First published in Valley Homes and Style.
In 1982, Pha Huynh strapped his baby daughter to his back, left his wife and son behind, and became one of the boat people – a refugee from South Vietnam. It was a time that he describes as “hard, very hard.”
Luck was with him, however, because he found work in the United States and earned money to send back to his family. A decade later, he was able to bring his wife and son to join him.
In 2006, Huynh made the leap to restaurant chef/owner, a natural transition for him, he says, since many members of his family back in Vietnam were restaurateurs. The location he picked after studying various venues was to purchase the Lucky Corner Vietnamese Restaurant in Frederick.
“I had to do something for myself,” he says, in English still accented by Vietnamese. His assistant manager, Tan Pham, expands on Huynh’s comments, pointing out the ideal location with low rent on the outskirts of downtown, and every city dweller’s dream, a parking lot.
Today, Lucky Corner is one of the top rated Frederick restaurants on the online restaurant-rating sites – not just the top Asian restaurant, but one of the top 1 percent of all restaurants. Huynh speaks with pride of the 45-minute wait for dinner on Friday night.
So what does this little Vietnamese restaurant do to attract so many fans: Is it the fresh vegetables, some sourced locally in the summer months? The authentic pho? Grilled meat salads? Rich French coffee or Thai iced tea? The curries?
The variety of food choices is certainly one reason for Lucky Corner’s popularity, while the friendly service has to be another. On an earlier visit, our waiter seemed delighted to offer recommendations and even chopstick training. He says that the trick is to hold one of the chopsticks stationary, then move only the second chopstick to grasp the food. Taught with a laugh and a smile, we all had out chopsticks in hand to try out the new technique, much to his amusement.
While the service might leave a lasting positive impression, the vast array of menu options will keep you coming back, whether you have an adventurous palate or prefer simpler flavors. This is not a one-trick pony.
In many cases, the entrées were flavorful in ways different from Chinese or Thai restaurants, with optional sauces to take the experience to a higher level adding a dash of flair, a bite of vinegar or a punch of hot pepper.
Huynh defines the Lucky Corner’s cuisine as “fusion” with Mexican, Thai, Chinese and French influences, while his roots are deeply Vietnamese.
“In my mind, I see my parents cooking,” he says, describing his youth, when many family members owned restaurants and shared recipes. The authentic Vietnamese food is saltier and sweeter than Americans would like, but Huynh learned to adapt international flavors to suit U.S. tastes when he worked for a large hotel in D.C.
For appetizers, the Crispy Crabmeat Cream Cheese Wontons are a creamy texture filling wrapped in a fried pouch. The crispy crunch is a nice contrast with the filling; the crab flavor is mild, but strong enough that it doesn’t dominate the cream cheese. The spice is minimal, the heat nonexistent, but it is still flavorful. The complementary mango fish sauce piques our interest with a hint of heat.
A more unusual offering is the Duck Pot Stickers, which have a distinct and refreshing cilantro flavor. Often duck announces itself with a distinctive and gamey flavor, but not so here. A well paired sweet sauce is more dominant and plays well with the darker tasting duck.
If you are only mildly hungry, an appetizer along with the small pho is enough for a meal. The traditional Vietnamese soup has a clear, yet flavorful broth and is only slightly salty and packed with noodles. A plate of add-ons on the side – hoisin or sriracha sauces, basil, jalapeño, lime wedges and bean sprouts – allows diners to embellish the soup to suit their tastes. The soup itself is deceptively simple, but the option of adding sauces or herbs, makes pho a kind of Asian comfort food.
For those who prefer less spice, the Seafood in Hot Pot has the Asian flavor profile, but little in the way of heat. Served in a traditional metal pot, the seafood flavor balances perfectly with the stir-fried vegetables. The vegetables bring fresh garden flavors to the dish, making it feel like a healthy meal while still being filling.
A very different seafood experience – also served in the charming metal pot – the Caramelized Catfish comes in a rich brown sauce, with steamed vegetables on the side. Although the menu specifically mentions the black pepper in the sauce, the peppery flavor isn’t dominant. The sauce is rich and makes for a satisfying dipping sauce for the vegetables, which are steamed perfectly: Done, but not mushy.
Yet another seafood dish, the Shrimp Curry – rating two out of three peppers for spiciness – came with green vegetables and wispy shredded carrots on the top and shrimp swimming along the sides. The inviting presentation didn’t telegraph the mild spiciness. The red curry and coconut sauce was a good carrier for the vegetables and shrimp, along with the steamed rice that was standard with most of the entrees.
The Cubed Beef Steak on the other hand, showed off the French influence. Sautéed with butter and red onions, and served with salad greens, the dish could have been served in a Paris bistro. The marinade left only a mild flavor in the meat, but a small dish of salt and pepper, along with a second dish of dipping sauce, were options to tweak the flavors to suit the diner.
No one in our party opted for the children’s menu, but the offerings were simpler or smaller versions of regular menu items – no chicken tenders or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches here. But, the tamarind chicken, a small pho or grilled chicken would appeal to many younger diners, and perhaps would offer a way to introduce Asian flavors.
Lucky Corner’s beverages are notable as well. Scents of hot jasmine tea waft across the table, adding to the warm atmosphere. The flavor is soft, with just a hint of jasmine. But the tea choice doesn’t stop there. There’s an iced delicacy as well.
The Thai iced tea, served in a tall drinking glass, looks red as the light shines against it. Sweetened creamer forms a separate layer on the top, but easily mixes into the tea. The resulting beverage is sweet, almost cloyingly so, but a wonderful complement to the spicy Thai food.
Even the coffee was an unexpected pleasure. Our group tried the French coffee, which turned out to be thick and flavorful. Sweetened with condensed milk, it somehow wasn’t as sweet as I expected. The strong coffee flavor dominated. The French brought coffee to Vietnam, but the tradition of lingering over coffee continues.
Lucky Corner uses an old-fashioned brewing method for the coffee – no percolator, no espresso machine and no foaming milk.
The coffee brewing starts with a big dollop of condensed milk in the bottom of the coffee mug.
On top of the mug, the brewer sets a metal cup called a “phin,” the de facto coffee filter with small holes in the bottom. Then, the coffee goes into the metal cup, with a filter press on top. Next, in goes the almost boiling water. Oh so slowly, the water goes through the coffee, then drips into the mug below. More hot water is added, followed by more dripping. Eventually, the coffee and condensed milk are stirred, and then served, often over ice.
The coffee-making process happens in the kitchen, so the diner only tastes the final glass of rich Vietnamese coffee. Pham says the process can take an hour, as the coffee gets thicker and thicker. This is not a quick cup of Joe; this is labor intensive and meant to be savored.
The coffee was the perfect closing to our meal. We shared a flan, swimming in a caramel sauce, garnished with a flower cut from a strawberry. Presentation was a highlight, as the dessert was otherwise nondescript, although the flavors blended well.
Altogether dining at Lucky Corner is an adventure for the palate. And those far-reaching tastes, cultivated 8,000 miles from here, are likely to be cemented in your memory by the experiences of your other senses – the fragrances of steaming dishes carried across the dining room, the unique and colorful presentations, and the friendly smiles of the waiter.
As for Huynh, he works side-by-side with his son, Trung, testing out new recipes, switching up the menu to hold the interest of his regulars.
“It’s a long journey for him,” says Pham.
Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email email@example.com.
Lucky Corner Vietnamese Restaurant
North Market Street and 7th Street in Frederick, Md.