El Cerrito

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