Recently, three Little Village staffers lunched at Pho Lucky to get a feel for Iowa City’s newest pho restaurant. Imagine, on a cold winter day, sitting like a warm cat in a big sunny booth right by the south windows of a tidy restaurant while you sip a sweet Vietnamese iced coffee or hot tea and wait for a big bowl of soup. (Except I was led away from the sunny spot by my coworkers, and we sat at a booth in the middle of the room. That’s alright, next time I’ll be a cat.)
We arrived around 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday to find the place mostly empty, but several tables filled over our lunch (about 1 hour 20 minutes total) — a good sign for any restaurant that’s only been open a month. In the heart of winter, it doesn’t take long for word to spread that there’s a new soup place in town.
We started with three cafe da (dessert-like Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) which were, to my mild disappointment, already mixed. Why aren’t Iowa Citians entrusted with our own phin (those metal coffee filters that sit on top of the glass of condensed milk)? I promise we know what to do!
Spring rolls and egg rolls are two to an order for about $4. No meatless/seafoodless options here, but if you are vegetarian, you can still order soup: there’s one with vegetables only (pho chay) and one vegetables and tofu (pho rau cai tufu), both made with a vegetarian broth (confirmed).
Meatless options aside, my favorite thing about pho is the wonderful chemistry that occurs when a hot broth is poured over raw beef. Something about beef actually cooking in your very own bowl just makes it seem like your special soup (sort of like having your own coffee filter). Anyway, you won’t actually witness the raw-to-cooked transformation at Pho Lucky, but it’s nice to imagine.
Soup prices range from $9.99 to $11.99 — quite reasonable, even slightly below average in our area. The menu isn’t large or crisis-inducing, just two facing pages with 12 pho options and a handful of rice plates and vermicelli noodle dishes. (Meat/seafood options only.)
Emma ordered the com tam dac biet broken rice special and she was impressed, as were we, with both the tenderness and flavor of the bone-in pork chop as well as the square footage of the plate.
Zak and I had pho tai (thin sliced beef) and pho tai chin (round steak and well-done brisket), both traditional rice noodle soups with paper-thin sliced onions served alongside a plate of bean sprouts, lime, basil and jalapeño slices for seasoning. The broth was mild and relatively light and clear — a super subtle, non-oily beef flavor with hints of star anise.
I normally like a lot of flavor in my broths, but that can be overwhelming if it’s not suited to your tastes, so I wasn’t let down by this one. It’s nice to have a simple foundation upon which to build your masterpiece. I requested a bottle of fish sauce, which wasn’t already on the table, to go with a few generous blobs of hoisin and Sriracha (long live chile ketchup!) et voila! I had my soup, and it was good.
Overall takeaway: a convenient lunch spot with a tidy atmosphere, friendly staff, reasonable prices and a simple, pleasant broth.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 256.