I've been on a serious pho bender lately, trying to kick this cold I picked up. After having visited Pho T Cali 3 times in as many days, I emailed KirkK to get a recommendation for another place to try. He suggested Lucky Pho, so I headed there tonight, having had Pho T Cali yet again for lunch.
In his blog, Kirk described Pho T Cali as a "middle of the road" pho place, and now having eaten at Lucky Pho, which he cited as having better, richer broth, I can see his point. The difference between the two places is subtle, yet significant.
In terms of broth, I have to agree that Lucky Pho is clearly the winner. The flavor of the broth is beefier, and the flavors of the star anise and cinnamon are much more discernible.
Meat-wise, I also have to give the nod to Lucky Pho. The beef for the rare steak seems to be sliced thicker than at Pho T Cali, which means it doesn't get so cooked by the broth. It definitely had a rare beef flavor, and a much softer mouthfeel. Pho T Cali's rare steak is very thin, and cooks very quickly in the broth, so that by the time you eat it it's pretty well done. On the other hand, the tendon was really skimpy at Lucky Pho, and seemed almost too soft. Pho T Cali is more generous with the tendon, and it's got a little more resilience to the chew.
On to the garnish. Again, Lucky Pho gets the nod, if only because they have the sawtooth leaf in addition to the basil. Sawtooth leaf has an interesting flavor that's hard to describe. It's somewhat reminiscent of cilantro, but not exactly.
The only thing I found mildly disappointing at Lucky Pho was the quality of the noodles. I've noticed both here and at Convoy Noodle House a very starchy flavor, as well as a very cloudy appearance to the broth after stirring up the noodles. This makes me think the noodles weren't well-rinsed before being added to the bowl. At Pho T Cali, I've never experienced this starchy flavor, nor have I seen a cloudy broth post-stirring. Lucky Pho's noodles were also cooked a little longer than Pho T Cali's it seemed, so they were a little softer and not as al dente.
I'll definitely be trying Lucky Pho again. It may be that the noodles were just an aberration. The broth and meat were good enough that I can overlook the imperfect noodles. One other thing they did better than Pho T Cali was the Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese iced coffee). The coffee at Lucky Pho was darker and more intensely flavored.
Lucky Pho is inside Lucky Seafood, in the shopping center at the north-eastern corner of Black Mountain Road and Mira Mesa Blvd. It's worth cruising through Lucky Seafood if you want to get an eyeful of exotic animal parts and produce.
Here are some pix: