Appearance-wise, not much has changed at the former Lucky Corner on North Market Street.
There’s the same small parking lot, same pale yellow building filled with shiny lacquered tables. In the summer, the air is still chilled to a temperature so frosty, I could feel my skin tighten as I stepped inside. Even the signage on the front door hasn’t made a switch. It’s not until you’re handed a menu that you notice a new name, the slightly groan-worthy “Lucky Pho Ever.” Flip through the pages and find whole new categories of culinary representation, from Korean to Japanese.
The subtle changes can be traced to the restaurant’s new ownership. In April, the family behind Lucky Corner (now exclusively on Buckeystown Pike) sold the downtown location to Nikki and Eyi Jin Song, a husband-wife team with another Japanese restaurant, Sapporo, in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. The new owners maintained the Vietnamese menu, but added some new options, including an entire section of Korean cuisine and Japanese dishes like geso karaage, an appetizer of deep-fried squid. Eventually, the Songs plan to add sushi and bubble tea, personalizing the menu little by little.
And while downtown Frederick could use the diversity, I found myself conflicted over the expanded menu after a series of visits last week. Sure, the ability to walk downtown for a bowl of bibimbap is great in theory. But I worry that the broader menu is dividing the kitchen’s attention, with a noticeable slip in some of the Vietnamese dishes left on the menu.
Often, this manifests as a few less-than-ideal details in an otherwise solid dish. When a friend and I split an order of banh xeo, a crispy Vietnamese crepe, I found myself mentally applauding when the lacy-edged pancake was brought to the table. Sizzled to a warm golden-brown, the rice flour batter, stained yellow with turmeric, was stuffed with a hefty portion of shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. My quibble wasn’t with the crepe itself, pan-fried to a perfect crunch, but with the ample filling, underseasoned and a little lukewarm. A dip in the accompanying nuoc mam sauce, racy with garlic and fermented fish sauce, helped add some flavor. Still, I was disappointed by the chewy strips of pork.
My issues with the pancake extended to a bowl of house pho, ostensibly one of the core dishes at the Vietnamese-influenced restaurant. Yes, the broth was still strong and rich with collagen, coating my mouth with a beefy flavor. But I could have done with far more of the promised eye round steak, flank, and brisket, floating wan and a little gristle-y with snow white tripe and snappy pork meatballs. It wasn’t the worst bowl of pho I’d ever eaten, but it didn’t inspire the same confidence as the original version.
Still, there are plenty of dishes on the menu worth considering. A friend and I gobbled down a summery mango salad freshened with basil and cilantro, tempered by savory fish sauce and bolstered with butterflied shrimp. With a side of fried shrimp chips, it was the perfect light summer meal. If you’re going for soup, I’d recommend the bun bo hue, a mess of fat round rice noodles in a throat-tickling, lemon-grass scented broth. And the restaurant serves solid versions of Korean favorites, including a bibimbap heavy with pickled vegetables.
Lucky Pho Ever isn’t a carbon copy of its long-running predecessor, and that’s not a bad thing. With a little more time and practice, I think the new restaurant will offer as many pleasures as the original.
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters.