The five-dishes set menu at Cyclo Resto and Le Ngoc An (bottom right), owner of Cyclo Resto, takes his guests to Thai Binh Market
It takes something special to stand out in a city that has thousands upon thousands of restaurants.
But what it takes to be something special can be surprising. It needs not be anything fancy. Just a simple desire to serve delicious, authentic food.
Cyclo Resto shows how.
The restaurant, which opened in Ho Chi Minh City around six months ago, serves Vietnamese food with some caveats that I found I can accept with somewhat surprising ease.
On the recommendation of a friend, I had lunch at the restaurant last week. Following her directions, I arrived at Dang Tran Con Street, which, actually looks more like an alley.
A pink signboard on the wall above a staircase told me I have reached Cylco Resto. I climbed up old, quite dark stairs to the second floor and entered a big room with tables and chairs, no air-conditioner, but several electric fans.
The restaurant was quite airy, very simply decorated with a few paintings on the wall. One wall was directly painted with the iconic Tet decoration of apricot blossoms. The simplicity of the place had a reassuring touch. There was a balcony with two tables from where I could look at the sky and the alley below, but it was hot, so I chose to sit indoors, near an electric fan.
Settling down, I noticed an open kitchen in the other half of the room with many cooking implements, ovens, spices and other kitchen stuff.
As I was observed what was happening in the kitchen, a waitress approached and informed me of the main caveat if one is to be served Cyclo Resto.
There is no a la carte menu to choose from. A fixed five-course set menu, priced at US$6, comprising the same dishes is served every day for every person. Five Vietnamese dishes served with rice. Interesting!
Shortly after, my lunch was served.
First came "the spring roll with shrimp," hot and not oily. The rolls were placed around the dish and in middle sat a phoenix, made out of a tomato with a piece of green onion and chilly.
Then, in quick succession, came "fried vegetable with pork," "stewed snakehead fish in a clay pot," "fried chicken with lemongrass" and "soup with winter melon and shrimp."
The food, served beautifully, was delicious as well.
When I was having my meal, the chef and some waiters and waitresses passed me occasionally with natural, friendly smiles. They asked me how the food was. Was it good enough? It was, and I felt good to see that they made similar enquiries of all the other guests.
3-3A Dang Tran Con, District 1,
Ho Chi Minh City
Le Ngoc An, the restaurant owner, said he did not bother him if people complained that the place was too plain looking or that it did not have air-conditioning. All he wants to do is serve guests with delicious Vietnamese dishes in a pleasing way, he said.
"What's special about Vietnamese food is its balance. Vietnamese people do not eat one particular dish, but combine different kinds of food and eat them together at the same time. For example, we have some fried dish with soup and rice. And this five-course set menu presents perfectly that balance," he said.
When I'd polished off my plate, I decided to check out the restaurant's open kitchen. I learned then, that it functioned as a cooking class.
An explained that the cooking class was opened to every foreigner who is now in Vietnam and wants to learn how to cook Vietnamese dishes. Each class has a maximum of five people.
After signing up for a class via the restaurant's website, guests can stay at the hotel and wait for a cyclo to pick them up. From there, they will be taken to the Thai Binh Market in District 1, accompanied by a guide on a bicycle.
The guide will help the guests choose ingredients for the cooking class. Later, the cyclos will take the guests to the Cyclo Resto kitchen, where they will cook the food under the direction of experienced chefs.
After enjoying the meal, the guests will be taken back to their place on motorbikes or taxis. The fee for the entire service is $23.
There was no class taking place when I was there, but An informed me that there are a lot of comments jotted on the wall of Cyclo Resto by those who took the class.
Some of them read: "Transcendental food and cooking experience. Many thanks!"; "Great experience, great food, above all great people!"; and "So happy we came here! Great food, chef, food + fun!."
As I left the restaurant and went down the stairs, I met with a young foreigner who'd just finished her lunch as well.
She said: "I enjoyed all the dishes and their flavors - they were just a little different from the typical restaurant dishes. More simple and genuine-tasting than some of the upscale places I'd been.
"I would say it is one of the best Vietnamese foods I've ever tried since I came to Vietnam. The service is very good. I will recommend the place to my friends and will come back here for the cooking class. That's for sure."
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