Banh mi

I was over in Oakland a few days ago, driving around looking at houses and thinking about food. Being as it was more or less lunchtime, eating a Vietnamese sandwich seemed like the right thing to do.

When it comes to banh mi, Oakland has lots of credible options, but I wasn’t into cruising for a parking space and/or walking 5 blocks after finding one – so I opted not to head into Chinatown proper, but instead stayed in the less-crowded New Chinatown neighborhood. Besides, I was thinking that I would just grab something and go over to the lake (Lake Merritt, that is) and have a little private picnic.

The obvious choice, then, was Than Thuy which, unlike all the other Vietnamese sandwich shops I know of in Oakland, has its own little parking lot out front.

Than Thuy is toward the northern end of New Chinatown in a somewhat seedy little strip mall.  It has a handful of tables outside, which are usually occupied by a handful of Vietnamese guys who always seem to be smoking up a storm.

The menu is the usual selection of sandwiches, as well as some noodle dishes.  Prices are reasonable at around $2.75 per sandwich.

If you’re in the mood, you can sit at the counter and check your Lotto numbers, or chose one of the small inside tables, but instead I got mine to go.

I thought seriously about going for a fish cake sandwich, but instead opted for the grilled beef.

Than Thuy’s Vietnamese sandwiches might not be the best anywhere, but they are very good – the rolls seem fresh and the meat and veggies are tasty.  Overall, a great value.

Lake Merritt is just a few blocks away, so I headed over there, parked my car and spent 15 minutes or so enjoying my lunch and watching the world go by.

Than Thuy
745 E 12th St
Oakland, CA 94620
(510) 836-1212

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

So the whole hypester hipster food truck thing has finally made it across the bridge and through the tunnel to the ‘burbs with the arrival of the Bay Area Nom Nom Truck in Walnut Creek. Naturally, I had to try it so, on Saturday, when I had nothing else to look forward to but an afternoon in the office catching up on paperwork, I figured I’d ease the pain by treating myself to whatever the truck had to offer.

As promised by the its website, I found the Nom Nom Truck parked at the gas station on the southwest corner of Ygnacio Valley Blvd and Civic.

I confess to a moment of sticker shock when I saw the prices and reflected on the irony of the truck’s promise of bringing banh mi “to the masses” while charging more than any Vietnamese sandwich establishment in the world and I commented to the gentleman at the window, who assured me that I would “see value” in what I got.

With that assurance, I ordered the grilled pork sandwich at $6.75, paid, got my order within what seemed like about 2 minutes, headed back to the office and ate my lunch.

I really wanted to love this, but, the truth is, I was disappointed – it was just OK.

On the good side:

  •  service is fast and the folks in the truck are friendly.
  • the sandwiches are generous – probably a third again as large as the ones you get for a third the price at places like Cam Huong and Thanh Thuy in Oakland or Dakao II in Milpitas. (You do the math on that.)
  • they have big chunks of real meat in them.
  • they’re not bad.
  • they photograph well.

On the not-so-great side:

  • they’re not so great; kinda bland, really (and where were the peppers?)
  • they cost a fortune (maybe an exaggeration)

The thing is that in Walnut Creek I can get a much better (albeit, non-Vietnamese) sandwich for the same more-or-less 7 bucks at Morruci’s or Genova and not have to pay that for the privilege of standing in the rain in a gas station parking lot. (Ok, so it wasn’t actually raining – but it was cloudy)

In short, while the guy was right when he said I’d “see value”, it wasn’t $6.75’s-worth of value. (Maybe $5?) Overall, the Nom Nom truck isn’t bad, it’s just not that special.

I’ll be back when there’s a Groupon.