Lucky Pho, Merced: Report
Hubby and I headed downtown to try this new place located where the Rice Bowl used to be. It is the only Vietnamese restaurant in town, and first reports, including this one:
have been good. I did see an interesting article about the owner in the Merced Sun Star, our local paper, but now no amount of searching will find it.
We were welcomed with a friendly greeting and escorted into one of two very casual dining rooms. A TV playing the Niners Monday Night game made hubby happy, though I could have done without it. Fortunately, the sound was relatively muted. However, there were delicious smells coming from the kitchen, and the tables were piled with every imaginable condiment, so I couldn’t be grumpy about sharing him with football for long.
The menus we were given were huge, with a lot of choices of rice plates, bun, soups, salads, a few other Vietnamese dishes, and a selection of Americanized Chinese dishes. Since the menus were laminated and obviously not new, refer to the place being open since 1995, and list beer as an option even though there is no beer at this location, this must be at least a second location for these owners. I meant to ask, then forgot, but I am wondering if they could be related to the Lucky Pho in Stockton that Toodie Jane mentioned in the thread linked above?
Our server recommended the pho bo as being the most popular dish. I will go back to try it, but I wasn’t in the mood for pho on this first visit as it tends to fill me up quickly and I wanted to try more of the menu. I was disappointed to see that there was no banh xeo on the menu.
Summer rolls stuffed with grilled pork meatballs caught my eye, and we ordered them along with a beef salad and stir-fried flat rice noodles with prawns.
The salad came first: thin slices of beef (advertised as medium rare, but more like medium), peanuts and onion with fresh mint and cilantro and a dressing with fish sauce and chiles. I was struck by the outstanding freshness and vibrancy of the herbs in this and all of the dishes we ordered; they almost had to be locally grown and freshly picked. The salad packed a lot of heat, which I liked. Nonetheless, I am not sure I’d order it again: quality and quantity of the beef wasn’t that great, and it just didn’t live up to my expectations of what this salad should be (since for me it is all about the beef). As hubby sighed after his first bite, ‘well, it’s good, but I guess Lotus Garden (our old neighborhood favorite in SF) spoiled me for life.’ There is also a lotus root salad on the menu; might try that next time.
The salad was served with a very large rice cracker with sesame seeds and a dipping sauce; the cracker tasted faintly of pork. I don’t know how these are made, so not sure if that was something in the cracker, a flavor from the preparation (shared oil possibly?), or just my imagination.
The noodles came next. Again, lovely vegetables, including some very nice and not overly cooked cabbage, which I suspect was also locally grown. The sauce was lightly applied. The few prawns in the dish were small but fresh and sweet.
About this time, we started wondering what had happened to the summer rolls. Turns out they had gone to a neighboring table, and had to be re-fired. Our server did seem to be a bit clueless (if friendly); despite numbers on the table he tried to bring us dishes meant for another group more than once (and did manage to give them our rolls).
However, the rolls were worth the wait (which wasn’t all that long; in general dishes came out of the kitchen at a good pace.) They were delicious. The grilled pork meatballs were similar to a sausage, and added a nice crispiness and spicy, distinct flavors to contrast with the rest of the ingredients, including lovely cilantro. Instead of a traditional fish sauce and vinegar type of dipping sauce, they were served with a thicker, almost gelatinous sauce that our server told us the chef had been experimenting with: the server wasn’t sure of the ingredients, but I definitely could detect tamarind. It was a success.
I admit to being a sucker for meatballs, particularly meatballs that are more of a sausage, and I would and without a doubt will order these again. I think they are also available with rice paper wraps to make your own (without the other roll ingredients); that might be an even tastier option.
Since they don’t serve beer (I am assuming they don’t have a license yet), we stuck with hot tea (no charge) and ice water.
We ate every bite of our dinner and were stuffed, so didn’t look to see what they offered for dessert. While the food wasn’t spectacular, it was mostly very well prepared with good to excellent ingredients, particularly the vegetables and herbs.
I had already decided that Lucky Pho was a winner and that I needed to go back at lunch to try the soups. I was even speculating that I might be able to talk the chef into putting a crepe on the menu if I became a regular.
Then the bill came. Our total for the three dishes (more than enough for two) with tax and a quite generous tip was $25. That’s a screaming deal, imo. I expect this place to be filled with starving students very soon if word gets out.
Lucky Pho Noodle
909 West 16th Street
Merced, CA 95340-4532
Update: went today for lunch with a bunch of colleagues... I had the rare beef pho. Nice beef, and a decent broth, though I was disappointed that the herbs weren't as fresh or as plentiful: my side plate had lots of bean sprouts, some jalapeno, a few pieces of thai basil, and not too much else...still, the noodle dishes some colleagues ordered were a better choice, I think. One co-worker had pho ga with quail eggs; I might try that on a future visit.
The spring rolls we shared to start were not as impressive as the summer rolls with meat ball on my first trip, but they were tasty. Service was is still an issue: they forgot two dishes until we reminded them! (quite some time later, we kept assuming the other two dishes were coming...)
OTOH, the sizzling sounds and steaming hot dishes that came out (after a sharp exchange in Vietnamese between the server and cooks :-)) assured us that the food was freshly made. My colleagues did seem to enjoy themselves despite the service gaps, and said they'd come back (hey, in Merced, sometimes that is as good as it gets in restaurant praise....)
I asked, and the server told me that the owners of Lucky Pho in Stockton are friends, but that there isn't any common ownership.
The best part of this visit: a sign to warm my heart on the counter: "Vietnamese Sandwiches coming soon". When that happens, it will be the only place I know to get banh mi in Merced. I can't wait!