By 6:30 in the evening, the dining room at Pho Cyclo on Capitol Hill is loaded with customers. They are crammed into the booths along the walls, pressed against the glass of the Broadway-side windows that fog with the steam coming off their bowls of pho.
Arriving parties tangle with departing ones at the door, and there seems to be very little in the way of organization on the floor. Servers seat people at random—pointing them toward tables, sometimes forgetting menus, utensils, and people altogether as they work through a backlog of parties that never seems to slacken. There are no quiet moments here, only those less busy and those more.
The servers seem not to notice. They move (or don’t) at the same languorous pace regardless. They bring menus (or don’t), chopsticks (or not), and sheets of seasonal specials which seem to have no relation to the season. BBQ short ribs, if they had a season, would be a summer thing, wouldn’t they? And I had no idea there was a special time of the year for chow mein.
If you’re lucky, you might ride a wave of sudden, whiplash seatings straight from door to table, and be eating in minutes: your order taken, processed, and filled in accordance with no rational, decipherable timetable, with no rule except that pho will always come fastest—sometimes before drinks, napkins, chopsticks, and pho spoons. If you’re not lucky, you may linger, feeling forgotten, by the door and hostess stand, cold drafts on your back, until some server or another registers your presence. You may get a table and then wait, hungry, for 10 or 20 minutes, as tables seated after you are serviced with an efficiency that seems almost insulting, as though keyed specifically to drive you insane.
Pho is one of the fastest of fast foods on earth. At a good shop, you can be seated, be served, eat, pay, and be gone in 15 minutes, with barely time to breathe. For an unlucky customer at Pho Cyclo, that basic interaction might take, oh, I don’t know . . . let’s say an hour and 44 minutes, including the nearly 10 minutes he had to sit staring at his rapidly cooling bowl of pho tai bo vien, waiting for someone to bring him something to eat it with, and seriously considering just picking up the whole bowl in his hands and drinking it.
Sometimes I am the lucky guy at Pho Cyclo; most of the time I am not. But I keep going back—keep rolling the dice and taking my chances and not scheduling anything for an hour, minimum, on either side of a meal there—for one reason: The pho is just that friggin’ good.
Something else about the place makes the wait and complications worthwhile. That would be Ms. Lien—the owner, head chef, and developer of the menu at Pho Cyclo. Ms. Lien also owns, operates, and writes the menu at Huong Binh in the International District, my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in the city (“The Joy Duck Club,” May 5, 2010)—a place as disparate from Pho Cyclo as two things ostensibly the same can possibly be.
Huong Binh is confounding in its strangeness no matter how comfortable you are with the food being presented or how many times you have settled into its tiny, crowded dining room. Cyclo is aggressively welcoming —if not always accommodating—and easy, offering nothing from the far reaches of the Vietnamese canon stranger than a bowl of noodle soup or a glass of boba tea.
At Huong Binh, the best dishes are the most complicated: the hacked-up ducks with a Martian produce section’s worth of accompaniments, the jellied pancakes dusted with shrimp flakes and scallions like shards of jade. At Cyclo, simpler is better: a bowl of broth, a squeaking meatball, a stick of shrimp blistered from the heat of the grill, and some rice noodles to go with it.
Huong Binh is there to serve its I.D. neighbors and fellow travelers, to feed families and friends who might also happen to need a bag of preserved tropical fruit or can of lychee soda from the coolers and shelves that line the walls, to warm refugee hearts with the flavors of home. Cyclo, on the other hand, is kinked like a 101 course in Vietnamese Cuisine for Amateurs. To wit, Goal #2 on their website’s “About Us” page: “Create a dining experience that introduces and encapsulates the Vietnamese culture.”
Theirs is the street food of Hanoi and Saigon and Hue City—something Ms. Lien knows well, since she learned to cook from her father, who in turn learned to cook during the French adventure in Indochina. There are banh mi sandwiches on French bread during lunch, and glasses of Café du Monde over ice, sweetened with condensed milk. Everything else is the equivalent of fast food from an age before fast food was invented, and from a place where things rarely move fast at all.
The appetizers are forgettable, just spring rolls, egg rolls, and three different kinds of salad—of which the lettuce wrap is the only one worth trying, and even then only if you really have a thing for ginger, straw mushrooms, and eating with your hands. The core of the menu looks, at first glance, to be long, complicated, and all-encompassing, but is really just 40-odd variations on a five-note theme.
There is bun thit nuong and bun thit tom nuong, followed by bun nem nuong, bun tom nuong, bun chao tom, and bun Cyclo, which really could just be called bun thit tom nem chao tom, because it is, if you couldn’t guess, a combo plate with charbroiled pork, charbroiled shrimp, charboiled meatballs, and sliced shrimp cake (which isn’t charbroiled at all and tastes rather like eating a sponge soaked in shrimp ramen), all laid over rice noodles with some vegetables for garnish. Repeat this with com (the rice dishes), add a few tofu specialties, and that’s pretty much the board. It is simple. It is straightforward. And, like the pho, it can be really, really good, provided you’re willing sometimes to wait and often engage in protracted negotiations with different servers over cutlery and beverages and getting the final bill.
Yet if there were an appetizer plate consisting only of the meatballs that come with all the bun nem and com nem permutations, I would order it every time I was within a hundred yards of the place, shouting my demands at the big front windows if I were in a hurry. The meatballs are made of pork, ground to what must be nearly a liquid, then formed into all manner of unusual shapes (spheres giving way to toroids and ovoids and shapes not described in the geometric canon), seared in the pan, and served on a stick. I am addicted to their unusually puffy/stiff texture and bland flavor, barely goosed with porky goodness. Those meatballs, along with what I swear must be one of the best, thickest nuoc mam sauces in the city (like syrup almost, richly savory, vinegary, and spiked with red chile and garlic), would be enough some days.
After a few meals at the Broadway Pho Cyclo (a second location, on First Avenue downtown, does a big lunch business), I developed a system for maximizing my chances of actually receiving all the food I want without wasting any more time than I absolutely have to. There are three phases, all of them psychological, like the stages of grief:
1. Anger. It’s good to get this out of your system early. Yes, it will probably take longer than it should. Yes, the parking on and around Broadway will be a nightmare. Yes, your favorite waitress will probably be hung up for 10 minutes trying to talk some neophyte through what pho is and how it’s served and what’s all that stuff that comes with it. The customer will mispronounce “pho” every time and it will be maddening, but just get past it.
2. Denial. Maybe it won’t be so bad this time. Maybe everything will work out perfectly—it’ll be a slow night (even though there does not appear to be any such thing) and you’ll walk in and be seated promptly, served expediently, and brought all the food you asked for in some approximation of the order in which a normal human would eat. Convincing yourself of this will get you up and off the couch and on your way. If it doesn’t work, just think of the meatballs.
3. Acceptance. Accept the fact that a meal will take as long as it will take and be as scattered as it will be. Relax into the unique speed and particular idiosyncrasies of Cyclo, and look around at the pin-lighted murals of a Vietnamese cityscape (not unlike those in the main gallery at the Venetian in Las Vegas, with a sky on the ceiling and warped perspectives—but with a faint smudge of the Annamese Cordillera, rather than Italy, in the far distance). Learn to cope, to plan for all eventualities.
Order the pho. Brace it with a beer or two. No matter what else you might want, ordering the pho is your best chance to eat quickly, and it’s delicious—particularly later in the evening when the broth has cooked down to a rich, dark color. The menu is arranged with one list of pho for amateurs—like pho tai (with rare flank, like Steak-umms, floating in the bowl), pho bo vien (with unseared meatballs bobbing like life preservers), and pho ga with chicken—and one for masters. The price for a bowl with only meatballs is the same as for a masterful one of rare steak, flank, fatty flank, tendon, tripe, and meatball, so order accordingly. Know what you want, what you like. Take a moment after it arrives to breathe in its thick smell, beefy and laced with sweet spice. And don’t forgo the bowl of hot sauce that comes on the side. It tastes like a cross between nuoc mam, cocktail sauce, and Sriracha, and adds a hot breath of fire to any bowl.
Before your server can escape, inform him or her that you would also like some stuff to go—bun dac biet, perhaps (rice noodles, grilled shrimp, meatballs, charred bits of pork in a sweet marinade like pig yakitori, and a slaw of shredded carrots, cucumbers, daikon, and peanuts); com cyclo (with a little bit of everything over rice and a big cup of vinegary nuoc mam on the side); or stir-fried beef out of the wok (with whatever vegetables were close at hand in the galley).
Order big. Stock up for tomorrow. In most cases, Vietnamese food tastes best incredibly fresh—right off the grill, straight out of the pot. But Cyclo’s grilled meats actually taste better after mellowing a day in the fridge. My favorite meals from the place have been had on my own couch, eating with my fingers and watching cartoons. Pretty as the place is and addictive as it can be, I have come to like it most as a takeout restaurant which serves me soup while I wait—a tiny corner of downtown Saigon brought to Broadway for the edification of the neighbors.
Bun thit nuong $7.50
Bun dac biet $8.15
Bun Cyclo $9.15
Com nem nuong $7.55
Com chao tom $8.15