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Le Cheval: Quit Horsing Around

April 20, 2007

Le Cheval is a Vietnamese restaurant located at 10th and Clay in downtown Oakland, a few blocks from Chinatown and the City Center. Really, though, it’s not just a Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Oakland. It’s the Vietnamese restaurant — certainly not because it’s the best Vietnamese in the immediate vicinity, but just because of its reputation and history. The restaurant has been around since 1985, and in downtown Oakland — an area that is currently in the midst of a revitalization (or gentrification, if you prefer), but for many people, is still synonymous with crime, empty streets, and urban blight — that is indeed saying something. In the 1980’s, many people fled the city in response to its high crime rate, and the buildings downtown emptied out. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 essentially sealed the deal, because once the buildings became uninhabitable and physically unsafe after the earthquake, there really was little reason for people to stay. Downtown Oakland, once a bustling boomtown and the cultural heart of the East Bay, became a neglected ghost town. Of course, there were workers in the area during the week from 9-5, but come nights and weekends, the area pretty much evacuated — a hollow skeleton lacking flesh and blood to give it life. In the past few years, renewed interest in the area has brought about an influx of new apartments, bars, clubs, and restaurants. It is a work in progress, though, and even now, almost 20 years after the earthquake, downtown feels quieter and more subdued than it should.

What does any of this have to do with Le Cheval? Well, Le Cheval stuck around, through thick and thin, when very few others did, and for that, Short Exact would like to give them a gracious nod and word of thanks. Combined with Chinatown (the only part of downtown Oakland which has remained thoroughly and consistently bustling throughout this whole period), Le Cheval became one of the beacons of light that city politicians could rally around and point to, as evidence that the downtown area would one day soon come into its own again and regain its rightful place as the pulsing urban heart of the East Bay. Former mayor Jerry Brown was particularly fond of this restaurant, and he often mentioned it in connection with his own extensive (one might almost say obsessive) effort at breathing new life into the downtown core.

It isn’t hard to see why he has a fondness for this place, beyond just the fact that they stuck around when most others left. The decor of the large restaurant floor, unsurprisingly, features lots of horses (for any Francophobes reading, “cheval” is the French word for “horse”), and provides an atmosphere that, while on the noisy side, is a cut or two above what you would find at a hole-in-the-wall. There is also a feeling about Le Cheval that is distinctly Oakland, one which you won’t necessarily find that often, even at other establishments in Oakland, and it is a noticeable contrast to the hyped “see and be seen” mentality that characterizes many restaurants in San Francisco. Oakland may be somewhat grittier, rougher around the edges, and less fashionable than its elegant, foggy cousin across the Bay, but it has a refreshingly casual, down-to-earth attitude that is in evidence at tables all over the large, spacious floor of Le Cheval. It is a cliche (but nonetheless, a true cliche) that one of Oakland’s greatest strengths is its diversity, and there is a comfortable, organic, and completely unforced sort of diversity that we’ve consistently observed in the people eating at Le Cheval — and it is not as common as you’d think it would be, even here in the Bay Area, a region fond of touting itself as a bastion of diversity.

We don’t usually give this sort of historical/sociological introduction to restaurants, but it seemed to be an appropriate thing to do for Le Cheval, because while our last visit demonstrated a noticeable decline in terms of both food and service, we still wanted to convey the affection we have for this restaurant, in spite of any possible decline.

Anyway, after all that text, you probably want some pictures to rest your eyes a bit, so without further ado, let’s move onto the food:

tb_le_cheval_salad.jpg

This was the goi sua sen, a salad full of steamed shrimp, cabbage, thin strips of jellyfish, lotus roots, and cilantro and mint leaves, all topped with a garnish of chopped peanuts. This was a light, refreshing dish with fresh ingredients, but as often seems to be the case at more Americanized Vietnamese restaurants, the dressing, based on fish sauce and vinegar, was too light (read: bland) . The salad would have benefited from a dressing with more body. We also started with an order of (what else) but the goi cuon shrimp rolls, with vermicelli, mint, and lettuce wrapped in rice paper. The rolls were not exemplary, as some of the greens were not at maximum freshness (old and wilted), and there were random holes and sloppy sections in the wrapping.

Our entree was the lemon grass calimari (muc xao xa ot), served with white rice,

tb_le_cheval_calamari.jpg

and unfortunately, this was also sort of a disappointment. Despite being labeled “spicy”, the dish was not the least bit so. Hints of a flat, one-dimensional curry and lemon grass emerged, but even though this sauce drowned and completely overpowered the calimari, it was not nearly as flavorful and aromatic as it could have been. Meanwhile, a lot of the character, bounce, and crisp texture had been cooked out of the onions and the calimari, giving many pieces a rubbery profile. The dish did not taste reheated at all, and it wasn’t terrible, but it was mediocre and unnuanced. We would mostly likely not order this dish again, especially with so many other choices on the menu.

In the past, the service at Le Cheval was always closer to brisk and efficient than courteous, but on our most recent visit, the service was inexperienced and indifferent, at best. An awkward delay passed between the time we placed the order and received the appetizers, but then the entree arrived just seconds later, right on the heel of the starters. The servers insisted on crowding all dishes into one corner of the table rather than spreading them out in a more useful way, and so we were forced to rearrange the whole table ourselves into a suitable format before eating. There weren’t any mistakes made in the order, so the service wasn’t horrible, but the prices, while reasonable, are not exactly cheap (most entrees pass above the $10 mark), and we don’t think it’s unfair to expect at least somewhat better service at this price point.

Generally, we were pretty disappointed in Le Cheval after this visit. Le Cheval was never great Vietnamese food, nor was it ever the best in downtown Oakland, since this area (including Chinatown) has a fairly dense cluster of Vietnamese restaurants. It is, however, an Oakland institution, and even if their cuisine was never the best, it was usually at least decent, and oftentimes quite good — good enough to warrant return visits. It has been some years since we were last here, and it is sad for us to see a restaurant with this much history decline. Business still seems to be good, thanks to its reputation, but reputation can only carry you so far, if there is a lack of substance to back it up.

Anyway, we sincerely hope that Le Cheval quits horsing around. This restaurant, with over two decades of history, has long been an anchor in a once flailing downtown area, and now that downtown is finally starting to blossom and be recognized in the way that it deserves to be, Le Cheval needs to get its act together so that it can continue to keep its place as a loved institution for many years to come.

RATING:

COST:

1007 Clay Street (at 10th St.)
Oakland, CA 94607
Phone: 510.763.8495
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11:00 am – 9:30 pm; Sun, 5:00 pm – 9:30 pm.

Cuisine: Vietnamese
Neighborhood: Downtown Oakland

How to get there: The restaurant is only a few blocks from the Oakland City Center/12 St BART station. AC Transit lines: 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 40, 43, 51, 63, 72, 82 and 88.

Note: There is another branch of this restaurant, “Le Petit Cheval” in Berkeley, but this review only covers the main Oakland restaurant.

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5 comments

  1. I enjoy your Short Exact takes on history/current events.


  2. What a gorgeously written intro–I think this post really showcases your wonderful writing ability, something that really distinguishes you from other blogs. Wow, I had no idea about the history behind Oakland’s City Center! Being a relatively recent Bay Area transplant, the only Oakland City Center that I know is the clean, relatively quiet, and subdued one that exists today. But I know what you mean about it having a distinctly different feel than SF. Thank you for such an interesting post.


  3. PE and Doug: thanks, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! It was a bit of an experiment, but maybe I’ll try to do this sort of post more often.

    PE, the period of time in which downtown was actually a bustling area is definitely before my time. I was just a little kid during the 1989 earthquake, and so I’ve only heard firsthand stories and seen pictures from the “old days,” but I’ve long wished to see this area build itself back up, while hopefully not gentrifying too much and still retaining some of its distinctive charm. It seems like downtown’s time may finally have arrived.


  4. Unfortunately Le Cheval time has come as a long time diner at this restaurant on 7/24/2007 we had dinner there. The calamari salad was aweful loaded with a slim green color curry no lemon grass at least that I could see lots of what appeared to be not properly cook calamari but the tast of the onions made it palatable. We also order the beef lemon grass dish alas no lemon grass to be found and again overpowered with a slime green curry. I think they are using a cheaper form of curry powder to reduce cost. While the beef was tender given that it had a slime green color it was not appetizing at all. Alas our favorite dish which was the red snapper in cocunut milk which is usually white sourronded by large purple delicious chunks of eggplant and okra was a foul tasting breaded fish probably frozen and reheated in once again an overpowering slime green curry not the light delicate coconut milk texture we are so familiar with. When we brought this to the attention of the waiter he did nothing and when we asked to speak to the manager she eventually came over but we certainly did not feel they made any attempt to offer us another selection. Unfortunately Le CHEVAL has become a 1 star horse in a 5 star town and the chef has to cut back on that curry. Both me and my date left with grumbling stomachs not because we were still hungry but because we were both waiting for the deluge.


  5. Marvin, I’m sorry to hear you had a poor meal — especially frustrating, since you said you’re a long-time diner who has turned sour. Based on your description, it sounds like your meal was worse than mine, which was even mediocre at best. In any case, thanks for weighing in with your experience.



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