332 J Street, Downtown San Diego
After a few months of operation, Lucky Liu’s still hasn’t gotten a license to sell alcohol. Either the ABC is trying for restaurant infanticide, or owner Alex Thao and his associates were overly optimistic about the licensing process. The interesting upshot of the delay in booze licensing is that there hasn’t been much media hype surrounding the restaurant, which was supposed to open last fall but didn’t get rolling until 2014 was well underway.
The good news is that the place looks fabulous. A red and black lacquered look doesn’t dominate the dining room because the hodge-podge of chairs, which look like they were all pilfered from various yard sales, brings a comforting, rustic element. Some of the gracious, well-dressed staff came from Celadon (Thao’s old Thai restaurant in Hillcrest, which had a reputation for outstanding service) and it shows.
Celadon’s brief revival as French Concession (now closed) acted like a kind of test kitchen for dim sum, and some of the dishes made it onto Lucky Liu’s menu. A few varieties of steamed dumpling, shrimp balls, and a few other dishes stand in for all of dim sum, but Liu’s isn’t a dim sum restaurant and the small plates have an zappropriately sized share of the menu.
More “conventional” Chinese dishes make up the rest of the menu. It’s a delight to see crab rangoons ($7.95) get a sprucing up — and even some real crab — on the menu. Garlicky fried chicken wings ($7.95), another Chinese favorite, appear on the menu, and their crispy skin reveals the clean, not-too-oily crunch of fresh cooking oil and careful preparation. The kitchen could be bolder with the frying times, since the wings aren’t always fried hard enough for the cartilage to change from unchewable barrier to delicious, crispy snack.
Wings aside, the basic technique at Lucky Liu’s looks like it is fully on point. Peking duck ($20/$38) balances crispy skin, succulent duck fat, and moist meat in perfect proportion, and is best when doused in hoisin sauce and scooped up with the chewy, steamed bread, provided by the kitchen in ample amounts.
Hot and sour soup ($4/$12), while far from fancy, is everything you want to see. Velvety ribbons of egg float alongside mushroom slices, tofu, and chopped chives in a tangy chicken consommé that has all the qualities of Chinese takeout at its very best.
Eggplant sautéed in “yu hsiang” sauce ($12.95) melts in the mouth and doesn’t reek of cheap oil.
Lucky Liu’s menu is not high concept, but therein lies the charm. Everything from the numbered menu items to the specific language describing the dishes evokes the richly American tradition of “Chinese” food as served in little, white boxes with a red pagoda on the side. At first glance, it looks like the cooking is careful, but not fussy, and that the expense of eating at Liu’s won’t be too great. Four could probably eat well for $60 (not counting drinks), and that’s something of a coup for a restaurant downtown with ambitious decor, good service, and a high-profile location.