Having been away from the East Bay for over two years now, I’ve realized that there are only three places I have to visit when I make it back to my alma mater. Despite reports that its quality has been steadily going downhill, Lucky House Thai in downtown Berkeley remains on the short list of must-eats.
Lucky House is far from the top choice of curry craving Berkeleyans. South Berkeley’s weekly Thai Temple brunch, showcased above, remains the city’s perennial favorite, and with good cause. The diversity of home-cooked dishes, the laid-back atmosphere and the warmth of a community meal are hallmarks of Berkeley’s affordable gourmet legacy. Other local favorites include Albany’s Ruen Pair, lauded for its homegrown atomic spices, Telegraph Ave’s Racha Cafe, home of the campus area’s best BBQ chicken, and late-night destination Thai Noodle, the only restaurant in town that cooks up khao soi past midnight. In fact, all of the Bay Area is a bit of a Thai food mecca, each restaurant offering a consistently satisfying meal at a reasonable price.
Knowing this, why do I always set aside a meal for Lucky House? Foremost is the fact that, like most of my favorite restaurants, Lucky House makes exceedingly little effort to actually be a restaurant. As one frustrated Yelper has commented, the chairs at Lucky House are stackable, the tables possibly lifted from an ailing middle school. Service is usually quick and painless, sometimes quietly oblivious, and in very special instances hilariously confrontational (sadly, I don’t think that mustachioed waiter still has his job). The haughty tribunal of Top Chef may settle for no less than perfection, but having spent three years of my life as a parking attendant I can appreciate a little slack with my service.
Behind the counter, things are much more serious, if no less transparent. Anyone who’s used Lucky House’s restroom has noticed that in six years the restaurant hasn’t changed its head cook, a middle aged Thai woman who, for all I know, lives in that kitchen. The floors are typically spotless, an assortment of fresh ingredients and cooking tools are neatly tucked into refrigerators, boxes and drawers and the cooks rarely work on more than three dishes at a time.
The dishes, of course, are what ultimately earn my carefully allotted feeding time. Critical consensus hovers over anything with seafood, and even my shellfish-averse self is inclined to agree. Any Lucky House offering from the sea is sure to be cooked to just the right level while retaining its freshness. The quality and quantity of Lucky House’s vegetables are also key. Nowhere to be found are the skimpy garden scraps casually tossed into the the soup at other Thai restaurants; Lucky House’s vegetables always have an affirming snap and a fresh flavor that is placed front and center with the protein in most entrees.
The salmon red curry exemplifies both of these strengths, starting with a generous portion of tender, almost flaky salmon, pairing the meat with a hearty portion of green beans, broccoli, basil and bamboo and steeping it all in a rich, deeply burning red curry sauce that- if requested- does not forsake spice for coconut milk. Another standout is the pad ke mao. A greasy, bland tragedy at many Thai restaurants, the egg noodles here are prepared with a bright rub of Thai spices and peppers, fried quickly and cleanly and served without the added shotgun blast of random heat-inducing toxins that lesser eateries call flavor. Instead, a hint of fish sauce balances the heat with a touch of sweet and sour. The spice level of dishes at Lucky House can be inconsistent, but that’s to be expected from a place so unconcerned with accolade.
My favorite dish at Lucky House is the beef stew noodle soup, a kind of Thai pho that hits all the right notes. It starts with a sweet, meaty and intoxicating beef broth, infused with garlic and ginger for a hint of spice that barely registers on the lips. Chunks of beef that have been stewing for hours bless the soup with a tender, greasy base while springier mixed meatballs float at the top of the bowl. A generous portion of rice stick noodles comprises the soft body of the soup, complemented by a more textured complement of fresh, lush bok choy and bean sprouts. A reserved dash of green onions and cilantro atop the mix, followed by a sprinkle of freshly minced and grilled garlic, bring the deep flavors of the broth into relief and make for a beautifully rendered $5.50 at lunchtime. I’ve been hearing that this dish in particular is suffering in the decline of Lucky House, but I can’t bring myself to believe it until I’m at their table with the noodles wrapped around my chopsticks.
It may not be as charming as the Thai Temple or as impeccable as Gregoire, but like these Berkeley monuments, Lucky House is a rank-and-file member of the city’s daily gourmet. Maybe it’s the “daily” part of the equation that has me so thoroughly convinced that this restaurant is not in a state of decline. That being the case, my next return to the East Bay will decide who wins in the battle between sense and sentiment. Either way, I’ll celebrate the victor with sticky rice and mango.
Lucky House Thai
2140 University Ave
Berkeley, CA 94704