When it comes to pho, I typically go for the traditional beef, or sometimes chicken. I’ve eaten a thousand bowls of those. But I’m not a voracious meat eater, and I am genuinely interested in finding good vegan versions of this soul-satisfying food. Plus, I thought it was time to offer something wonderful to our vegan friends out there. Pho Luca’s is conveniently located near my apartment and, lucky for me, they have the best vegan pho I’ve ever tried.
Pho Luca’s has a different feel from the other noodle spots I’ve been writing about. Its location in bustling Carytown brings in a wide variety of people. During one recent visit there was a good mix of college kids, business types, hip parents with a stroller, and a few other solo eaters like myself. Usually I visit noodle spots around 3:00 so that it’s less crowded and I can interact with the staff more. But there I was on a Monday at that time, and 6 out of their 10 tables were filled. Groups were chatting and having a nice time. People were coming in and out to pick up their takeout orders. The staff was a tad too busy to grant me the specific attention they didn’t know I was after. But I took my time, and when it slowed down a bit, I did end up with some vital information from a friendly server named Sam.
It’s a vibrant place, with bold red and black paint; yellow chairs; mix-and-match pieces of art on the walls; a big, beautiful Progress Pride flag; three TVs, each airing different programs; a few oversized plants; hanging light fixtures with classy Edison bulbs; and lots of high-volume punk and indie music coming from the speakers. During one meal I heard songs from both Dead Boys and Dead Moon, and that day Sam was wearing an Idles sweatshirt. The music vibe is permeating. On the windows there are posters for upcoming local shows, and every Monday evening they do Karaoke. Soon they might even start doing an open mic night.
I ordered my vegan pho (or phở chay) and took in the energy of the room. It can be near sensory overload, but not uncomfortable. My soup was soon delivered to me on a cart, and the first thing I noticed is the beauty of it. It’s a heap of brightly colored, blanched vegetables and fried tofu, atop a steaming bowl of broth. I can’t say I’ve ever seen such fresh-looking vegetables in a bowl of pho before. Here we have white and green onions, carrots, broccoli, shiitake mushrooms, green beans and daikon. The next thing to notice is the aroma, and it is heavenly. It has all the hallmark scents of any bowl of pho, including the classic C-letter spices: cardamom, cinnamon, clove and coriander seed. I bet there’s some fennel or star anise in there as well. Here, though, we have an added vegetal, earthy scent.
Give a little stir and your oat-milky-white rice noodles are revealed. They’ve got those cooked perfectly. Add your fixins: bean sprouts, Thai basil, jalapeños if you like, and a lime to vigorously squeeze in there. You may also choose to add some hoisin and/or sriracha. I chose not to because I wanted to taste the broth in its natural form. It’s delicious. It’s somehow both light and intense at the same time. I don’t think a standard meat-eater would find anything unsatisfying about it, and I think a vegan would enjoy the heck out of it. I did choose to dollop a little hoisin on a few bites of tofu simply because I love that stuff.
I appreciate the minimal menu at Pho Luca’s. It’s great for people who might suffer the occasional bout with choice paralysis. They’ve got eight appetizers (2 are vegan), two vermicelli bowls (1 is vegan), three banh mi sandwiches (1 is vegan), and essentially three types of pho. Choose from assortments of beef, chicken, or vegan. They offer two bowl sizes, regular or large. I go with regular and always find it to be the exact right amount of food. You can eat the whole thing without feeling like you went overboard. They also have a cocktail menu, and beer and wine, for those in need of a different type of fix.
Pho Luca’s is owned by retired Vietnamese couple Dominic and Lucie. “Luca” is a nickname for Lucie, so there’s that answer. And what about the pho? I just went back again to eat this dish for the third time, and was lucky enough to catch Dominic sitting at a table by himself. I approached him, and he graciously allowed me to sit with him and record a conversation.
The recipes come from Dominic and Lucie. I’m not sure how they learned to make this amazing food, given that they don’t necessarily come from restaurant backgrounds. I had read that Lucie used to be a film actor in Vietnam, and Dominic told me he graduated from UCLA and spent 21 years working in the medical field. From there he went on to host his own Vietnamese language television show on Direct TV, all about Feng Shui. He had over a million viewers, and still gets hired to do consultations with different organizations. He’s about to go to Vancouver to teach the art of Feng Shui to a medical office there. All the money Dominic has earned from the TV show, and all his work with Feng Shui, has been donated to an orphanage in Vietnam. Dominic’s sincerity about helping the underprivileged was made apparent in our conversation when, at one point, tears came to his eyes.
These are two incredibly kind and giving people. Dominic helped his brother open a Vietnamese restaurant in Houston, a gigantic city known for its international cuisine. In 2016 the couple decided to move from Southern California to the Richmond area for a lower cost of living. When Dominic asked Lucie what she wanted to do in retirement, what her dream was, she said it was to open a small restaurant that serves the community — and serving the community is what they do. They take no salary from Pho Luca’s. 100% of the net profits are divided as follows: 25% goes to restaurant maintenance; 25% goes to the orphanage in Vietnam; 25% goes to various non-profit organizations, and 25% goes to the staff of the restaurant. He wants the staff to be happy and well fed, and to feel as though the restaurant is their second home. It’s they who hang the decorations on the walls, they who play the cool music, they who plate and serve the food, they who take ownership of the place.
As he and I spoke I couldn’t help but overhear that music in the room again. They were playing songs by teenage heroes of mine, Violent Femmes and Fugazi, and Dominic was telling me about Jesse, who comes in each day to make the broth at 4 AM. Jesse has been learning the craft of pho from Dominic and Lucie for nearly 3 years now. Dominic also told me about Thaddeus, their talented restaurant manager who used to be the executive chef at a place called the Stables. Dominic even walked me into the kitchen and let me meet him. Thaddeus was super nice to me.
The vegan broth is made fresh each morning from onions, ginger, leeks, daikon, apples, pears, and mushrooms. The mushrooms give it that lovely umami flavor. They tinkered with, and perfected, the vegan broth for three months before ever serving it to the public. As we sat and chatted, my bowl was delivered to me. At Dom’s recommendation I had it served with a side of their vegan XO sauce, which is a particular Chinese chili oil they learned to make their own. He recommends trying a few bites of the broth as-is, and then slowly adding the XO sauce to taste. I loved it. It livens up the broth without bringing too much heat. It’s worth the dollar up-charge.
Pho Luca’s opened their doors to the public on December 6, 2019. The COVID pandemic came, and by March 15, 2020, they had to shut them. They persisted as a take-out restaurant throughout that time, and survived. They reopened their doors in July 2021 and have been doing pretty well ever since. We are now at the time of year when noodle soup joints are at their busiest. Rain and cold weather drive people in. I told Dominic that I used to work in a ramen bar in Portland, and people would often come in to eat when they were sick with a cold or flu. Sometimes they would even mention this to me. As such, they would often make me sick too. I wonder if the pandemic has changed people’s attitudes towards this. If you’re sick, please consider getting the soup delivered to your doorstep instead.
Dom and I discussed other topics during our forty-minute chat. He went over the influence of the French and the history of pho in Vietnam. He told me about making broths for their beef and chicken pho. He talked about umami, cognac, and pizza. We agreed about the fallacy of authenticity. It was a really nice time.
I look forward to my next visits to Pho Luca’s. I want to see how the place grows. I want to see their continued involvement with the community. I want to hear what they’ll play through those speakers next. I want to keep eating this fantastic food made by these sweet people. I want to go down that tiny staircase to the tiny bathrooms again. I remember those stairs and bathrooms from other restaurants that once occupied this space. Ultimately, I’m happy the space now belongs to Pho Luca’s. I’d like for it to stay that way.
Pho Luca’s is located at 2915 West Cary Street. Hours vary. See their website.
All Photos by Matthew Park.