Justina Duong’s effusive personality, easy elegance and chic fashion sense could fill a room–and they often did. From the moment Justina launched Cycle on Chandler Avenue, the captivating chef and hostess extraordinaire didn’t just have guests. She had an audience, a throng of admirers (mostly men). She had peeps. Charming, gracious and attractive, the belle femme made guests feel at home, becoming as much a draw as the wonderful cuisine on her menu. I had expected to once again enjoy banter with Justina when visiting Cyclo for the first time in a few years only to learn Justina sold the restaurant four years ago.
With Justina no longer there to capture the rapt attention of her guests, I noticed a lot of things. For one thing, Cyclo is much smaller than I had remembered it to be. I wondered if Justina’s larger-than-life personality made Cyclo feel like a larger venue. We noticed new art on the walls. Two lovely Vietnamese women attired in traditional flowing ao dai walked under a flowering Tao tree with a cyclo parked nearby. Mostly what we noticed were the alluring aromas emanating from the kitchen. These mouth-watering sensations have probably been there all along, but maybe no one noticed because of Justina’s perfume.
Since you’re probably wondering, Cyclo is named for a pedaled, three-wheeled, hooded passenger vehicle. It’s like a rickshaw in that passengers are seated in front of the conveyance. The “biker” sits up high on a bike seat and is able to see the path in front of them. What the image below doesn’t display is the single bar used to turn right or left. Frankly it’s a feat of engineering out of Rube Goldberg’s book. Several years ago, an actual cyclo was parked in front of the restaurant, but if Chandler is anything like Albuquerque, it was probably stolen by someone with no actual need for it.
When it launched in 2002, Cyclo became in a scant few months, the hottest Vietnamese restaurant in the Phoenix area. Both the New York Times and Gourmet magazine quickly took notice. It goes without saying that Cyclo garnered every local periodical’s “best Vietnamese” award. During my own first visit, I had the unique honor and privilege of inaugurating two friends from Intel to their first experience with Vietnamese food. They trusted me enough to order our entire meal. Fortunately, neither the appetizers, entrees or desserts disappointed in the least. In 2006, I also introduced a vegan friend to the joys of Vietnamese food and Cyclo was more than up for the challenge.
Aside from the siren Justina, what made Cyclo so extraordinary is a menu in which the cuisine of Vietnam isn’t so much presented as it is celebrated. Cyclo isn’t so much high end as it is high energy. It’s a dining experience to be savored as your taste buds become a erogenous zones for explosive tastes that awaken, arouse and energize. That much hasn’t changed. Cyclo’s menu remains a compendium of Vietnamese favorites with a few fusion items (shaking beef, egg drop soup, orange chicken, etc.). When I asked our server (the sister of the owner) if Cyclo’s food is just as good as it once was she smiled confidently and said “better.”
She also told me I have a Vietnamese soul when I declared my love for durian, the stinkiest fruit in the world. Cyclo offers smoothies in such flavors as durian and jackfruit which our server confirmed “aren’t very popular with Americans.” Nor is durian popular with Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern. More innocuous smoothie flavors are available or you can have Pepsi products. Service was on point at Cyclo. Though I missed Justina’s garrulous presence and hostess with the mostest personality, the new staff was more focused on food than on flirting. My Kim would probably not have liked Justina as much as I did.
Most of the same appetizers with which I was familiar from previous visits to Cyclo remain on the menu (save for the beef Carpaccio). One of the good things about taking friends to Cyclo (especially on Intel’s dime) is that I got to sample all the appetizers. Picking a favorite is akin to selecting your favorite star in the night sky. The beef Capriccio (thinly sliced, near raw beef with Vietnamese coriander, pineapple and sesame crisps) was perhaps the best I’ve ever had anywhere. The spicy garlic chicken wings were the equal or better than wings at many wings restaurants. The tamarind glazed pork short ribs with Thai basil, egg rolls with red leaf and mint are phenomenal. Even normally pedestrian fresh spring rolls with grilled pork and shrimp are elevated to extraordinary heights. Such were my experiences from several years ago.
Similarly in dining with friends, I’ve had the opportunity to sample other entrees (such as the aptly named Hong Kong beef chow fun with scallions, sprouts and soy). In each case, I purposely selected appetizers, entrees and desserts to display the versatility and distinctiveness of Vietnamese cuisine. In true testament to my success in picking the right entrees (or more likely, Cyclo’s incomparable kitchen), not a single morsel has ever remained. Perhaps just as importantly, all those whom I’ve introduced to Vietnamese food at Cyclo have remained friends.
28 December 2022: If pressed to recommend just one appetizer, it would have to be Cyclo’s spicy garlic green beans, long and tender beans with a crisp snap to them when you bite down. These are no ordinary green beans, however. They are laden with garlic, chili, soy sauce and pepper to imbue them with invigorating, tongue tingling tastes and an olfactory arousing bouquet. You might want their smoky aftertaste to linger long after you’ve finished these verdant vegetables. I have my friend Karen Baehr for introducing me to these green beans during a business trip about a decade ago.
28 December 2022: Cyclo’s entree options present a pantheon of perfectly prepared, wonderfully memorable Vietnamese classics. My Kim wasn’t as interesting in exploring the menu as she was in enjoying a tried and true favorite, the pan-fried noodles with beef. Though normally prepared with broccoli (which she loathes), bean sprouts (ditto), carrots and onions, she asked that her noodles be prepared solely with onions. Pan-fried noodles are an interesting concoction, one I don’t quite get. The noodles resemble a bird’s nest and are as dry and crispy as Onyums, but they reconstitute into soft noodles that are fun to slurp up. With a sweet-savory sauce beneath the “nest” and beef, pork or shrimp atop, it’s a rather moist dish when all is said and done.
28 December 2022: When our server broke the news (and my heart) that Cyclo ran out of bun bo Hue (thick rice noodles in a spicy beef-flavored soup with beef brisket, tendon and meatballs) because of a hungry lunch crowd, you might think she’d recommend another pho with similar characteristics. Instead, she recommended the banh xeo (shrimp, pork, sprouts in a crispy rice crepe). Not only was it one of the largest, plate-covering banh xeos I’ve ever had, it was one of the best. Anthony Bourdain once described banh xeo as “a wonderful mutation of the classic” (referring to the French crepe). In some ways it may be an improvement. Banh Xeo (or sizzling pancakes/crepes) translates literally translates in English to “cake” with “xeo” being the sizzling sound it makes when being pan fried. It’s fun to eat and absolutely addictive with fish sauce lending sweet, savory and piquant notes.
28 December 2022: For dessert, your options (as they are at most Vietnamese restaurants) are rather limited. One of Cyclo’s favorite dessert options is most commonly associated with Thai food. That’s sticky rice and mangoes with coconut milk. The sticky rice is fashioned into the shape of a heart. A drenching of coconut milk over both the rice and the mangoes provides delightful textural and flavor contrasts that make this a dessert we seldom pass over.
Cyclo is one of the very best reasons to sojourn to Phoenix and I would probably pedal a cyclo 400 miles plus to get there.
LATEST VISIT: 28 December 2022
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Grilled Pork & Sausage rice vermicelli, Hong Kong Beef Chow Fun, Spicy Garlic Chicken Wings, Egg Rolls, Spring Rolls, Banh Xeo, Pan Fried Noodles,