At Luc Lac you don't just eat the pho—you drink it. And it's damn good.
Adam Ho, co-owner and bar manager at the newish downtown restaurant, mixes bourbon, cranberry juice and a little pear cider with a syrup spiked with the Vietnamese beef noodle soup's trademark spices, from ginger to star anise. That makes for a dangerously drinkable sweet and spicy cocktail called team dac biet ($8). "I actually first made [the syrup] for a mint julep contest. It's an Asian secret," says Ho, refusing to divulge the recipe. "It originally had beef in it, too…not anymore."
A slight, dapper man always sporting black-frame glasses and a crisp white shirt, Ho has a flair for highlighting Southeast Asian cuisine's traditional sweet, sour and bitter combinations in craft cocktails. He mates sugary Vietnamese coffee to strong, minty branca menta and tarts up a cardamom-scented avocado shake with Grand Marnier and chewy tapioca bubbles (both $10). That last one looks like a douchebag tropical-cruise drink and tastes like creamy tea heaven.
The decor at Ho's and his brother Alan's new haunt is as delightfully baroque as its drink ingredients. A horseshoe of tall-backed, red-leather banquettes surround a huge oval-shaped wood bar painted bright teal. One entire wall is devoted to a stunning, graffiti-ish mural of capering Chinese dragon heads while a flock of pink parasols hang from the high ceiling. It's a fun, fabulous place to eat and drink, like a long lost Asian set piece from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Despite the wild design flourishes and a 4 am closing time on Friday and Saturday, the joint feels homey and familiar. That's because third-generation restaurant owner Adam Ho ran the cramped Pho PDX in the space next door to Luc Lac for years, gathering lunch and late-night service industry devotees to his mom's Viet recipes along the way.
Although Pho PDX was a favorite pit stop for vegetarian pho ($6.50), everything Luc Lac does involving beef is great, too. The delicate, aromatic beef noodle pho is packed with tender round steak and brisket ($6.50, more for tendon and tripe if you must), and the little grilled la lot ($4), which wrap herby minced beef in peppery betel leaves, taste like rich, meaty Vietnamese dolmas. Don't leave without trying the excellent bo tai chanh salad ($7), which "cooks" steak in citrus juice and tosses it with a super-fresh tangle of herbs, onions, pineapple sauce and peanuts.
Food portions and flavors are big. The banh mi costs $7, but comes deli-style with a salad and a bunch of shrimp chips. The sandwich meats, especially the charred lemongrass-marinated pork and funky-sweet nuong pork barbecue sausage, are of good quality and very tasty. You can get either protein as part of a huge vermicelli rice bowl brimming with veggies, shrimp and crunchy pork and taro rolls, too ($7-$10).
Although the new space is sleeker and sexier than Pho PDX, it's got some quirks. You order at the bar, regardless of the meal, which can lead to a traffic jam of would-be pho slurpers between the front door and the cash register during the lunch rush. Service can be slow. But between the brothers' intense, spicy plates, warm demeanor and inventive drinks, Luc Lac is a beauty inside and out already.
- Order this: Bo tai chanh salad, la lot, grilled pork banh mi, team dac biet cocktail.
- Best deal: You can eat nearly half of the menu, from mussels in Thai broth to coconut prawns and la lot for $2 a plate at happy hour (4-7 pm Monday-Saturday). This is a righteously ridiculous deal.
- Iâll pass: The beefy Luc Lac plate ($15), which stir fries steak with Hennessey, garlic and black peppercorns, is good, but the kitchenâs Viet and Thai standards are cheaper and even better.
EAT: Luc Lac Vietnamese Kitchen, 835 SW 2nd Ave., 222-0047, luclackitchen.com. 11 am-2:30 pm Monday-Friday, 4 pm-midnight Monday-Thursday, 4 pm-4 am Friday-Saturday. $-$$.