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Chowdown Report: Lucky River and Marco Polo

Thursday night 24 chowhounds and their guests trekked to Sunnyside for a chow-connaisance mission at Lucky River (700 Monterey Boulevard, San Francisco). This is an unassuming Hong Kong-style eatery with a lime green awning and hanging duck barbecue station on the ground level with dining rooms up a flight or two of stairs. It’s been flying under the radar with few mentions here or elsewhere on the web. Nancy Berry and I put it into the chowdown rotation based on a tip from relatives that the cooking here is a cut above the other inexpensive Chinese options in town making it an excellent value.

We had pre-ordered the $138 wo choy menu (Chinese-only, set menu) for 12 people, plus a claypot dish of eggplant, salted fish and chicken, for each table. Our dinner included the following,

Cold appetizer platter – jellyfish, char siu, 5-spice beef shank, and pork hock stuffed with forcemeat
Scallop and seafood soup
Lobster with ginger and scallions
Sugar peas and beef stir-fry
Honey walnut prawns
Zhejiang sweet and sour spareribs
Crispy skin chicken
Salted fish, chicken and eggplant clay pot
Black mushrooms and grass mushrooms with mustard greens in oyster sauce
Clear steamed flounder (this might have been Petrale sole)
Hot red bean dessert soup

With steamed rice, tax and 20% tip, the cost was $17 per person.

So, chowdowners, how’d you like it? Please post your impressions and highlights.

Take-out menu -

A ‘hound once quipped that the history of this community’s eating events should be subtitled, “and then we had gelato”. True to form, ten diehards headed over to Marco Polo on Taraval afterwards for a gelato nightcap. Lychee is still my favorite flavor here, but I did enjoy the soursop and guava too.

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  1. Good company and good food is a stalwart combination everytime and thanks to Nancy and Melanie (and, Uncle James in absentia), our wo choy menu is the way to go for excellent value—with impressive platters of tasty fare; each dish was satisfying on its own and welcomed to the table with chowhound gusto. The salted fish with tender eggplant and ground chicken clay pot was a highlight of the evening's dinner and I'll add it to my personal rotation. Thanks again for a fine evening of chowing with new 'hounds and old!

    1. My top picks were the char siu and jellyfish on the appetizer platter, soup (once it had a hit of white pepper), crispy skin chicken (including the head and brains) and...what was the other thing?

      Oh yes.

      SPARERIBS. These spareribs were amazing--hot, fatty, and vinegary. I wanted to eat them forever and fought Dave MP over the last grizzled bits stuck to the plate.

      Really, though, I enjoyed pretty much everything. I wasn't as impressed with the lobster, which didn't have much flavor to me, and didn't try enough sole to have an opinion of that.

      On the whole, I thought the meal was a great value and well executed for the price. I've had a lot of honey walnut prawns with burnt or gummy walnuts lately; the walnuts here were perfectly toasty. At $60, the dinner for six also looks like an excellent value--I can't wait to round up a crew and dig in to another plate of spareribs.

      1 Reply
      1. re: pane

        Yes, the spareribs were quite amazing. Sweet, sour, with a hint of black vinegar and crispyness tuned to perfection.

        The eggplant garlic dish was also a hit, with large generous chunks of garlic spread throughout.

        Pictures will be coming later in the day.

      2. Thanks Melanie and Nancy for organizing this....it was nice to see some familiar faces and also to meet lots of hounds for the first time. I thought the meal was very good overall, and like many said, an excellent value. I will comment on everything we ate:

        I really enjoyed everything on the cold appetizer platter, especially the beef shank and the jellyfish. I'm not usually a jellyfish fan, but this had a nice crunch, which I like. I'm not sure how it was seasoned, but it was simple and nice.

        Next came the soup, which I thought was okay. Unfortunately, I didn't add any white pepper until my bowl was nearly gone, and this significantly improved it.

        I didn't think the beef with sugar snap peas was that interesting. I don't care for cooked snap peas very much, and I think the dish would have been better with snow peas.

        I also didn't think the shrimp was all that special. I thought the shrimps were slightly overcooked. The walnuts were good though.

        Like pane, I wasn't impressed with the lobster. It was just okay for me.

        For me, the Zhejiang sweet and sour spareribs were the highlight of the meal. I almost never order spare-ribs, and I guess I barely knew what they were, since I imagined them to be small. But they were very big, juicy and hot. I loved the black vinegar flavor and the sweetness, which I felt were perfectly in balance. I would definitely journey back to this restaurant just for this dish (or the 60 dollar 6 person meal that includes it). The serving was huge but our table could have probably eaten plenty more of it.

        The crispy skin chicken was my other favorite. The skin was crispy and delicious, and the meat was moist and flavorful. This is another dish I would probably never have ordered on my own, but was prepared very well.

        The flounder (or sole) was good...it was expertly de-boned by Ms. Piggy who was sitting next to me.

        I liked the salted fish/eggplant clay pot, but it wasn't my favorite.

        The mushroom/mustard green dish was nice. Well prepared and not overcooked.

        While not everyone at the table was a fan, I really enjoyed the red bean dessert. I liked the strong flavor of orange rind, which made it not too sweet.

        I enjoyed talking to everyone, drinking white wine out of tea cups (was there ever a corkage fee?) and trying all these dishes. Thanks to everyone who came!

        For dessert, we went to Marco Polo, which was not as nearby as some people claimed (grin) but I'm not complaining. I had durian and taro. I really enjoyed the durian gelato, though it was pretty potent. The taro was also nice. I didn't care for the black sesame, but the taste I had of lychee was great.

        Thanks everyone for a great evening.

        Dave MP

        1. As I made plans beforehand to bicycle from Embarcadero BART to Melanie's uncle's favorite place in the city, I had no idea my journey up and down Dolores would find me climbing and sailing down three steep hills. Needless to say by the time I got on Monterey and stopped to step into the din of Lucky River I had worked up an appetite. Ascending the stairs, I was met with a smiling Melanie with fellow chowhounds, happy faces seated round two large tables in a packed, well-lit dining area. As I made small talk with my neighbors, one tablemate observed that the live fish and shrimp were swimming in clean tanks, as our hostess Nancy and her husband John informed us they live right across the street ("I think you can see our house from here") but had eaten at Lucky River only once before, opting instead for their take-out, all the more welcome when it arrived at the Berry's piping hot.

          The appetizer platter of jellyfish, barbecued pork, thin slices of beef, and stuffed pork hock gave me the impression the kitchen used fresh ingredients and cared about presentation, but I found it to be ho hum, though the chilled slices of beef were a pleasant surprise, releasing a burst of flavor that belied its humble origins as a cold cut. Soon after the food came flying out of the kitchen. One dish I found strangely compelling, all the more so because it was introduced to me in a way only a chowhound could love; the first two scoops brought a whiff of, dare I say, funk to my nostril from the clay pot that whet my senses. My tablemate Linda identified the scent as salted fish, and indeed, once on my platter I was ready to savor its promise, but had to wait while it cooled down. Nancy confirmed this dish was unique, later pointing out that the clay pot of salted fish, chicken, and bean cake on the menu had given Melanie's uncle the idea to request the kitchen replace the bean cake with eggplant. The result was something I and my tablemate Linda have never had before, and paired with the other splendid items from the kitchen that time of day (the Zhejiang pork, the crispy skin chicken and the fresh vegetable items), really was the cherry on top.

          A cut above indeed, as Melanie's uncle James would say, and a great family find, Lucky River may prove to be a favored choice for the vegetarians among you. Thanks to our hosts Nancy and her husband John, and to James, for their fine recommendation, and to Lisa for bringing a delightful red wine from Kessler. While I did find the jellyfish on the appetizer platter, as well as the dessert of red bean and orange rind soup, wanting, most of the fare seemed to have the verve of well-executed freshness. From what anyone can gather about an eatery after paying a single visit, better places may exist, but Lucky River was a welcome respite from the flock.

          1. I had a great time, last night. Great conversation, lovely folks, and very good food. I particularly liked the claypot with salt fish, chicken and eggplant. When Melanie and I were planning this event, Melanie told me about her cousin's favorite dish at Lucky River, the claypot described above. It was not on any of the set menus, so John and I visited the restaurant to check it out. We ordered a dish off the regular menu that we thought was Melanie's cousin's dish, but we were wrong. The dish we ordered contained salt fish, chicken and tofu, not eggplant. Well, the balance of that dish was really off and I asked whether we could order this dish with eggplant for the Chowhound dinner. The sweetness and texture of the eggplant in contrast to the salty fish made all the difference in this dish -- it was very, very good and many folks at my table really liked it and commented about how good it was.

            I also liked the spare ribs -- they seemed to be quite a hit at the table. I particularly liked that they weren't loaded with red food coloring. At some restaurants, there's so much of this stuff in the sauce that your tongue turns bright red after eating them. By the way, I've also seen this dish listed on other menus as Peking style spareribs or pork chops.

            The fish was delicate and nicely cooked, but I wish that it had been larger. There was just enough for a very small piece for each person. I really liked the cold plate, especially the char siu and the stuffed pork shank, which tasted like really good salumi. Another thing I liked about all the dishes is that the vegetables were all brightly cooked and the sauces weren't too corn starchy. They weren't watery either -- just thick enough to add a nice sheen and mouth feel to the dishes.

            The crispy chicken had a nice greaseless skin and juicy meat -- also very good.

            I'm not a real fan of prawns with honey walnut, but I liked that they served the walnuts on one side of the platter and the nicely cooked prawns on the other. I also liked the judicious use of mayonnaise in the dish.

            The soup had a nice broth and was loaded with seafood. The lobster, however, was only average. I think that at this time of year, I'd ask whether they would substitute clams in black bean sauce for this dish.

            All in all, though, I think that the restaurant did a great job and the meal was a great value. I left quite happy and enjoyed the extended meal and conversation at Marco Polo. Great night!!

            1. Sorry to be brief (swamped at work)...

              There wasn't a bad dish in the bunch! I missed the cold platter-late as usual. My big faves were the flounders, spareribs, lobster...oh heck! It was all good! Especially surprising were the prawns. The only other time I had this dish was at the chowdown at Seafood harbor (or whatever it's called) and I vowed never to order it. It was so mayo-y. This time it was great!

              BIIIGGGGGG thank you to Melanie and Nancy.

              Jack fruit and guava gelato were pretty good but nothing knocked my socks off.

              1. Thanks Nancy and Melanie and thanks for the great company! Another vote for the ribs--they reminded me of the Rao's chicken recipe, a perfectly cooked dish shocked with a new sauce at the end (in this case the vinegar) to take it to another level.

                Overall the menu was just really well put together. The ingredient quality was high, the flavors were fresh and clean--everything complemented everything else with little or no repetition--and that stinky clay pot dish was the perfect addition to put it all perspective.

                3 Replies
                1. re: otis

                  NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is my favorite, favorite neighborhood Chinese place just blocks from my home...that I purposely ommitted from this board! Don't get me wrong - I love to share, but you have to hold a few close to your vest....

                  1. re: sfoperalover

                    I don't think that this place is in danger of getting too crowded, so why keep it to yourself? What are your favorite dishes there?

                    1. re: Dave MP

                      yes, i know i'm being selfish...my fave is a claypot with seafood and tofu - very unusual and consistently wonderful. I frequently order their mixed vegetables, which are always fresh and bountiful. Also, as strange as it sounds, they have *fabulous* fried rice, which I almost never eat anywhere. their seafood is consistently excellent - never overcooked.

                2. This was a well-constructed set menu--good balance of flavors, textures, temperatures--and great value. Quality of ingredients was high: seafood fresh, chicken flavorful (came to the table with the head delicately perched), mushrooms plump and ample, vegetables very fresh, dried (I think) scallops in the soup. Best dish was the off-the-menu eggplant/salted fish claypot that Nancy added--"funky" (from the salted fish) as a term of highest praise! Spareribs were deep and rich in flavor and came to the table sizzling, but I would have liked more bones to savor.

                  Great find, Melanie and Nancy. Thanks to you for hosting, to Lisa for the German pinot for the table, to Melanie for first-of-the-season cherries to end a satisfying meal. I only wish I'd had time to participate in the gelato course that followed.

                  1. Thanks to Melanie and Nancy for arranging this delightful Chowdown. I agree with the other posters that the salted fish, eggplant dish was the star of the evening. I never had anything quite like it before, though I have had salted fish with steamed chopped pork. The melding of the eggplant with the ground chicken and the salted fish was truly inspired. The spareribs were scrumptious if a bit on the sweet side. One diner at my table commented we won't need dessert after tasting this dish. I agree that the one small fish was inadequate for the twelve folks at our table, only providing a smidgen of a taste for each of us. The portions for the rest of the items were enormous and we had two whole lobsters to go around. Of the cold appetizers I particularly liked the pork hock stuffed with forcemeat. I commented to Cynsa on my right, that is must be the Chinese version of mortadella, and a good one at that. I have frequently gone to Marco Polo in the past, but not last night. My favorites there are Lychee, Rum Raisin and Chestnut. All told a wonderful evening with great food and great company.
                    P.S. I took home the head of our table's chicken as a souvenir :)

                    1. Again, thanks to Melanie and Nancy.
                      I thought this place was a tremendous value and really great alternative to Best Panda. My favourites were the soup, the eggplant claypot, and the fish.
                      Soup - definitely needed the white pepper to brighten, but the broth was very chickeny which I liked. Also, had great dried scallop flavour infused.
                      Claypot - the eggplant was the right doneness. Also appreciated how the salted fish and the chicken were diced to the same size.
                      Fish - liked the silken texture and the delicate saucing.

                      1. WOW... sounds awesome =) i do enjoy marco polo =) their gelato is sooo creamy.. i'm salivating just thinking about it.. perhaps i should make a trip up there just for that... =)

                        1. I agree with the group about the spareribs, just great. As a confirmed mayophobe, I appreciated the shrimp with crispy walnuts because the nuts were on the side and I got to enjoy the nuts, which I don't usually get to do since they are usually mixed with the mayo sauce. I also like the beef with snap peas and mushrooms which started the hot dishes.

                          I wonder a little about the order of the food: the fish came late in the meal (which I'm told is traditional with multi-course Chinese meals) but the flavor was so delicate that it seemed that the flavor would have been better appreciated by serving it earlier.

                          I was less impressed by the crispy-skinned chicken than other people. I tried three pieces, thinking my first piece the exception, but found them dry and left the last piece uneaten except for the skin, my only uneaten food of the night.

                          This place is an amazing value. Seventeen dollars for an enormous amount of delicious food. If I lived closer, it would be a favorite neighborhood place. And great company, as usual. Thank you Nancy and Melanie.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: fairviewgal

                            Seriously, I hate mayo and those prawns didn't taste of it at all. They were really good and those walnuts were awesome. Try it next time; if you hate it, I'll buy.

                          2. As is so often the case with Chowhound gatherings: food was good, company was great. So good to finally meet face to face with frequent posters whose advice and comment has been so helpful. As for the meal, certainly an amazing bargain. Reactions to a few of the dishes...I really liked the bite of the jellyfish app; loved theat initial taste-hit of dried scallop in the soup; thought the balance of funky salt fish to the rest of the dish in the claypot was just perfect; loved the mustard greens, cooked to fine balance of soft and crunch with a light hand on the oyster sauce; and the steamed fish was so perfectly done, moist without coming close to overdone, with very subtle saucing. These were my favorites. The spare ribs were different and highly flavored , but I thought a bit heavy for a large banquet like this-which did not stop me from eating my share. I would like them better with just a vegetable accompaniment (such as our mustard greens). The other dishes were all fine, if not outstanding. In short: more sillful cooking than might be expected in a homestyle restaurant. Every neighborhood should have a neighborhood restaurant like this.

                            1. I did not try the Lobster as I was so full. Everything else I had was great. I just like the fact that the restaurant did not over-use corn strach to thicken the soup broth and sauces. I forgot when was the last time I had a sweet and sour spareribs without the scary red sauce. But, my favorite goes to the eggplant clay pot. The aroma of the salted fish made me feel like home. The eggplant was cook just right and not greasy at all. What an awesome twist!

                              1. Melanie... this sounds so fabulous... any chance you could write a guide on Chinese cuisine in the bay area... as well as on the cuisine(s) in general?

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                  Thanks for the compliment, but, no. It would be impossible for me to create a better guide than the advice that has been posted by our local community on this site for the last seven years and counting.

                                2. Well, just to contribute noise/datapoints ... however you might see it ...

                                  --the dark meat cut was my fav on the appetizer platter.
                                  the jellyfish was ok, but i've had "crispier" version which i liked more.

                                  --not a big fan of the seafood soup. i thought it was bland.

                                  --just had a small piece of lobster. wasnt really up for gnawing
                                  on lobster this evening, so i recuse myself here.

                                  --hot fried beef: i liked this quite a bit. different from
                                  other beef dishes i've had in chinese places. good clean
                                  taste. not gloopy or floury/starchy etc.

                                  --walnut prawns: i liked this but it was pretty much the same
                                  dish at a number of other places. done well. certainly
                                  some places make it "gloopy"

                                  --zhejiang spareribs: seemed to the the crowd favorite at both tables?
                                  good thing there was a huge mound of them!

                                  --crispy skin chicken: also pretty good, although i'd put it
                                  under the beef

                                  --steamed fish: i had a small piece which was ok. it's just not
                                  personally my favorite type of dish: i'm not that into
                                  ginger and steamed fish

                                  --eggplant dish: seemed like my neighbors liked it but it didnt
                                  do that much for me. i'm a little anti-gloopy dishes ...
                                  maybe i should have tasted it more carefully.

                                  --mushroom wi bok choy ... i had a slightly similar dish at SPICES I or II
                                  which i though was better. again, it was a little "gloopy" for me

                                  --dessert: for asian dessert i vastly prefer the fruit-based stuff to
                                  the bean-based items.

                                  german pinot noir: pretty good! thanks lisa.

                                  nancy/melanie: thanks for organizing.
                                  still wondering what's the secret behind the seating chart.

                                  1. Linkification:

                                    Marco Polo Italian Ice Cream
                                    1447 Taraval St, San Francisco, CA 94116

                                    Lucky River
                                    700 Monterey Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94127

                                    6 Replies
                                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                                      We ate at Lucky River last Saturday: clams in black beans sauce, string beans, soy sauce chowmein, won ton soup & pot stickers.

                                      Good, solid versions of all of the above. Not exquisite, but a great local place to eat.

                                      1. re: Calvinist

                                        Do try the Zhejiang spareribs when you're there next, even if you usually have an aversion to s&s dishes. This will change your mind.

                                        I went looking for this thread to add a link because I'd just had the version at Lichee Garden, which were good, but not nearly in the class of Lucky River's .

                                        1. re: Melanie Wong

                                          We replicated this menu for my wife's birthday in July, specifically so we could have the Zhejiang spareribs -- they are really good. But can you order them seperately, or only as part of the wo choy menu?

                                          1. re: Calvinist

                                            Hmm, I haven't tried to do that so can't say for sure. However, at Monday's chowlunch in Milpitas I was talking to another 'hound about this place. He has a favorite not-on-the-menu dish that he orders there, so I think the kitchen would be flexible about this.

                                            Anyone else out there ordered the spareribs ala carte?

                                            1. re: Melanie Wong

                                              ME! I saw a neighboring table eating a "custardy" dish served in a pyrex pie plate...what was it? EGG THREE WAY! (sometimes with clams)...so I just ordered it that way the next meal... even though at the time it wasn't on the menu!