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Good Grab-and-Go Local Snacks, Mini-Meals

Here are a few places to find quick, comforting snacks when you're having a busy day.

There’s a familiar game culinary students play that involves naming a last meal before execution. Guidelines are often augmented to draw the game out — along the lines of house rules in Monopoly — allowing players to name multiple courses, a soft beverage and a wine flight rather than just a single dish.

Meals are always described in painstaking detail.

It was in that spirit that several food blogger friends and I recently got on the subject of snacks. A larger convo about packed schedules and the need to grab food on the run — often eating in a parked car — was the catalyst.

Each of us recited a list of local restaurant snacks we like to have on the fly.

Leaning toward melted cheese, braised meat and rich dough, choices — described in full glory — reflected a wish for a break from all the brown rice, farro, stir-fried veggies, tofu and chicken breast we eat day after day.

Here’s a portion of my list that contains a few real winners.

Carnitas taco -  

This taco is a wonderment and satisfies my occasional hankering for carnitas, or slow-cooked pork. It’s more than a snack, especially if you get it with the works, like guacamole and sour cream. The soft corn tortilla comes hot and a bit crispy and there’s always plenty of carnitas — which is the best in the area, in my opinion. Get a fork and have a roll of paper towels in your car if you want to eat it in there.

Cheese biscuit -  

Fatapple’s makes a rich cheddar and Swiss cheese biscuit that’s great with a cup of tea. The cheese sticks and puffs are beyond good, too.

Chicken wing or two - Louisiana Fried Chicken (11775 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito)

Crisp, slightly-spicy fried wings are a cut above here.

Cup of chili -  

When you have a taste for old school chili, pop by Nibs. They make their thick, deeply-flavored chili with little chunks of beef. You can get a bowl, too.

Fish taco -  

When I interned at the San Francisco Chronicle’s Food & Wine Department I used to run out to Rubio’s when there was nothing to eat in-house and developed a liking for their fish tacos. The basic version gets you a little beer-battered fish, salsa, sour cream-based sauce and shredded cabbage in a soft corn or four tortilla. Rubio’s uses canola oil to fry their fish.

Ham & cheese croissant -  

This meal of a croissant is best when the contents spill out during baking and become caramelized and crispy. Pastry shards fly all over when you take bites, so get out of your car, buy a cuppa at next door, and enjoy outside. If you want something smaller, go for the delicious asiago-gruyère sourdough roll.

Mini éclair -  

I’m not into sweet things, but do like a good cream puff or éclair once in awhile — as long as it’s not overloaded with pastry cream or custard. If you, too, prefer more whipped cream than pastry cream, check these chocolate-glazed beauties out. They’re the perfect few bites for one.

Pandan leaf coconut sesame waffle - Hong Kong Snack House  (Pacific East Mall - 3288 Pierce Street, Richmond)

This stall is a fun stop after a trip to 99 Ranch Market. The menu is huge, but start with this made-to-order, oddly appealing waffle that’s rendered green by pandan leaf extract. Pandan leaves are used in Asian cooking to wrap and flavor foods. The interior of the waffle is a little sticky, and there are shreds of coconut and sesame seeds throughout.

Pig’s ear - BBQ counter at 99 Ranch Market (Pacific East Mall - 3288 Pierce Street, Richmond)

Like braised pork belly? There’s a good chance you’ll also like this savory, gelatinous, crunchy treat — but be sure to ask that it be cut into pieces. If the person working the BBQ section doesn’t speak much English and isn’t sure what you want, just point to your own ear.

SPAM musubi -  

This is a large piece of warm SPAM sushi wrapped in seaweed. SPAM has its negatives, but I nevertheless indulge in this occasional treat — which is more rice than SPAM. My Father used to fry SPAM with eggs when I was a child, so it’s nice to be able to have a little now and then. Classic SPAM is not “mystery meat,” by the way, it’s “pork with ham,” according to Hormel.

Renate Valencia May 29, 2011 at 07:14 PM
They have some good things there — that's for sure!
Lily Shih May 31, 2011 at 06:06 PM
The cheese scone at Cheeseboard is far superior to the cheese biscuit at FatApples. But it's only available one day a week – Friday. If you haven't tried it, you should. Though I agree that the cheese sticks and cheese puffs are great.
Renate Valencia May 31, 2011 at 07:06 PM
Hi - thanks for your comment! My current list doesn't venture as far, distance-wise, as The Cheese Board. I'll revisit this theme at some point since there are numerous places I wasn't able to include this go-round. I agree about the scones being good, but I have a weakness for their sourdough cheese rolls — I love them!
Michele Mantynen May 31, 2011 at 07:35 PM
Ba Le on San Pablo, in the Peppermint Tree Plaza: Imperial Rolls (in the fridge case in front of the counter) or fresh shrimp-filled spring rolls. Also, their banh mi can't be beat and are only about $2.50! The Junket in El Cerrito Plaza: hand pies (I forget what they're called- pasties maybe?) Before 4pm, Zachary's sells slices. They're HUGE. One slice between two people is a pretty ample snack.
Renate Valencia May 31, 2011 at 10:02 PM
I love Ba Le's sammies, but have not yet tried many of the snacks in the case. I'll have to check for the pasties the next time I'm in The Junket. My son likes the spinach piroshki there. Thanks for the tips!

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