Discerning Diner
Cyclo blends the culinary, cultural tastes of Viet Nam 

By Elan Head

It’s two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon and Cyclo, a terrific little Vietnamese restaurant in Chandler, is packed.

Which is nothing unusual.

Cyclo has been a sensation almost since it opened eight months ago--not just a great neighborhood joint but a destination for serious chowhounds across the Valley.

Glowing reviews have bolstered good word-of-mouth. Earlier this month, Phoenix Magazine proclaimed it the Valley’s best Vietnamese restaurant.

“It’s been phenomenal,” says owner Justina Duong. “I didn’t expect this much success this fast.”

The friendly, fabulous Duong is undoubtedly part of the restaurant’s appeal. She’s a fixture in the front of the store, where she greets customers, explains the menu, takes orders and stops by tables to chat.

She’s also the visionary behind Cyclo’s spare but elegant décor, which is another reason to love the place. From the spray-painted mural she did with friends to the restaurant’s attractive tableware, a dozen small touches elevate this strip-mall establishment well beyond hole-in-the-wall status.

But the big draw here is the food: a rotating menu of innovative and classic Asian cuisine, all of it exceptionally fresh and well prepared.

“Everything we make here is fresh and made-to-order,” says Duong. “That papaya (in a green papaya and shrimp salad)? We grate it when you order it.”

Vietnamese food is not new to the area, but it’s steadily gaining in mainstream appeal. Cyclo joins a handful of other good East Valley Vietnamese, including Khai Hoan in Tempe, which is run by her sister.

At Cyclo, you’ll find Vietnamese menu staples like pho, a brothy, fragrant beef soup with rice noodles that’s always served in huge bowls. It’s accompanied by fresh green herbs and bean sprouts that you stir in to taste; the raw herbs are brilliant in the steaming hot soup.

Sound too hot for August? Not really--you can always cool off with an iced fresh lemonade.

Banh xeo is another Vietnamese classic, harder to find because it’s so tricky to make. Cyclo’s version is top-notch, a crispy, turmeric-yellow crepe enclosing succulent bites of pork and shrimp.

If you’re not quite sure how to eat it, Duong will happily advise. But here’s the basic idea: tear off a piece of it, wrap it in a fresh lettuce leaf and dip it in nuoc cham, the accompanying dipping sauce. The combination is not just amazing--it’s addictive.

Besides these traditional favorites, Cyclo serves some great original dishes.

“We just play around with the food,” Duong says, laughing. “A lot of the things we come up with there’s no name for. We just make them up.”

And the desserts here are as good as everything else. A jasmine crème brulee is small but flawless, a gracious nod to the French influence in Vietnamese cuisine and a fine meal’s perfect conclusion.

Duong sees her restaurant as an important, independent establishment in a sea of corporate eats.

“There are so many chain restaurants around here,” she says. “Chandler really needs as many mom-and-pop places as it can get.”

Does Duong have plans to expand? Eventually, she’d like to open another, larger restaurant. But for the time being she has her hands full--sometimes staying at the restaurant until 2 or 3 in the morning.

“I live here!” she exclaims.

The rest of us are glad she does.

Cyclo, 1919 W. Chandler Boulevard, Chandler (near the intersection of Chandler and Dobson). Open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. (480) 963-4490.