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The difficulty of finding a decent bowl of pho outside of Vietnam can feel mystifying. It’s easier to find authentic versions of almost every other Asian cuisine in China, while Vietnamese remains the oft-denigrated enigma.
But now, Cyclo has rolled into town to rescue us from hopeless, mediocre pho. Based on just their steaming beefy broth and elastic noodles alone, we’ve been enticed to pay frequent visits. But there’s more, like the stellar grilled pork over vermicelli (fresh noodles with grilled pork and fried spring rolls, 45RMB), our daily snack when visiting Vietnam.
French-Vietnamese father and son team Lam Quang Minh and Lam Lee, are not restauranteurs. They both own events businesses in Shanghai. Father Quang Minh has worked in design and event planning for 30 years in Europe and China. He says he originally wanted to open a small take-away shop to satisfy his craving for the missing flavours of his youth.
‘I grew up eating good Vietnamese food and I spent five years in Vietnam until 2000. But in Shanghai I couldn’t find the taste of the real Vietnamese food like I had even in Paris,’ says Quang Minh. However, after unsuccessfully searching for a take-away location, he instead found this split-level restaurant space and says he’s enjoying owning a proper restaurant. ‘When I see people very happy eating my food, I’m very happy,’ he says.
The Lams may not be F&B professionals, but they’ve got the service impeccably handled by manager Sam Ho, who if anything is overqualified for the job. Ho grew up in Vietnam and then worked for luxury brands in France for many years. He’s followed his wife back to China and has a manner and grace more expected Bund-side than at a neighbourly little spot like this, meaning you are cared for extremely well for this price point.
Cyclo’s chef, newly arrived from Vietnam, brought the country’s simple yet inalterable mantra with him, which is freshness above all else and softly layered nuance in broths and sauces. The fresh spring rolls (30RMB) with pork and shrimp are semi-transparent bundles shot through with whole scallions for an oniony zip in every bite. Salads are solid, if not outstanding, like the mango salad (40RMB) with red pepper strips, dried shrimp and basil is tossed in a sweet sour sauce.
But the chef brews real magic with the pho’s 15-hour beef bone broth (pho beef noodle soup, 48RMB) which has a citrusy fragrance and penetrating beefiness that makes many other Shanghai versions come off as outright watery in comparison. Floating lightly in the broth are many strips of superior tender beef and below them, slippery, springy noodles. Alongside come all the proper accompaniments: hot sauce, sweet brown sauce, de-headed bean sprouts, a little tangle of Thai basil or mint leaves and slivered red chillies. This pho illustrates why the dish is world famous, with so many restaurants named after it, even though so few live up to the name.
The pork bun, or vermicelli, is equally transporting: the sugar heavy fish sauce flecked with garlic mince and chilli bits, the vermicelli snapping like soft elastic, and the pork’s sweet fatty bite are the closest we’ve had to the version served at that beloved Hanoi street-stand so vivid in the mind’s eye.
Besides the noodles there are curries, meats and seafood such as grilled fish (60RMB) and lemongrass porkchop (40RMB). There’s also banh mi
, the baguette sandwiches which you find as casual street food all over Vietnam. Lam says he taste tested all the French bakeries in Shanghai to find the best banh mi
bread and chose Brioche Doree
to supply their bread.
He explains that one difference between Cyclo’s cuisine and what he’s tasted elsewhere is that he hasn’t tried to accommodate local palates. The biggest problem in many overseas Vietnamese restaurants, says Lam, comes when they attempt to adapt. ‘In Germany I had the worst Vietnamese and Chinese food I ever had in my life,’ he laughs. ‘My way to work is to have simple food you normally can find everywhere in Vietnam’. Simple, normal, yet not so easy.