Entering Cyclo for the first time, you'll notice one thing before anything else: owner Justina Duong. On a recent summer evening, she's wearing a flowered maxi dress, dramatic false eyelashes, and a hip pixie cut. Her elegance appears effortless, like she's a guest herself. She immediately starts talking to a new customer about moon cycles and how the heat affects them, as if she's chatting with a gal pal over Cosmos.
After 12 years in business, it's obvious that Duong must know what she's doing at her Chandler Vietnamese fusion restaurant, Cyclo.
If you've worked in a restaurant, you know burnout is very real, so the fact that Duong spends every hour in the front of the house is quite a feat. The fact that she's been doing it for 12 years, functioning as hostess and sole server day in and day out, is amazing.
When I ask her later how she's done it all these years and still clearly enjoys it, she laughs at me.
"I fucking love it," she says without hesitation. "I enjoy serving more than ever before. People really know what's up with food now, and I'm just a talker in general. I enjoy that exchange of energy."
Her brother helps by busing tables and running food, a friend cooks, and a couple of other people typically work as dishwashers or runners -- but that's it. Like herself, Cyclo is bright and inviting. The color scheme is sky blue and orange, with large works of art covering a wall.
When Cyclo opened a dozen years ago, it was the talk of the town, and with good reason. Good Vietnamese food was hard to find in the Valley, and it certainly wasn't a part of the collective dining consciousness then as it is now, with pho houses cropping up on every corner.
Duong's restaurant is more than a standard soup joint, though. It was one of the first spots in town for Asian fusion. Somewhere between Duong's sister's traditional Vietnamese restaurant in Tempe, Khai Hoan, and nouveau spots like Johnny Chu's restaurants, Clever Koi, and Sumo Maya, Duong has found a way to play and experiment without betraying tradition.
While Duong respects others' attempts at fusion, she does object to certain deviations. For instance, using pillowy white bread, rather than a crusty French baguette, is a recipe for "white people bánh mi," as Duong calls it, and I can't help agreeing after having sampled one too many unsuccessful attempts at the classic Vietnamese sandwich. But, as she sees it, at least people now know what bánh mi is and are seeking it out, though her restaurant does not currently serve the staple.
Duong says she has been focusing on altering the menu to make it more accessible to all dietary restrictions and the general preferences of her customers. "We're trying to evolve with time to be more conscious about how we serve food," Duong says. "I truly believe restaurants should make each dish for the individual customer and cater to allergies and diets as much as possible."
But comparing my experience to one described in a 2003 New Times review, it appears Cyclo's menu hasn't really changed much at all. In fact, I could go to Cyclo today and pretty much have the same meal described in that piece.
I started with tom rang hat tieu (black pepper shrimp), which, according to the menu and the 2003 review, is supposed to come with grilled bread. Mine was served with a side of stale sesame crackers. The shrimp itself was mid-grade in terms of quality and the sauce, though peppery as advertised, was oddly gelatinous and a little off-putting. Hoping Cyclo might have resolved the sesame cracker issue, I ordered them with the beef carpaccio on a later visit, but again, they were stale. The carpaccio, while cut ideally thin, was covered in a sweet sauce and pineapple that seemed to come from a can.
The sautéed bok choy with oyster mushrooms was another menu mistranslation, as my order was just a plate of well-prepared bok choy without mushrooms. Good, but only half of what I ordered.
Less-successful (but fully prepped, as advertised) dishes include lemongrass chicken (with no vegetables) and a side of rice called ga xao xa ot and some standard stir-fried tofu with vegetables, also diminished by a gelatinous sauce. The veggie spring rolls were basic, verging on bland, and the accompanying peanut sauce similarly was toned down in terms of flavor.
The com tam (mixed grill plate) was the biggest letdown of any dish at Cyclo. Typically, you'd expect a mixed grill to be a sizzling plate of aromatic meats served with rice. At Cyclo, it was a lukewarm, impossibly thin yet tough piece of meat with an egg, some small shrimp, rice, a large piece of lettuce, and a few slices of tomatoes and cucumbers.
It isn't all bad news at Cyclo. In fact, if you stick to the rice noodle dishes, you'll leave satisfied and with leftovers. The best included the bun noodle dishes like bun cha ha noi, bun bo xao, and bun sai gon. The sweet vinegary sauce, rice vermicelli, greens, herbs, charred meat, and more will be a favorite for pho devotees in summer months because, in terms of flavors and composition, those bun dishes are similar to the soup, though obviously cooler in temperature. Think of it as a pho salad.
And speaking of pho, you really should give Cyclo's a shot. For broth snobs, Duong's flavorful offering gives notes of everything it should, from the star anise to the spicy ginger and cloves and the hearty umami flavors. From there, thinly sliced rare beef sirloin and braised brisket are both found in the pho xe lua, as well as rice noodles make this bowl of pho as filling as it is tasty.
Unfortunately, dessert won't end your meal on a high note. You can skip the uninspired mango sticky rice and fried bananas, which I couldn't cut through with the spoon I was given. You can try to order the jasmine crème brûlée, but it wasn't available on any of my visits. It's best to just sip a sweet, creamy, and perfectly intense Vietnamese coffee to cap it all off.
Even though Duong excels at making customers feel welcome (her lovable bedside manner includes everything from friendly relationship advice to philosophical conversations about ayahuasca use) her menu could use reworking at this point. Based on my chat with her, it seems she knows it.
Though nothing's set in stone yet, Duong says she's planning to either open a farm to grow produce for the restaurant or work more closely with local farms to incorporate their produce onto her menu. She says, only half-joking, that she would live at Scottsdale's Singh Farms if it would let her. She also says she would like to shift to an all-vegan menu in the near future, as she recently become vegan herself.
Considering the less-than-fresh ingredients and confusing menu mixups, it seems a fresh start for Cyclo would be a very good thing. After moving from L.A. to Phoenix 13 years ago, Duong never planned on staying, she says. Downright disappointed by the Valley dining scene at the time, she it's another story now. She sees Phoenix as a burgeoning dining destination and has no intention of leaving.
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"I think of Phoenix as the next savvy city," Duong says. "It's come a long way, and it's really a cool place now. Where there's more food, there's more culture."
It would be nice to see Justina Doung rise to the challenge.
Cyclo 1919 West Chandler Boulevard, Chandler 480-963-4490 www.azeats.com Hours: (lunch) 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; (dinner) 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday