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Lucky Pho vs. Pho T Cali (San Diego)

Josh Feb 5, 2008 07:26 PM

I've been on a serious pho bender lately, trying to kick this cold I picked up. After having visited Pho T Cali 3 times in as many days, I emailed KirkK to get a recommendation for another place to try. He suggested Lucky Pho, so I headed there tonight, having had Pho T Cali yet again for lunch.

In his blog, Kirk described Pho T Cali as a "middle of the road" pho place, and now having eaten at Lucky Pho, which he cited as having better, richer broth, I can see his point. The difference between the two places is subtle, yet significant.

In terms of broth, I have to agree that Lucky Pho is clearly the winner. The flavor of the broth is beefier, and the flavors of the star anise and cinnamon are much more discernible.

Meat-wise, I also have to give the nod to Lucky Pho. The beef for the rare steak seems to be sliced thicker than at Pho T Cali, which means it doesn't get so cooked by the broth. It definitely had a rare beef flavor, and a much softer mouthfeel. Pho T Cali's rare steak is very thin, and cooks very quickly in the broth, so that by the time you eat it it's pretty well done. On the other hand, the tendon was really skimpy at Lucky Pho, and seemed almost too soft. Pho T Cali is more generous with the tendon, and it's got a little more resilience to the chew.

On to the garnish. Again, Lucky Pho gets the nod, if only because they have the sawtooth leaf in addition to the basil. Sawtooth leaf has an interesting flavor that's hard to describe. It's somewhat reminiscent of cilantro, but not exactly.

The only thing I found mildly disappointing at Lucky Pho was the quality of the noodles. I've noticed both here and at Convoy Noodle House a very starchy flavor, as well as a very cloudy appearance to the broth after stirring up the noodles. This makes me think the noodles weren't well-rinsed before being added to the bowl. At Pho T Cali, I've never experienced this starchy flavor, nor have I seen a cloudy broth post-stirring. Lucky Pho's noodles were also cooked a little longer than Pho T Cali's it seemed, so they were a little softer and not as al dente.

I'll definitely be trying Lucky Pho again. It may be that the noodles were just an aberration. The broth and meat were good enough that I can overlook the imperfect noodles. One other thing they did better than Pho T Cali was the Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese iced coffee). The coffee at Lucky Pho was darker and more intensely flavored.

Lucky Pho is inside Lucky Seafood, in the shopping center at the north-eastern corner of Black Mountain Road and Mira Mesa Blvd. It's worth cruising through Lucky Seafood if you want to get an eyeful of exotic animal parts and produce.

Here are some pix:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/joshthew...

  1. d
    daantaat Feb 18, 2008 08:13 PM

    Josh, we went to Pho Ca Dao on Mira Mesa Blvd for the first time this weekend. I'm too jet lagged to do a real "review," but we thought the broth was fresh and fragrant, hit the spot after foraging on airport food. Beef was on the thicker cut side (I got raw beef, brisket, fatty beef, tendon and tripe) and they gave you more meat than Pho T Cali. Noodles had that good "pull" to them. Broth was as good or better than Pho Hoa Cali, from our memory. They also served sawtooth herb with the usual assortment of veggies and herbs. Coffee was really good--nice and strong.

    1. Josh Feb 14, 2008 07:13 PM

      Tonight I tried a place I read about on Kirk's blog, posted by Cathy. It's called Pho Saigon Star. This may be my new favorite pho place.

      The broth was very flavorful, with good anise and cinnamon flavor, and not too oily. The noodles were not too soft, and the beef and tendon were soft and flavorful.

      Garnish didn't include the sawtooth leaf, but was ample otherwise.

      Definitely worth a try.

      http://www.phosaigonstar.com/

      3 Replies
      1. re: Josh
        n
        nutrition Feb 18, 2008 01:57 PM

        The sawtooth leave is Mexican cilantro or 'culantro' . A nice added touch to the Pho. I asked what it was when I had my first bowl of Pho. They did not know the name of it, but a string on Chowhounds answered that without difficulty with pictures and explanations. That was about 3-4 years ago. A Search would be helpful.

        1. re: Josh
          c
          Cathy Feb 18, 2008 03:23 PM

          It costs a teensy bit more than the Pho places on Convoy, but I do think the quality is there, Josh.

          The brothers who own and work there are very helpful if you have questions.

          The broth definitely hits the spot with its richness. I hope it was a nice Valentine's Day meal...

          1. re: Cathy
            Josh Feb 18, 2008 04:19 PM

            Valentine's Day is less significant when you're single. :-) I didn't even think about it at the time. I did like it a lot though.

        2. m
          mliew Feb 8, 2008 11:11 AM

          Pho T Cali has been my go to place for Pho ever since I moved down to SD a few years ago. With all the talk about Lucky Pho I really want to try it now, unfortunately I don't go out to Mira Mesa that often.

          What would you guys say is the best Pho restaurant in Clairemont Mesa? Anything better than Pho T Cali worth checking out? I've had the pho at Convoy Noodle House and I don't remember it being anything special.

          1. Foodnerds Feb 8, 2008 08:42 AM

            Hi Josh,
            This is Russ' wife. I like Lucky Seafood but I haven't eaten at Pho T Cali. I always get the Ca Phe Sua Da, I also get the rare steak and have always been happy. I haven't eaten much Vietnamese food in SD but Lucky comes close enough for me to the Pho I've eat in the San Gabriel Valley. Plus it's always fun to shop there, I always come home with a couple bags of stuff. I like watching the tub of live blue crabs. My latest find there was French butter in a resealable can, worth every penny of the $5 it costs.
            -Mechele

            1 Reply
            1. re: Foodnerds
              Josh Feb 8, 2008 09:52 AM

              Yeah I went through the aisles and saw a lot of interesting stuff, some of it I put up on Flickr. I will have a hard time going back to Pho T Cali, I think (for pho at any rate). Lucky's broth and beef were just so much better. I'm sure being attached to a grocery store doesn't hurt!

            2. d
              daantaat Feb 6, 2008 08:03 PM

              Josh, I'd be curious what you think of Pho Hoa Cali off Mira Mesa Blvd. I can't exactly remember where it is but it's on the north side of the street in a strip mall with the dark brown wood a la 1970's-80's exterior decor . I think there's a Bank of America nearby.

              4 Replies
              1. re: daantaat
                geekyfoodie Feb 7, 2008 09:37 AM

                Is that the strip mall on the NE corner of Black Mtn. Rd. and Mira Mesa Blvd.? The restaurant had a huge TV in it, I remember (although that's kind of common in pho joints). I had a great bowl of pho there a while ago.

                1. re: geekyfoodie
                  d
                  daantaat Feb 7, 2008 09:06 PM

                  it may be. I can't remember the cross street. I only know how to get there by sight and intuition. The interior was mostly white with bright lights. I think they did have a tv b/c the last time we were there, my SO was watching the basketball/football/baseball game that was on.

                  1. re: geekyfoodie
                    cgfan Feb 7, 2008 10:49 PM

                    Pho Hoa Cali Express is on the NW side of the intersection, and is a good all around bet for their Pho, Com Tam, Bun Bo Hue, and on Mondays and Fridays their Com Tam Cari Ga. On the NE corner is Lucky, which serves a more rustic and beefy Pho than PHCE, as well as a good Com Tam and always very fresh veg. On the SW side is Bolsa, who I like for their Pho Ga and their Mi Xao and Hu Teu Xao.

                    1. re: cgfan
                      Josh Feb 10, 2008 06:30 PM

                      Went to Pho Hoa Cali Express tonight. The pho reminded me of Pho T Cali, though the meat was oddly dry. The place was extremely busy, though most of the people there were having things other than pho.

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