There is this McDonald’s pretty much right across the street from the old Physics building where I went to college. It made good business. College kids, tight pockets, tight schedule, empty stomach, of course. But good old days are no more. The Big M is nonexistent here, although all the above conditions still hold. The Physics building is inconveniently located in the middle of campus, which is at least 15 minutes strolling to the nearest food in any direction (on-campus diners don’t count). The shortest voyage if you’re facing south leads to the corner Durant-Bowditch. A yellow sign gently says “Le Cheval – Saigon Cuisine, Est. 1986”, with green vines, sunshine patio, and “cash only”.
The place is usually packed during lunch peak. (This picture was taken at 3 pm.) There are about a dozen dishes on the counter, you pay a fix price for a combo rice plate, and make your own. I haven’t tried those, because it would take more time than to order a bowl of pho. Actually I said “noodle soup”, and the white man at the cashier politely asked, in well-toned Vietnamese, “phở bò?” :-). I paid, poured myself a glass of water, sat down with a number. Two minutes later a guy, tray in hand, zigzagged from the back kitchen through numerous chairs and conversations. My pho was ready, snuggly next to the usual bountiful plate of bean sprouts and mints. I don’t recall my double cheeseburgers coming to me faster than that, especially when there are 50 customers around. Arguably, this phở is a more heart-warming encounter. What else would you expect from a big bowl with lotsa meat?
Speediness aside, Le Cheval has something else worth coming for: phở sans broth and all that steamy business. I haven’t seen this dish anywhere else. It appears under the name “stir-fried phở” on page 3 of the menu. It has the combined quality of pad thai and jap chae. A delicate yet enduring texture. It’s phở you can eat with a fork and ease. It’s phở you can take your time handling without making it disintegrate into the sea of broth. And take time you must, for it’s a big plate.
The veggies and shrimps are just makeup on a natural beauty, and probably for the health-conscious. The noodle is already savoury by itself.
Side note: the chopsticks here might be a little too short, and I always get loaded with guilt when putting my finished bowl (with broth) into the plastic bins for dirty dishes. Fatty liquid streaming out and coating the bowls isn’t a pretty sight. On the plus size, self-service saves you on tips, and all the more reason to order pho xao if you have time.
Address: Le Petit Cheval
2600 Bancroft Way (between Bowditch St and College Ave)
Berkeley, CA 94704