Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Put a Chowbacca! On It: Luc Lac Vietnamese Kitchen



Luc Lac Vietnamese Kitchen takes an unusual approach to updating the pedestrian Vietnamese dine-in-take-out model by adding craft cocktails into the mix - cocktails with a strong Southeast Asian accent.

Le Ho's two sons, Adam and Alan, own the restaurant and create the bar menu while Chef Le and a brigade of Vietnamese cooks turn out classic standards that are executed with an eye toward excellence.

Before I wax lovingly about the relatively cheap and inventive cocktails and bright and flavorful execution of traditional Vietnamese standards lets first talk about the service:

Only after ordering up at the front counter are customers seated. While this probably expedites the procession of customers ("turning covers"), short shrift is given to diners who may choose to amend their orders, and more importantly, order additional cocktails.

Additionally, what front of the house staff they do have seems to be of a "certain Millenial stripe", one which may seem to eschew enthusiasm to a pathological degree.

The enthusiasm gap is a potential problem for Luc Lac - if the staff is "too cool" to live up to fine or even casual dining standards of service are they also "too cool" to observe food safety practices? We observed a server handing bean sprouts bare handed - not so cool.

Regardless of somewhat lack luster service and the occasional food handling gaffe, the secret is out: the lines are forming around the block, and the freshly minted 20 best new restaurants in Portland, Oregon it is highly unlikely that we will have as short of a wait next time.

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Upon entering you are greeted by a laminated sign stating that you order first and sit second.

Guests collect their own silverware and napkins on their way to booth seating. Picking up extra napkins might be advisable, the chefs do not spare the chiles and the dinning room is not the best ventilated.

I ordered a concoction involving rye and a herbal extraction served in a twee tulip-drop glass with a telltale dot of some fancy bitters floating on top of a small island of froth.

It was my second choice, the cocktail involving Fernet Branca was always 86'd. It was 7:30 at night.

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We found our way back to a table big enough accommodate all 7 of us: me and my older sister, my friend Kay from high school, Tac, our mutual friend from Cleveland Heights, Riley and her boyfriend, a local photographer, and Lisa, my culinary sister in arms and former Bay Area resident.

Between the 7 of us, we had quite a spread, including two "small" bowls of phó, nearly every appetizer on the menu, a couple of entrées.

The ingredients were fresh - cut and cooked to order - with standard sauces that seemed elevated almost imperceptibly a notch above the usual field of contenders of Vietnamese condiments.

The mussels in broth and the chicken wings were standouts. Also very good was cold imperial rolls with a hotter than usual sweet chile sauce.

The phó was excellent. I ordered mine with "the works", tender braised tendons, tripe, beef balls and rib-eye (which I wish they had served raw on the side for dipping).

The standard accoutrement of Thai basil, sprouts (unbeknownst to me handled by naked hands) and nuclear hot jalapeños. As per usual, I couldn't finish even a small order, and sent Kay packing with the remaining soup.

Dinner for 2 including cocktails was about $40, with plenty of phó leftover.

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Luc Lac Vietnamese Kitchen
835 Southwest 2nd Avenue
Portland, OR
(503) 222-0047