Set up like a funky, poorly organized used bookstore, the Free Book Exchange gives everything away for free. Open only on weekends, it’s an interesting place to browse around. It’s part museum of outdated texts (like the 1984 Student Guide to South America) but I still always manage to pick up a few actually interesting volumes.
Once you’re done looking, you bring your books up to the counter, write your name and the number of books you’ve taken on a legal pad, stamp your finds with the “Not for Resale This is a Free Book” stamp and go on your way.
If only everything was so easy!

Bay Area Free Book Exchange
10520 San Pablo Ave.
El Cerrito, CA 94530

For almost 10 years I worked at an office on Shattuck Avenue on Berkeley’s North Side. I often think that 5 or 10 of the extra pounds I’ve carried around with me all these years are the result of the too-frequent lunches and afternoon snacks enjoyed at Berkeley’s Cheese Board in the days when I worked just across the street from it.
The Cheese Board is a venerable institution in the heart of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, just a few doors up and across the street from Chez Panisse. Founded more than 40 years ago it has been a worker-owned collective for almost all of that time.

When most people talk about lunch at the Cheese Board they are thinking “pizza.”  Indeed, the Cheese Board’s pizza got so popular that some years ago they took over a storefront just south of the main location and opened a pizza restaurant which is pretty much always packed.

But I’m from New Jersey and – I’ll admit it – I’m an East Coast pizza snob.  While I don’t claim that the Cheese Board’s pizza isn’t good by its own lights, it’s a little too California and just doesn’t do it for me.  I’ve had it, it’s OK, but I’m for sure not going to stand on line for it.

Instead, when it comes time for lunch (or an afternoon snack) I’ve always opted for one of the Cheese Board bakery options.

They have an incredible selection of baked items – breads, rolls and scones – some sweet and some savory. Some are available daily, while others appear once a week or more. (See the Bakery Menu.)

I am a die-hard Friday guy because that is the day for both Cheese Scones AND X-Bread. I was fortunate enough to be in Berkeley looking at houses this past Friday (I might even have planned it that way…) so the first thing I did was head for the Cheese Board, stopping only at the Produce Center next door to pick up a V-8 to enjoy with my lunch. (Nothing goes better with a Cheese Scone than a cold V-8!)

One of the other pleasures of a Cheese Board lunch is sitting at one of the few small tables or on the benches out front and watching the North Berkeley world go by while you eat.  Unfortunately, as is often the case, all of the seats were taken and I had to retire to my private booth – ie, the front seat of my car.

As always, the Cheese scone ($2.00) was excellent – rich (as you would expect anything with cheddar cheese, butter, cream and buttermilk as 4 of the first 5 ingredients to be) and with just the right amount of cayenne pepper to give it a bite. (The only thing better would have been if I had gotten there early enough to get one still warm out of the oven.)

The X Bread, ($2.00) although it, like everything else there, cannot really compete with the Cheese Scone, is also very good, with the slightly sweet bread making an excellent counterpoint to the jalapenos and cheddar.

All in all, a fine lunch and, counting the V-8, it only set me back $5.00!

Note:  This was so good I went back the next day and had a Sourdough Cheese Roll ($2.75) and a Provolone Olive Roll ($1).  The Cheese Roll is actually available every day, unlike the rest of the savory items and, while very popular, isn’t my favorite, but on a non-cheese scone day it has to do.  The Provolone Olive Roll is very tasty, with delicious green olives, onions and, obviously, provolone cheese throughout.

Cheese Board Bakery & Cheese
1504 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley, CA