Fried: Cyclo's Cha Gio and Pho Ap Chao

Cyclo is so freakin' cheery -- doesn't this wall just make you grin?

By Sarah Fenske

I have these fabulously cool neighbors. I know, I know, it's Phoenix, and no one is supposed to know their neighbors. But Daniel and Bobby both moved here from farflung places (Argentina for Daniel, Calfornia for Bobby), so maybe they didn't get the memo. Suffice to say, these two know everyone in the neighborhood who's worth knowing -- when Significant Other and I started to get to know them, it was kind of like being let into the cool kids' clique. They are funny guys who live very graciously.

So when Daniel decided that we needed to make a pilgrimage to Cyclo , the highly acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant in Chandler, who was I to say no? I mean, yeah, my usual weeknight dinner doesn't require an hour-long roundtrip drive featuring miles of the 202. And, alcoholic that I am, I also tend to prefer places with a fully stocked bar. BYOB? Does that mean there are no martinis?

But ... Daniel and Bobby adore this place. And did I mention I really like these guys?

So they rounded up two of their equally cool friends, Jonathan and Nicky, and the six of us made the sojourn from Central Phoenix to the heart of Chandler. Yes, it felt like we were halfway to New Mexico.

But it was sooo worth it.

The best thing about experiencing a new restaurant with its most regular regulars is that you can mooch off their menu choices. They've tried everything; they can tell you what works. And, of course, Daniel knew exactly how to get things started: the cha gio, better known as egg rolls.

Daniel's favorite...

I've done rolls both Chinese style (deep fried) and the lighter, crisper Vietnamese style, where veggies are wrapped in chilled rice paper. But I'd never done them Cyclo style -- which basically means they are fried, twice, and then at the table, you wrap them with fresh mint and a big lettuce leaf. It's a startlingly good combo: The heat and moistness of an egg roll, plus the crisp lightness of a lettuce wrap.

The final product, just before it got scarfed up.

We ended up ordering three plates of this appetizer. Cyclo's owner, the fabulous Justina, is teaching Jonathan some Vietnamese words, and of course he had just the word for this undertaking: Pig. Hey, if the shoe fits ...

That was yummy enough, but things only got better from there. Jonathan was raving about the pho ap chao, which is a plate of veggies, scallops, beef, and shrimp over a rice noodle cake, so I ordered that. (Hey, I was there to learn.)

The rice noodle cake alone makes this worth the $12 price.

It was so good. I think it was mostly about the crispy of the noodle cake; such a killing contrast to the tender chunks of meat and really excellent vegetables. Suffice to say, I ate the whole thing.

Our little CenPho crew has now made the pilgrimage to Cyclo twice, and I'm already in a rut. I can't help but order the egg rolls and the rice noodle cake! But, hey, when you're taking lessons from the masters, there's no point in thinking you can do better on your own. In situations like this, I'm happy just to be a good pupil.

But no review of Cyclo would be complete without further mention of the saucy, sassy Justina.

Not her usual choice in eyewear, but it works.

Justina is the owner, a rail-thin, uproariously obnoxious, enormously charismatic restauranteur who inspires envy, and fear, in her diners. (Whispers another neighbor, also a fan of Cyclo, "I kind of want her to dominate me, you know?") Go figure, Justina and Daniel are friends; he helped with the place's cheerful new look, which debuted three months ago. And so when Justina sat down and started teasing us, it was suddenly clear that we really were at the cool kids' table. She's that big a presence.

So, yeah, we have to bring our own wine, and we have to shlep all the way out to Chandler. But one of the other great things about Daniel and Bobby is that they're the perfect designated drivers: Our block is their block.

Yet another reason, maybe, to get to know your neighbors ... and persuade them to show you your favorite dining spot. If you're half as lucky as me, they'll even teach you how to order.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske