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Mr. T’s was a perfectly adequate little place – decent (if unremarkable) food, reasonable prices, a picturesque locale and a friendly owner. There are plenty of restaurants that do a much poorer job on all of the above and yet remain in business and even thrive. But life isn’t fair and the mortality rate among restaurants of all calibers is high, so I wasn’t that shocked today when driving by to see that Mr. T’s had closed its doors (and boarded its windows).

We can only hope that Mr. T’s will be revived more successfully in the near future. In the meantime, RIP, Mr. T’s.

(See here for my previous post.)

In many ways, Concord is a prototypical California baby-boom suburb.  In 1940, it was a sleepy little town of about 1,400, by 1950 its population had increased some 5-fold to almost 7,000 – still modest but growing.  The real boom began around 1950, and by 1960, the were some 36,000 Concordians, by 1970, more than 85,000 and by 1980, over 103,000. (The current population is about 122,000.)

At some point in the mid-1950s, in order to accommodate this growing population and keep up with California’s nascent car and consumer culture, the Park and Shop mall came into being just west of Concord’s downtown.  Since that time it has been expanded several times and now stretches for the equivalent of about 4 blocks – sort of a strip mall on steroids.

Over the years, the Park and Shop has had its ups and downs – facing pressure from the near-by and more modern Sun Valley Mall shopping center and the reality that Concord is generally a less upscale market than the neighboring communities of Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill.

In recent years, however, Park and Shop has landed a couple of big retail fish – Fry’s Electronics and 99 Ranch Market – both attracting large numbers of shoppers (such as myself) and significantly re-vitalizing the mall.

Today Park and Shop is a bustling but undeniably somewhat dated and down-at-the-heels spot (in spite of recent efforts to pretty it up).  Still, to me its very unfashionableness is an asset, almost certainly contributing to keeping the rents affordable and allowing a profusion of small, independent restaurants to survive. Now, in addition to several fast food places and a couple of buffets, there are at least 3 Mexican, several Chinese, 2 Vietnamese, 1 Mediterranean, 1 Korean, and 1 Indian (I think) restaurant – and Chick’s Donuts.

Chick’s is one of my top 5 doughnut shops in this part of the world and so when I was up at Fry’s this morning, picking up some boring odds and ends of things I decided to stop in for a late breakfast.

Chick’s, as the menu says, has been in business since 1955. The interior is authentically retro, with the vintage of the last remodel being, perhaps, the 1970s (maybe the ’80s), by the look of the counter at least.

The staff is very friendly and much of the clientele seem to be regulars.

As is usually the case in the morning, the place was pretty full, so I grabbed a seat at the counter and almost ordered my usual – an apple fritter, along with a cup of coffee.  Chick’s apple fritters are mamouth and very good, but I have to admit that I had noticed a seductive looking lemon jelly doughnut in the case as I came in.

So I switched things up and went for the jelly doughnut – an excellent call.  The doughnut was perfectly cooked, with a hint of crunch to the outside and a ton of jelly on the inside.  (They take the term “filling” literally.)

This was a really excellent jelly doughnut – every bit as good, if not better than Doughnut King’s also very good version, which I described several months ago.

In addition to doughnuts, Chicks does “American Breakfast and Lunch” – with the emphasis on breakfast.  While I usually stick to the doughnuts on my visits, last week I decided to have the full-on breakfast special – 2 eggs, 2 sausages and 1 biscuit and gravy ($6.50).

I like Chick’s biscuits and gravy a lot – even if maybe it doesn’t look so appetizing in the picture.  I’m not sure how much of it is homemade, but the biscuits are light and the gravy sausage-y, rich and flavorful without being gluey.  Add a couple of shots of Tabasco and you’re good.  (I’ll admit that the sausages are pretty generic and – hey – eggs are eggs, but at least they’re cooked right.)

Overall, Chick’s is a great spot – the breakfasts are very good, the doughnuts are excellent, the staff is helpful and nice, the place is lively and relaxed and the prices are reasonable.

Chick’s Donuts & Coffee Shop
1801 Willow Pass Rd
Concord, CA 94520
(925) 682-4917

Ok – so I haven’t had much to say lately, mainly because I’ve been working a ton and haven’t had much time to hit a lot of new places.  Worse than that, the ones I’ve tried have been definitely on the disappointing side, especially since a couple have actually been close to being good.  In both cases, I had a very promising first experience but on the second trip was seriously let down.

Because I hate to trash some obscure little restaurant which, for all I know, I just caught on a bad day, I’m not going to name names, but the first one was a Mexican place on Railroad Avenue in Pittsburg (and that doesn’t narrow it down really at all).

Anyway, my first time in I had a gordita, which was good, and my son had a pastor sandwich which was excellent and made me wish I had gotten that instead.

Everything about this sandwich was great – bread, meat, just right.  (The price was reasonable at $5.99 but no steal.)

So, when I was back in Pittsburg last week I thought I’d give it another shot.  Now, I really love pupusas and so I decided to go for the pupusa, rice and beans plate which, at $3.95 seemed like it would make a fine lunch.

So, to be fair, the pupusa and the ensalada were decent enough – nothing special but one might reasonably ask what one wants from a $3.95 lunch these days?  Well, the problem was that the rice and beans weren’t hot – they were barely even warm.  (As you can see in the picture, the cheese wasn’t melting even a bit.)

Cross it off the list.

My next disappointment was at a cavernous but promising-looking Salvadoran place which opened not too long ago in Concord.  Here, on my first visit, I thoroughly enjoyed a couple of pupusas (revueltas) which were really an excellent lunch at $2.25 each.

So far so good.  I stopped back by there earlier this week, looking forward to enjoying some Salvadoran tamales but instead faced the crushing disappointment of 2 mushy, over-steamed, disintegrating, poor-excuses for same.

To top it off, I encountered a large chunk of chicken bone halfway through the second one.

Cross that place off the list as well.

(Actually, I might go back again, but just for the pupas.)

PS If you don’t know what a pupusa is – and I can’t imagine that being the case with yougo here.

I’ve been up in Martinez a lot lately, since I have several clients buying homes there at the moment. I was over there today around lunch time, scheduled to be back in the office for a 1:30 appointment and needed a quick bite for lunch.  Since I was heading up Pacheco Blvd, past the Shell Refinery, the obvious choice was the La Primavera Restaurant and Lunch Truck.

The truck is regularly (as in every day) parked in the lot of Bob’s Ace Truckbox Center, across the street from and just south of the refinery.  It’s got a couple of picnic tables alongside it, so you don’t have to eat in the front seat of your car if you’re not getting things to go.

The menu’s got the usual taco truck fare – tacos, burritos, tortas, quesadillas, etc – as well as the typical meats.  The prices are quite reasonable, with the tacos at $1.25 each and regular burritos at $3.75-$4.50, depending on the filling.  Super burritos are $5.50+ and there are a few other items not so typical for a taco truck, such as enchiladas and tostadas.

Since it was really hot and I had work to do, I got my regular al pastor burrito to go and headed back to the office.

As you can see, compared to my keyboard, the regular burrito is a good size for lunch – filling but not coma-inducing.  (And, by the way, did you recognize that keyboard as one which started life attached to an SGI O2 workstation?)

Unwrapped.

If it was in East Oakland, I probably wouldn’t be writing about this truck, but it’s in Martinez and it’s the only taco truck (or, at least the only taco truck I know of) in town.  It serves a perfectly acceptable burrito – not great, but tasty enough. (Perhaps a little light on the meat – but what do you really expect for $3.75?)

Anyway, all in all, La Primavera is a fine place to stop and grab something quick, cheap and decent to go or, if you’re in the mood, to kick back there in the parking lot, enjoy your meal and admire the view.

The address of Bob’s Ace Truckbox Center is:

3550 Pacheco Blvd
Martinez, CA

It’s always nice to get something a little different – especially when it comes to Mexican.  Don’t get me wrong – I can eat burritos, tacos, tortas and quesadillas, etc all day long, but sometimes mixing it up a bit really works.

Recently I was heading down Monument Blvd, returning from  a Costco run and decided that a torta would be in order.  Now, anyone who has driven along Monument knows that choosing a Mexican restaurant there can be a daunting task, given the number of very credible options which the street offers.  In this case, however, I opted for a Mexican market I know with a decent lunch counter attached – but when I got there, the restaurant section was closed.

It was then that I noticed just a few storefronts down in the same strip mall (right next to the Afghan Market) the Pancho Villa Birrieria y Carnitas (as the sign out front says, or Birrieria y Barbacoa, as the card says – you choose).

I have to say that the strip mall itself appears a bit on the seedy and ill-kept side, but the restaurant is bright and appears to be very clean.  Even better, the employees (proprietors?) are friendly and enthusiastic.  They seem honestly glad you’re there and really want you to enjoy your meal.

The menu transcends the usual burritos-tacos-tortas-enchiladas-chile rellenos choices. Similarly, the selection of meats is not the typical asada, al pastor, cabeza, etc.

Instead the menu offers goat in several forms and lamb. Other items include quesadillas with huitlacoche (“corn smut”) or flores de calabaza (squash blossoms), huaraches (no, not the sandals), machitos (“ingredients in machito include the internal organs of the kid goat and the goat’s intestines used to wrap and tie the resulting mixture”) tlacoyos, and lots more.

I opted for the goat, which I really enjoyed.

The order comes with a pile of really excellent home-made corn tortillas – almost good enough to be a meal in themselves.

I liked the place enough to have been back several times.  I’ve had pupusas there, which were good but not outstanding.

Most recently, however, I had a borrego (lamb) burrito which was, in fact, outstanding. It was a monumental thing, loaded with meat. The lamb itself was very flavorful and the rest of the ingredients complemented, rather than overwhelmed, it.

I still need to get back to try all of the various unknown (to me) items on the menu. (I expect there to be another posting or two on this place in the future.)

By the way, I’m told that on weekends (and Fridays?) after 5 PM they have $1 tacos – yet another reason to go back.

Pancho Villa Birrieria
1500 Monument Blvd
Ste F13
Concord, CA 94518

Tennyson Rd in Hayward is another one of those Bay Area streets with a seemingly endless variety of interesting (and mostly very modest) little restaurants. The strip mall which houses the subject of this post is a good case in point, with a Mexican bakery/deli, a pizzeria and a Szechuan-Chinese restaurant all in a row.


As I have acknowledged previously, being from New Jersey, I have an admittedly narrow and dogmatic view of what “real” pizza is and how it should taste. Consequently (leaving aside Chicago-style pizza restaurants) I’m pretty damn fussy and just don’t do a lot of pizza.

Now, it happened that I was assigned a bank-owned listing in a little neighborhood off Tennyson several years back.  The occupants, not content to have stiffed the bank on some hundreds of thousand of dollars borrowed in various re-fi’s, were hanging tough in the property, declining (albeit very politely) all offers of “cash for keys” and refusing to move following the foreclosure.  They managed to drag things out for over a year before the eviction finally took place.  During that time I had to drive by the property at least once every week to confirm that they were still really there.  That was a lot of trips down Tennyson Rd.

During that time I got to sample many of the street’s lunch offerings, since I always tried to go mid-day to avoid the almost inevitable late afternoon and morning traffic jams on 880.  It was on one of these outings that I discovered New York Pizza.


The inside of the restaurant is cavernous and it seems like the kitchen area must be quite small, since the dining area doubles as a storeroom. (I guess that the place must mainly do take-out business, since there are never too many people there when I stop in.)


The furnishings are pretty ugly, as is the carpet, and the New York photo murals are showing their age – but the chandeliers do give the place an elegant look.


The important thing, though, is that the pizza’s actually good. The crust is very thin but avoids the crackery consistency you often have to settle for here in CA when you want to avoid the bland bready-ness from which so many West Coast pizzas suffer.


Equally importantly, the pie actually has some real taste to it.  The sauce is especially flavorful and reminds me of home (NJ, that is).


The slice (shown here cut in half) has plenty of sausage, which also has a nice flavor.


If there’s a knock on the place. it’s that they sometimes leave your slice in the oven a little too long.

Still, the piece is huge and at $1.99 for cheese or $2.49 for the sausage, you really can’t beat it.  One of these slices plus a can of soda and you still are out the door with an excellent lunch under your belt for less than 4 bucks.

Note: There are lots of “New York Pizzas” in the Bay Area, many of them unrelated. The Hayward New York Pizza is part of a small, mainly local chain, with several stores over on the Peninsula.  (There’s even a phone number for a Laguna Hills location, but no address.) I have not tried any of them, but, by the look of the web site, (and not surprisingly) the Palo Alto, San Carlos and San Mateo stores might be a little fancier than the Hayward location. They also seem to charge more for the slices – since the on-line menu shows them at $3.99-$4.99.

www.newyorkpizza.biz/

665 W Tennyson Rd,
Hayward, CA 94544
(510) 786-3165

I’ve never been to Hawaii and until just a few years ago, I’d never even heard of Hawaiian barbeque, let alone tried it. Then one day back in 2008 I happened to be over in Hercules, having just finished up a much-longer-than-necessary (non)occupancy verification, entry and re-keying of a foreclosure assignment. Tired, hungry and cranky, I was just about to break down and actually eat at Subway when I noticed a place next door called L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. I ordered a regular Chicken Katsu and from that meal alone, I became an instant Hawaiian BBQ devotee.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about Hawaiian Barbeque, including that the term itself is an invention by the founder of L&L to entice us ignorant mainlanders and that in Hawaii it’s called (rather boringly) Plate Lunch. I’ve also learned that L&L is the MacDonalds of Hawaiian Barbeque (although I will admit L&Ls can be fine) and that there are many better options scattered around the East Bay.

When you’re in Concord (and even when you’re not) one of the best of these options is Waikiki Hawaiian BBQ. Located in a small strip mall on Willow Pass Rd (just blocks away from two of my habitual destinations: Fry’s and Ranch 99) Waikiki’s take on the plate lunch is one of the best in the East Bay.

As you’d expect, the interior isn’t fancy…

… but the prices are excellent.

When it comes to lunch in the middle of a busy day, I often opt for a lighter option – say, a katsu or barbequed chicken sandwich and a scoop of Waikiki’s unparallelled Mac salad.

The sandwich is modest – lettuce, mayo, onion and tomato plus meat on a hamburger bun.  No pretensions but still tasty.  The mac salad is to-die-for – rich, creamy, perfectly textured – and I’m sometimes tempted just to buy 3 scoops and skip the sandwich.  Altogether, this meal sets you back $3.55 and, unlike eating even a mini, you don’t feel like you’ve got to go take a nap when you’re done.

Still, at times I can’t help myself and I’ll order a “mini” (smaller meat portion, 1 scoop each of rice and mac salad). If I’m feeling really glutinous, I’ll go for the regular (a ton of meat, 2 scoops of rice and 1 scoop of mac salad).

I started out as a nearly exclusive consumer of chicken katsu – perfectly cooked breaded, deep fried chicken thighs – with a tangy-sweep katsu sauce for dipping.

(Regular chicken katsu)

The same chicken is used for several other items, served with different sauces. Lately, in fact, I’ve switched over to the “chicken cutlet” which comes covered in brown gravy.

(Regular chicken cutlet)

The ultimate in island comfort food.

(Mini chicken cutlet)

Waikiki Hawaiian BBQ
1680 Willow Pass Rd
Concord, CA 94520
(925) 798-8002

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
510-549-3183