Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Lucky Seafood: Where Vietnam Meets Mira Mesa

I have to admit, as much as I love Vietnamese food, I’m almost always quietly sunk in confusion when I look at a menu. I’m never quite sure what I’m ordering, probably because I don’t eat Vietnamese food regularly enough–but, of course, that’s because I hate being embarrassed by my own ignorance.

At some point, this silliness just had to stop. So, I recently bought myself a reference book, the wonderful Vietnamese cookbook by Andrea Nguyen, “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen” (Ten Speed Press, 2006), and decided to explore Lucky Seafood on Mira Mesa Blvd. at Black Mountain Road in Mira Mesa.

The first thing to know about Lucky Seafood is that it is practically mandatory that you go there not just to shop, but to eat. A lot. Choose between the restaurant attached to it, Pho Lucky, where you can get the most amazing Pho (noodle soup) or the takeout counter in the store itself, which offers a variety of Chinese and Vietnamese dishes with noodles on the side and—my favorite—traditional sandwiches on toasted French rolls.

The first time I went to Lucky Seafood, I was with my parents and we decided to try the restaurant.

It was a Sunday afternoon and Pho Lucky was hopping with families and lots of 20-somethings diving into their dishes with the restaurant’s vibrant green chopsticks in hand. I ordered the Tai, Nam, Gau, Gan, Sack Pho (noodle soup with thin slices of rare steak, well-done flank steak, brisket, tendon and “stripe” – tripe). My mom ordered Bun Tom Thit Nuong (rice vermicelli with fried shrimp and chewy sticks of cane sugar) while my dad ordered Bun Cha Gio Thit Nuong (rice vermicelli topped with egg rolls and slices of luscious BBQ pork).

What we got were enormous steaming white bowls filled with meals for two, along with condiments. Their dishes came with bowls of vinegar and chili oil with shredded carrots. Mine came with bean sprouts, lime wedges, sprigs of basil and slices of jalapeño peppers. I also ordered the Thai iced tea with tapioca. We all laughed when it arrived—it looked like a peach frappe topped with whipped cream. Something a 14-year-old girl would order. But, it was sensational, and I love the chewy black balls of tapioca.

When I went back to shop on my own the following week, I decided to try one of the sandwiches and ordered their French sandwich. You can bring the takeout dishes into the restaurant to eat, so I found a little table in the back and was intoxicated by the smells when I unwrapped the sandwich.

I’m not exactly sure just what was inside, but between the crispy toasted slices of French roll were delicate slices of meat and pate, sweet vinegared vegetables—shredded carrots, cucumbers, maybe jicama), sprigs of cilantro and slices of jalapeño. In one bite, you get cool and hot, sweet and tangy, and a quick punch of fire from the pepper slices. Quite simply, it’s one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.

All that, and I hadn’t even gone shopping yet! So, let’s take a quick turn around the market, understanding that as hard as I tried, many of the products there still elude me.

And, that would include those in the produce department. It’s filled with wonderful mysteries. Unfortunately, a lot of the products are anonymous. The store does a lot of the same kind of packaging that 99 Ranch does, bundling up produce in plastic wrap instead of selling it loose. But, they don’t label the packages and frequently don’t label the bins they sit in. So, I saw a lot of interesting things that I simply can’t tell you about.

What I could identify, however, was intriguing. There were banana blossoms, firmly sealed in plastic, yet still alluring. These are actually buds, not blossoms, and should feel firm and solid to the touch. Slice in half lengthwise, take out the core and cut the rest into half circles to then soak in vinegar water before including it in a salad with dried shrimp and pork or chicken.

There were gorgeous whole green papayas and a bin filled with it already shredded. It’s commonly treated as a vegetable in Vietnam, and can be pickled, added to soup or featured in a salad.

I've been curious about green papaya for years so I bought about a quarter of a pound of the shredded papaya and made a salad from a recipe from Gourmet magazine. I augmented it with small cooked shrimp, chopped peanuts and chopped cilantro.

It was the perfect dish for a hot summer night. Yes, it is very spicy, but as a cold dish it's also very refreshing. The green papaya is sweet and crunchy, and pairs well with shrimp. The peanuts and cilantro round out the flavors and texture. It's really a delightful salad.

I bought several Japanese cucumbers, which on a hot day I enjoy thinly sliced and marinated in rice vinegar, a little sesame oil and red pepper flakes, topped with toasted sesame seeds just before eating.

The various herbs caught my attention, particularly Tia to and kinh gioi, which are in the mint family. I bought a bunch of the kinh gioi, with its lovely purple and green leaves.

Last night, using a recipe I adapted from I steamed a sea bass fillet with tiny baby bok choy and plump shitake mushrooms in sake, vegetable broth, smashed garlic, minced ginger and Maggi seasoning sauce. Once everything was cooked, I added chopped cilantro and kinh gioi to the remaining broth, which had thickened, and poured it over rice and the fish and veggies. The kinh gioi added another layer of flavor to an already complex sauce.

Then, there was the green, nubby jack fruit. The store sells it whole (easily enough to feed a dozen people), and they also have it packaged in small cut sections, which display its unusual yellow fruit with bulging seeds and fibrous meat.

Jack fruit is the largest fruit on earth—one can top 100 pounds—and is in the same family as breadfruits and figs. I bought one of the small pieces and found it sweet, but not overly so, kind of the same unusual quality as a papaya. And, don’t toss the big seeds. You can boil them, then roast them and I’m told they taste like chestnuts.

Another unusual fruit—sold frozen not fresh at Lucky Seafood—is durian.

Instead of green nubs, it has a big brown spiny rind, here partly hidden by the yellow webbing of the packaging. They also are huge—and, fresh, have a reputation for being quite stinky. But, this is worth a try. Lucky Seafood sells small pieces of the pulp, frozen and easily defrosted in the microwave. What you end up with is a cream-colored, custard-like texture with overtones of vanilla. Eat it in a bowl with a spoon, add it to a tropical smoothie or to a fruit salad with other tropical fruits.

Right now, also take a look for the boxes of sweet plums near the registers. These truly live up to their name.

Of course, if you’re going to shop at a Vietnamese market, you have to buy noodles. There’s an entire aisle dedicated to dried noodles—rice sticks, broad bean threads, tapioca sticks, coiled dried egg noodles and more. And, you will find packages of tortilla-shaped rice paper for making spring rolls. Try to avoid those made with “tapioca flour” instead of rice flour. They don’t have the same taste or consistency. The Red Rose brand is the one to look for, according to, which, it turns out is Andrea Nguyen's site.

As for the noodles, I opted for fresh over dried and picked up a package of flat rice noodles for soup and something that looked so intriguing I got it and just hoped for the best. These were banh cuon, or rice rolled noodles.

There’s actually an amusing youtube video that shows how they’re made—amusing because the woman is wearing only one glove. But, you can see that this starts out as a batter, becomes a very thin, crepe-like noodle onto which some filling—probably green onion, ground pork or shrimp, mushrooms and fish sauce—is placed, then rolled up. Traditionally, they are served warm with a nuoc cham (basic dipping sauce) and herbs. Since I bought them pre-made, I heated them briefly in the microwave and made nuoc cham, using the recipe from Andrea's “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen.” It’s very easy and very tasty:

1/3 cup fresh lime juice (2 or 3 limes)

1 tablespoon unseasoned Japanese rice vinegar (optional)

3 tablespoons sugar

2/3 cup lukewarm water

5 to 6 tablespoons fish sauce

2 or 3 Thai or Serrano chiles, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)

  1. In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, vinegar, sugar and water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Taste and adjust the flavors to balance the sweet and sour as needed.
  2. Add the fish sauce, starting out with 5 tablespoons and then adding more as your palate dictates, balancing the sour, sweet, and salty. Aim for a light honey or amber color and a bold, forward finish. When you’re satisfied, add the chiles and garlic.

The noodles are pure comfort food, deliciously soft and chewy, with the flecks of green onion and dried shrimp adding a subtle flavor. The nuoc cham completes it. It's a wonderfully versatile sauce I am using for steamed veggies as well.

Obviously, if you are at Lucky Seafood, you have to check out the seafood. Indeed, the entire back of the store is the meat/poultry/seafood counter. You’ll find everything from ox tails and pork feet to braided beef gut and duck legs, along with the usual cuts of meat and poultry. And, of course, the fish—whole, fillets, steaks. Crawfish and clams. Fish paste, fish balls and cooked octopus. There were some amazing looking sea creatures, including the rainbow-colored parrot fish.

I came this close to buying the small blue crabs a young woman was determinedly wrangling from their tank.

Above and nearby were tanks filled with masses of catfish, tilapia, carp, lobster and Canada crab.

Finally, check out the aisle with all the sauces.

You can not only buy any number of varieties of fish sauce, you’ll find black vinegar and coconut vinegar and spiced vinegar, mirin, red chile paste—and its variations, such as with mustard, garlic or pepper—shrimp roe soy sauce and Maggi seasoning sauce.

This last sauce is unusual both in its taste and history. While made out of pure vegetable protein, it actually has a rather meaty flavor. It was invented in Switzerland in the late 19th-century, and probably brought to Vietnam by French colonialists, according to Nguyen. It’s great as a dipping sauce or added to marinades, sprinkled in sandwiches or on noodles.

Lucky Seafood is located at 9326 Mira Mesa Blvd. at Black Mountain Road.

Have some thoughts about Lucky Seafood or other ethnic markets in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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  1. I've driven by this dozens of times and I always thought it was part of the Lucky chain of grocery stores. I'm glad you featured it, I'll have to check it out now!

  2. Actually, I believe the store used to be a Lucky supermarket, hence the name. But, you'll find it's nothing like the old Lucky!


  3. I ordered the roasted dog soup and boy it was good !!!