A bowl of pho and its various accoutrements. Photo by Dhanraj Emanuel.
Pho Lucky9326 Mira Mesa Blvd, Mira Mesa858-586-7979
One of the first apps that I downloaded to my iPhone, after downloading all the practical, use-every-day applications, was something called iPho. It's free and nothing fancy, but it directs you to the closest pho restaurant. I don't really use it in San Diego since I know where my favorite pho joints are, but it's still nice to have in case I end up in an unknown place when the craving strikes—because when you've got a hankering for a particular food, whether it's a great burger, something chocolate-y or a really good Vietnamese noodle soup, the pull can come so fast and strong that you've got to know where to go to satisfy it.
Lucky Seafood isn't the best Asian market in the city, but the promise of a pre- or post-shopping meal at Pho Lucky, its adjacent restaurant, is enough to warrant a trip. It's my preferred spot in Mira Mesa, although I alternate between there and nearby Pho Cow Cali, which was called Pho Hoa Cali when I used to work in the area and frequented the restaurant with my office mates.
Pho Lucky is big, clean and bustling; it's open throughout the day, so you'll see people happily hunched over bowls of soup at all hours. I usually order a mixed-meat combo of rare and well-done beef, brisket, tendon and tripe—the English translation of the menu lists it as “stripe.” There are more than 15 other variations; you can get a bowl with just steak or a version made with chicken.
Pho is nothing without a great broth, and pho lovers evaluate a bowl by the stock's depth of flavor and appearance. I've had some that were thin and tasteless, overly sweet or too oily. Made from beef bones, which simmer for hours with aromatics like ginger and garlic and spices that range from star anise to cinnamon and cloves, the broth is heady and intoxicating. Pho Lucky's base suits my personal preference for a strong, beefy-tasting broth with well-defined spice notes.
The rice noodles, pre-cooked and placed in the bowl with the meat and piping-hot broth poured overtop, are good though sometimes a little soft, and the garnishes that come alongside are generous, including anise-flavored Thai basil, sliced jalapeño, lime wedges, bean sprouts and serrated leaves of ngo gai (Vietnamese coriander). In many years of eating pho, I've never added in the bean sprouts, because I don't enjoy their sweet, watery crunch. But that's why everything comes on the side, so you can only put in what you wish.
If I don't eat pho here, it's because my desire for bo kho has won over. This stew of melt-apart chunks of beef and tendon lounging in a fragrant, full-flavored sauce of lemongrass, ginger and five-spice powder can be served over rice noodles, but I prefer to eat it with a Vietnamese version of a French baguette, because the sauce is made for dunking. In Vietnamese cuisine, this dish is often eaten for breakfast, but it's so rich that if I were to eat it in the morning, I'd need a nap.
Second to banh mi as the best on-the-go Vietnamese snack are pliable rice-paper-wrapped spring rolls. Try the version filled with shrimp patties, the same mixture that's often molded around lengths of sugar cane and then grilled.
Pho is also surprisingly portable. If you order noodle soup to go at other restaurants, the noodles undoubtedly absorb all the broth by the time you get home. Pho places do it right—the broth, noodles and garnishes are all packed separately so that it's perfectly fresh whenever you're ready to eat it.
Write to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.