Food & Drink

Pho Lucky in Iowa City offers tips for enjoying Vietnamese broth

Vermicelli Noodle Special Pho (from left) and House Special Pho at Pho Lucky in Iowa City on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Vermicelli Noodle Special Pho (from left) and House Special Pho at Pho Lucky in Iowa City on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Travis Duong knows the best way to keep the winter blues away — a steaming hot bowl of carefully spiced broth, in the form of the Vietnamese soup dish pho.

The owner of Pho Lucky, which opened in Iowa City about two months ago, Duong imports jasmine tea from Vietnam and recommends it as the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of pho.

He explains his other tips for fully enjoying what he calls his favorite meal.

“You have to smell it first,” he said, leaning over a bowl to waft up fragrant steam.

He recommends a ceramic bowl, and said at Pho Lucky they boil the bowls before pouring in the soup, so that the broth stays warm the entire time the soup is being eaten.

“When it’s hot, it brings the flavor,” he said.

His father, Pho Lucky chef Phat Duong, cooks the broth overnight, slowly simmering beef bones to create a deep flavor.

“The other day, we sold out at lunch, but we can’t cook more quickly,” Travis Duong said. “When people come in here, we have to serve good pho. Pho is the best broth, I believe.”

His father learned the craft of cooking from his own father — both owned restaurants in Vietnam.

“My grandfather was a very good cook,” Travis Duong said. “My dad followed him.”

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His father moved to the United States a few years ago and previously cooked at Iowa City restaurant I Love Pho before the father-son duo decided to open their own restaurant.

“He decided to bring his unique flavors here, so I said, ‘Ok, Dad, we’ll do it,’” Duong said.

He has been in the United States since 2003, first living in San Diego before moving to Iowa City five years ago. He opened a nail salon in Iowa City, and said it was the customers who convinced him to stay in Iowa, cold climate and all.

“The first winter, I said, ‘I don’t know,’” he said. “But everyone here is so nice, it made me stay. I thought, this is a good town for raising a family … when I was doing nails, I would always chit chat and talk a lot. It’s the best way to know a community.”

Customers helped him find a preschool for his son and keyed him into local things to do. When a customer told him about Iowa’s Amish community, he drove to Kalona to see for himself and came back with as many baked goods as he could.

“They were so delicious!” he exclaimed.

As he embraces life in Iowa, he’s excited to share the tastes of his first home in return.

Along with pho, the restaurant serves steamed rice and vermicelli noodle dishes, like com tam suon trung — rice with pork chop and fried egg — or bun cha gio thit nuong tom — vermicelli noodles with egg roll, pork chop and shrimp.

Duong said he has been pleasantly surprised at the popularity of their vegetarian pho dishes.

“I couldn’t believe it — I have to find more dishes for vegetarians,” he said with a laugh.

Still, his favorite dish is from their menu is their house special pho, which has several different cuts of beef in broth.

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“In Vietnamese food, you try to bring all the different textures and different flavors together,” he said. “If you eat it and enjoy it, you’re going to taste so many different flavors together.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

If you go

l What: Pho Lucky

l Where: 1755 Boyrum St., Iowa City

l Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday and Wednesday to Saturday

l Details: (319) 569-1631, facebook.com/pholuckyiowacity

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