The best duck larb I can remember

Beautiful suffering

Sign on El Cajon Boulevard
  • Sign on El Cajon Boulevard

Took a gamble tonight. I spotted this sign: “Lucky Lady, Casino Restaurant & Bar.”

Hmm... Casino restaurant? Looking through the windows, I see about a dozen gaming tables, all crowded. And this is a Monday night! And yet the place seems small, clubby, friendly. Not high-pressure glitz, Vegas-style.

Question is, can you actually eat? And can you eat if you’re not a player? And also, how come the tall sign on the post says “Lucky Lady” and the sign on the building says “The River”?

Only one way to find out. I come in to what sounds like a beehive. Murmuring, talking, occasional cheers erupting, and, constantly behind that, the clicking of plastic poker chips.

Also, some guys have trays on rollers beside them at the tables with meals loaded onboard. Oh, yes. They don’t have to take time off from playing to eat.

“Uh, can I eat here without gambling?” I ask the gal at a cash register, Amber.

“Oh, sure,” she says. “Just eat at a non-gambling table.”

“The River” turns out to be the restaurant bar, in back; “Lucky Lady” is this card room.

I find a seat at a little table under the front window.

Amber

Amber

“The kitchen just changed ownership a couple of months ago,” says Amber. She’s here with the menus. “It’s so-o much better now.”

She hands me two menus. One has Thai and Chinese food, with dishes like pad Thai and drunken noodles. The other’s all burgers, Philly cheesesteaks, tuna and egg salad sandwiches. Prices there go from $5, for a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich; to $7, for a burger and fries or salad; to $10, for the ribeye Philly cheesesteak. Mexican dishes like chimichanga or burrito or flautas all go for around $8.

But judging from what I see people eating, it’s the Asian page that’s hot. Gal sharing this table, Marlita, is eating salt-and-pepper shrimp. Worth about 12 bucks. “You can get the shrimp shelled or unshelled. Unshelled’s better. More crunchy,” she says.

Turns out she’s a dealer. Taking a break. Every now and then other dealers come and steal a spoonful from her. Often, they’re speaking Tagalog. “I’m from Mindanao,” Marlita says. “Visayan. I have been here 30 years, but I dream of going back to live there when I retire.”

She says Filipino customers often eat the pad Thai (with thin rice noodles, egg, bean sprouts, green onion, crushed peanuts, and choice of meat, around $10); or, also around $10, rad na, the pan-fried wide noodle in gravy sauce with meat or tofu.

Then Marlita’s up, back on the job, as each dealer goes and replaces the dealer at the next table. Seems like a regular thing. Marlita takes over the table right behind us. “Hold ’em poker,” I think she says she’ll be dealing. Or was it 3-card?

“Marlita!” says one of her players. Seems like people know each other. “Bring me luck. I need it now!”

“Chips, please!” calls Marlita. “You want $200?”

Clickety-click go the chips.

“Oh, no…”

It’s the “Bring me luck” guy, five minutes later.

“I’m so sorry. But I give you good cards,” says Marlita. “Okay, we have five players.”

Meanwhile, Amber’s back, and I have to decide on food.

Ooh. Suddenly spot larb.

Larb! Me and Laotian anything is love at first sight. But larb, the classic Lao salad and meat dish, is love at first bite, if they do it right. The choice here is larb tuna (“ground roast rice, mixed [with] onion, lime juice & fresh herb”) or larb duck (“grilled roast duck, fresh herbs, onion & lime juice”). Either costs $12, so not cheap. ’Course, if I’d been gambling, I would have gotten $3 off any entrée. But I have to have this. Because duck is never my favorite, except with larb. If it’s done right, it’s great. I’m quackin’.

“And spiciness, out of ten?” asks Amber.

“Eight,” I say.

“Sure?”

“As eggs are eggs.”

Ten minutes later: I’m quackin’. And sweating. Beautiful suffering. It’s the marinated combination of duck meat, red onions, lots of mint, plenty of fire-breathing heat. Truth is I’m eating the best larb I can remember.

But in a card room? Guess I’ve been looking for larb in all the wrong places (heh-heh).

On the basis of this, I do two crazy things. I order a plate of chicken satay. They say the chicken’s marinated in curry powder. It comes grilled on skewers, three of them, with dips of cucumber relish and peanut sauce. Costs $8.

Mango in coconut milk, sticky rice with sesame seeds

Mango in coconut milk, sticky rice with sesame seeds

That’s to go, to share with Carla. But, what the heck, I get a mango and sticky rice for dessert right now ($7).

“Do you gamble at all?” I ask Amber when she brings the mango.

“Never. I would never throw my money away. I put mine in savings.”

The mango’s good, though Mexican mango’s not as sweet as Filipino or Thai mango. But the sesame-spiced sticky rice and coconut milk more than make up for the slight tartness.

Uh-oh. Musical chairs again. Dealers are all moving tables.

“Thank you,” says Marlita to her table. “We’re done and good luck. And here’s Nick.”

Nick, another dealer, sits in her seat and starts breaking out a pack of cards.

As I leave, I figure the finances. I’m, like, $33 down, including tip. But, I tell myself, if I’d have sat down at Marlita’s Texas hold ’em table, $33 would have evaporated in a New York minute. And I’d still be hungry. And, hey, at least I’ll have some tall tales for Carla from ECB’s own Little Las Vegas.

Larb, Laos’ beautiful mess of duck, salad, veggies, and spices

Larb, Laos’ beautiful mess of duck, salad, veggies, and spices

Plus larb leftovers, and a whole fresh plate of rice and satay.

Lucky lady. Lucky lad.

Lucky Lady Casino

5526 El Cajon Boulevard, College Area

The Place: The River Bar at Lucky Lady Casino and Card Room, 5526 El Cajon Boulevard, 619-287-6690

Restaurant Hours: 10 a.m.–11 p.m., seven days

Prices: Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, $5; burger, fries or salad, $7; ribeye Philly cheesesteak, $10; chimichanga (beef or chicken), $8; mahi mahi burrito, $8; two beef or chicken flautas, $9; pad Thai, $10–$13, depending on meat choice; rad na (pan-fried wide noodle in gravy sauce), $10–$13, depending on meat; larb tuna, $12; larb duck, $12; nahm tok (charbroiled beef), $10; kung pao, $10–13

Buses: 1, 215

Nearest bus stops: El Cajon Boulevard at 56th (1); El Cajon Boulevard at 54th (1, 215)

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