French-Vietnamese father and son team, Quang Minh and Lee Lam, opened Cyclo because they felt Shanghai lacked authentic Vietnamese options. A sound cause, but also the story behind 90% of Shanghai’s foreign concepts, most of which inevitably become as sanitized as the rest. Fortunately, that’s not the case here. Cyclo serves the most uncensored, delicious Vietnamese fare I’ve had since I’ve been in Shanghai.
Decor and service
The layout lacks the plastic stools, googly-eyed geckos scurrying the walls, and flickering bulbs of a Saigon pho den. Instead, you get two tiers of furnished wood, an immaculate maroon and yellow paint job parroting the Vietnamese flag, and more plastic shrubbery than a hospital waiting room. It’s stylish and comfy, but so are most of the Shanghai pho joints. It didn’t help that Cyclo takes its name from the most vile scam artists I’ve ever encountered in my travels (they make Chinese fake market vendors look like the Red Cross).
This becomes irrelevant when the impeccable service arrives. The father and son team know the menu like the backs of their hands, because they created it. You also get a sense they want to enhance your experience rather than siphon every last mao out of your wallet. When I almost ordered my pho and drink separately the dad pointed me to their all-inclusive lunch options, and helped me save around 40RMB.
Crab spring rolls
Your odyssey to find good pho in Shanghai ends here. Cyclo’s selection is fairly straightforward: either chicken or beef (45RMB/small, 55RMB/large and 50RMB/small, 60RMB/large respectively) with noodles, veg, and the holy trinity of basil, lime, and chili slivers, but the quality is outstanding.
The noodles are simultaneously chewy and yielding, and the beef is tender enough to eat on a plate by itself. Unlike most versions, its flavor doesn’t need to be camouflaged in a jungle of ingredients. The broth tastes hearty and full-bodied like a liquefied side of beef. You can tell it’s been simmered down from a combo of bones and spices for hours for 15-hours or more. The citrusy lemongrass cuts the richness.
If pho isn’t brawny enough for you, opt for the bun cha (50RMB), a dish that evokes pho served piecemeal. Cyclo’s version entails pork meatball, grilled pork belly marinated in a cold vinegar-fish sauce, and a smattering of pepper and garlic. White vermicelli is served on the side for you to dunk into the sweet and sour broth.
No Vietnamese eating experience is complete without a banh mi sandwich, the classic French-Vietnamese fusion dish created during colonial times when baguettes were introduced to Vietnam. Cyclo offers five kinds: egg (35RMB), beef (55RMB), ham (45RMB), BBQ pork (45RMB), and BBQ chicken (45RMB).
You’ll want to freshen your palate with a salad. Hit up either the tangy mango salad (48RMB) or the deceptively spicy and refreshing green papaya salad (40RMB). If you need filler, head up the crab spring rolls (60RMB). Usually an excuse to cloak substandard crab with a greasy fried husk, here the crab’s flavor shines, partly because the wrapper is more crunchy than greasy. The rolls are a bit pricey, but seeing how we’ve been waterboarded with so many cheap, subpar spring rolls over the years, we’re willing to pay a little more.
And you can save mao by opting for either the pho, banh mi, or bo bun lunch sets, which give you a main plus either a drink or salad for two-thirds the price of ordering them separately.
Most of Shanghai’s Vietnamese venues serve to bullshit those who’ve never been to Vietnam, Cyclo makes you feel like you’ve never left. It’s one of the few Vietnamese spots in Shanghai that refuses to be ‘Shanghai’d.’
Cyclo – 678 Shanxi Bei Lu, near Wuding Lu (陕西北路678号, 近武定路). Tel: (0)21-6135-0150. Hours: 11:30am-2:30pm, 6:30pm-10:30pm.
See a complete list of our reviews here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].