Too many people I've met wrinkle their noses at the prospect of joining me for a Vietnamese meal. I can't get them to seek out delicacies like pho bo vien, a magical masterpiece of soup that's rich and complex with slender rice noodles, beef meatballs, bean sprouts and a flurry of feisty herbs.
Why? I don't think folks are frightened by the cuisine of Vietnam itself there's enough crossover into friendly Chinese fare that there's something comfortable on the menu for everyone.
No, I think many of my friends don't avoid Vietnamese food so much as they avoid Vietnamese restaurants. The shops here may offer impressive fare, but they offer little in the way of ambiance. My cherished Pho Bang in Phoenix is a downright pit, actually, with suspect stains on the walls and critters on the window blinds I don't want to inspect too closely. My beloved Saigon Pho in Chandler is cleaner, but purely coffee-shop class.
And I've been to my share of truly creepy spots, cribs clogged with the rank aroma of rotting fish, cigarette smoke and old spring roll oil. There always seems to be some skinny, wrinkled guy hunkered in the corner, chain smoking, drinking beer after beer, and shrieking insults in Vietnamese to no one in particular. Yes, I've been known to eat at these places out of desperate craving for my favorite tai gau, a noodle soup of eye of round and brisket. I've done it because I'm hooked, and I can't help it.
So it's with great pride that, over these past few weeks, I've been sending everyone I see even strangers on the street to Cyclo. Because the new Cyclo cafe has the authentic Vietnamese taste that I crave. It's got the same rock-bottom prices found at other casual joints of its ilk, but the place is so clean, graceful and modern that even those diners whose idea of Asian adventure is a trip to P.F. Chang's or Thaifoon would feel right at home. (I feel so much pity for such sad souls, but that's a subject for another time.)
This is a funky, fashionable cafe, with modern music, an ornate street lamp smack in the center of its tiny room, mismatched art-crafted pottery plates, and small metal displays of the three-wheeled hooded pedicabs for which the cafe is named. I love the contemporary red and black theme, accented with a spray-painted mural of a jungle gent perched atop his water buffalo (done by Cyclo's owner, Justina Duong).
My sister Elisabeth and I decided that we'd come back to Cyclo even when we weren't hungry, just for the great decor and cool specialty drinks. (Of course, the sight of tom rang hat tien, spicy plump black pepper shrimp with grilled French bread, would have us salivating like dogs in no time, appetite or no appetite.) We'd be oh-so-chic sipping outrageously powerful Vietnamese coffee slowly seeped into sweet condensed milk, salty iced plum soda, robust jasmine tea, homemade lemonade, or, coming soon: beer and wine.
Duong takes her mission seriously, and I can taste it in every bite. Her favorite time of day is the two hours between 3 and 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, she explains, because that's when she gets to play with her food. Cyclo closes each afternoon between lunch and dinner, and Duong raids the kitchen then, romping with her chef to create new dishes. She nibbles, tweaks, tastes some more, and the most remarkable results end up on her constantly evolving menu. On Mondays, the cafe goes dark, and, rather than rest, Duong travels the Valley in search of competing restaurants. It's no odd thing for the petite, strikingly pretty Vietnamese woman to order a half-dozen dishes at one sitting, to sample who's got what and how they do it. Duong reports that thus far she's found no local shop that can best her Cyclo not even her other restaurant, Khai Hoan, a rickety little Vietnamese-Chinese cheap eats shop in Tempe.
And it's with no hesitation that I put down my chopsticks, dab my sriracha-stained mouth with a napkin, and agree. Cyclo is fabulous. The food is superb, crafted from high-quality meats, seafood and vegetables. I find myself ignoring the sriracha by my second visit, in fact, finding no need to distract my tongue with the spicy heat of the bright red, crushed chile sauce. These flavors roar all on their own, running in a wolf pack of sparkling fresh Asian herbs.
And the prices they're so low I feel like a thief, paying a maximum of just $6 for big plates brimming with delicacies like pho ap chao (crisp rice noodle cake with lots of beef, pork, shrimp, scallops and fresh vegetables in a feather-light brown sauce), or pho hai san (a huge bowl of savory soup stocked with snow crab, shrimp, scallops, rice noodles and sprouts). Rub my eyes: A hearty plate of suo n non is just $4, bringing a healthy mound of tender glazed pork short ribs with Thai basil.
Duong has set a chair at the end of each table, to sit a spell as she visits with her guests, something she does with ceaseless, charming energy. The mien ga I'm adoring is new to the menu, she explains, thrilled that I'm so taken with the chicken noodle soup she used to consume by the bucket as a child. But how could I not be? I take in its aroma with my eyes closed for two reasons: to keep out the steam puffing from the enormous bowl, and also to better absorb the aromatic brew bobbing with grilled breast shards, chopped green onions, tears of lively cilantro leaves, bean sprouts, and delicate opaque glass noodles with a splash of fermented fish sauce and lime.
Duong praises me for choosing the perfect accompaniment, go i du du salad. It's a combo that real Vietnamese people insist on, she says. And it is marvelous against the pungent soup, mounding crisp matchsticks of unripened green papaya and carrot, crushed roasted peanuts, and a sweet-tart vinaigrette electric with chiles. Elisabeth and I spar for the crystal fresh poached tiger shrimp sprinkled throughout, puzzling over how Cyclo can send out such an opulent, filling dish for just four bucks.
I wonder if Duong has found a favorite food over her tasting afternoons, darting as she does between traditional recipes like bun sai gon, a wonderfully simple bowl of pork and noodles; and innovative recipes like rau xao chay tofu, a classy combo of wok-tossed tofu and vegetables over jasmine rice.
Elisabeth favors the excellent bun sai gon, stirring up forkfuls of cold, tender rice noodles, thin curls of grilled pork, crispy chops of spring rolls and chopped lettuce tossed in nuoc mam (a sweet-and-sour blend of garlic, sugar, lemon and fish sauce floating with carrot slivers). I'm fascinated by banh xeo, a giant rice-flour crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts, folded like an omelet and pan-fried to a delicate crispness. The crepe is so golden-colored it's almost green, a flat lace pillow with juicy stuffing, and we wrap bits in leaves of lettuce to dip in more nuoc mam.
There's only one disappointment at glamorous Cyclo, but for me, it's a big one. There exists a classic Vietnamese soup that is my constant lust: pho. A hot soup that is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, pho is a clear but complex mixture of onion, beef bone, ginger, carrot, cinnamon and star anise all lovingly simmered for up to 12 hours. In a sticky ball in the center of the broth is a tangle of skinny rice noodles. At the table, we add in crispy bean sprouts, hot green chile slices, squirts of lime, and tears of fresh basil, mint and cilantro. A variety of meats is added (hard-core stores offer exotica like beef tendon and navel; Cyclo keeps it more upscale with brisket, eye of round and meatballs).
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I often dream of pho tai, the version floating with ruby, paper-thin slices of raw eye of round the whispery pieces cook gently in the scalding broth and melt on the tongue. Yet my meat at Cyclo has already browned through and through before it hits my table, rendering it simply slightly chewy, ordinary beef.
My gloom passes quickly, though, as with spoon in one hand and chopsticks in the other, I pull the food out of the soup and eat, alternatively slurping on the broth. Soon, I'm properly messy, with clumps of noodles dangling from my mouth, my eyes squinting from the steam and from errant splashes of stinging spiced liquid.
Elisabeth and I are always much too full to factor in dessert after a Cyclo feast, but Duong isn't done with us yet. She's been putting her two hours of freedom a day to good use, and wants to show off her newest dessert, a delectable, light French crepe gorged with ice cream. Another time, it's tapioca, coconut-intense and capped with ice cream and mint. Then, it's a Japanese confection, fruit ice creams wrapped in sticky, blubbery balls of mochi, a sweet glutinous rice dough that we spear with toothpicks.
Duong has given me a marvelous gift. I've got my gorgeous, absolutely authentic Vietnamese cuisine. And finally, I've got it in a place pretty enough to share with everyone. Now that's a beautiful thing.