don’t know why pho is pronounced fuh but I do know an under-the-radar place in Marina called Pho Lucky Noodle House where you can get the Vietnamese-style noodle soup, and it’s as good as I’ve had anywhere in the area.
The pho craze has been picking up steam since the influx of Vietnamese immigrants in the late 1970s, but I didn’t jump on the pho train until a couple of years ago when I realized it was a great lunch choice – light, satisfying and healthful. I was glad to add one more place to my lunch rotation in Marina, a town with good, rich gastronomic diversity, especially of the Asian persuasion.
Pho Lucky Noodle, open since October 2013, offers pho 13 different ways ($6.75/small order; $7.25/large), using beef, pork, chicken and seafood. My first time there I had the pho dac biet, which is a beef-based combination consisting of rare steak, brisket, flank, soft tendon and meatballs in a rich and flavorful beef broth. Another time I tried pho ga, the chicken noodle soup. Both broths provide a clean, defatted and wholesome-tasting backdrop for the noodles and proteins. Without giving away all his secrets, owner/operator Son Nguyen says what makes his bone broths so good is that they’re simmered for eight to 12 hours.
He works the front of the colorfully muralled dining room – semi-surreal seascapes, hang gliders over the bay – while his wife keeps pumping out the vittles for an eager clientele that fill the place every lunch time. Many customers greet the personable but somewhat reserved Nguyen by name, and he often knows their order before they sit down.
He sees to it that along with the pho, you get a plate of fresh bean sprouts, basil and jalapeños to add. My ritual is to break and tear the sprouts and basil into smaller pieces and cut the jalapeño slices with the side of my soup spoon and drop them in the soup.
When I was first introduced to pho I thought it was messy and hard to eat. I hadn’t quite figured out what to do with a bowl of broth with long noodles and a Chinese style soup spoon and chopsticks.
Finally a Japanese woman showed me how to hold the soup spoon in one hand and the chopsticks in the other; grab a few strands of noodles with the chopsticks and transfer them to the spoon. Then you dip the spoon down to fill it with broth and add a chunk or two of chicken or whatever meat the pho is blessed with. Take a bite and repeat.
For some additional zing, each table at the Pho Lucky Noodle House is set with a variety of sauces – chili paste, hot chili sauce, hoisin, Sriracha, fish sauce and soy. Another part of my technique, in order to get the best out of these condiments, is to add them to each spoonful rather than mixing them into the broth. This allows the possibility of trying different flavor combinations and provides more sweet, hot and savory bang with each bite. My favorite combo is the trio of chili sauce, hoisin and Sriracha.
Back at Pho Lucky Noodle another day (it’s become a habit), I went non-pho and tried one of the rice plates while a friend and colleague gleefully slurped up (shame about the blouse) the rare steak and noodle soup. She liked it immensely, especially the broth – a significant fact to me since she’s a self-avowed pho fan from L.A. and a brutally honest food critic. I was envious of her pho but satisfied with my com dac biet ($8.25), a combo plate that includes a barbecued pork chop, chicken wings, one egg roll and a generous mound of white rice. Another dish I thoroughly enjoyed was mi xao thap cam ($8.25), a combination of stir-fried egg noodle with shrimp, pork and chicken. Completing the dish is broccoli, bok choy, crinkle-cut, julienned carrots and onion.
I liked all four of the spring roll appetizers (all $4.50) I eventually tried, but my favorite by far is the phan goi cuon tom made with shrimp. Other choices are grilled pork, grilled chicken or vegetables, each filled with lettuce, cabbage and rice noodles, served with a warm peanut sauce.
Fried rice and stir-fried noodle dishes round out a modestly priced menu ranging from $7.75 to $8.25, with vegetarian choices from $4.50 to $7.75. There’s also a giant beverage selection including fresh coconut juice ($2.95), salty lemonade ($2.95), hot and cold coffee drinks ($2.95), Thai iced tea ($2.50), all types of sodas ($1.25), domestic and imported beer ($3/$4) and a variety of fruit smoothies ($2.95).
Despite some old posts on a certain social media website criticizing Pho Lucky Noodle for its slow service, I can say, based on my six lunchtime visits, I’ve never had to wait more than about five to eight minutes to get my food. And each time the 30-or-so-seat dining room was at least 80 to 95 percent occupied. Fast, friendly enough and efficient is how I would describe the service.
PHO LUCKY NOODLE HOUSE 266 Reservation Road, suite R, Marina. 10am-9pm daily; closed Wed. 883-8003, www.pholuckymarina.com