If I were to write an ode on Yelp, it would be to Le Petit Cheval. Of all the things I miss from Berkeley, this is the one that both my heart and my stomach pine for. The not-quite hole-in-wall Vietnamese restaurant right across from the UC Berkeley campus (Bowditch and Bancroft) is an off shoot of it’s much grander and high end parent, rightly named Le Cheval.
Sharing the building with the YWCA, Le Petit Cheval is one of those places undergrads steer clear of thinking it is some expensive restaurant or just never notice it. Of course, I found it to be one of those hideaways that I spent countless hours at and possibly thousands of dollars, reviving my spirits in a more genuine world away from the likes of the food of the Asian Ghetto and the general chaos Berkeley inspires.
Located up a set of stairs, through a jungle-ish front patio, the restaurant mostly caters to the graduate students and professors looking for a quick and cheap bite – the daily special which is $5.50 for two entrees and rice or noodles in very generous servings from a cafeteria-style counter is what they come for. But ask the older balding gentleman what you should order and he will quickly tell you if you want something really good, not to get anything under the heat lamp.
My personal favorite would have to be the BBQ Pork and Pork Wonton Noodle Soup (I once called it pho and the gentleman corrected me – “Pho is fish based,” he said). I think during my heyday I ordered it twice a week and for a $1 more, it sure beat the lunch special. The vermicelli bowls were equally delightful as were any of the salads I ordered, all of which were in such sizable portions that my student wallet leaped for joy.
Of course, if you are looking for the restaurant in which Mama yells orders back, complete with graying Formica tables and a bunch of people eating things not on the menu, this is not the place for you. Facing west, the airy room is full of windows lighting up the hard wood floors and making you remember why you love California weather. The back patio gives a lush garden feel, especially with the plastic tables and chairs, and has more privacy than the front. Around 12pm until 1pm, one must wrestle for a table, but the community vibe runs strong – how often I shared a table with graduate students speaking in a multitude of languages (including C++ and Java), I have no idea.
However, what saves Le Petit Cheval from the yuppie/hippie pretension of so many other student restaurants walking distance from campus are the odd details. Along the walls is a series of paintings depicting “traditional” Vietnamese life. My favorite creation is of a boy riding a water buffalo. But on a closer glance it seems the boy was added as an afterthought – a means to save the strange persepective a water buffalo lingering to close to the foreground. The boy also has two very oddly proportioned arms along with a stance that makes it look like he was originally hanging ten rather than riding a multi-ton beast down river. On the other side of the room is a collection of home made purses and artifacts for sale which curiously resembled half the merchanidize in any Berkeley Tibetan store.
In writing this, I am already dreaming of the Pork Noodle Soup and trying to guess what the proprietor is saying to this round of patrons. (He once told my friend Duso to “Stop picking up women at the bus stop” when one of our other friends couldn’t figure out how to use the Vietnamese coffee drip.)
Oh Le Petit Cheval, how I miss thee! I dream in pho and bahn mi! The simple pleasures of having steps of which no bums can climb!
Los Angeles must have a remedy. Tomorrow I will offer a solution.