News

EATING NIAGARA: Noodles draw oodles to Viet-Thai spot

By Tiffany Mayer, special to Postmedia Network

Kim Pham co-owns Pho Xyclo in Niagara Falls, a popular Viet-Thai eatery in a Dunn Street strip mall. (Tiffany Mayer/Special to Postmedia Network)

Kim Pham co-owns Pho Xyclo in Niagara Falls, a popular Viet-Thai eatery in a Dunn Street strip mall. (Tiffany Mayer/Special to Postmedia Network)

You could call Kim Pham picky.

After all, it’s how the Niagara Falls restaurateur will describe herself if asked.

But then, you can’t build the city’s best Vietnamese eatery, according to crowd-sourced ratings, by being willy-nilly.

Pham, who owns and operates Pho Xyclo (pronounced Feu Zicklow) with friend David Chau, is nothing short of exacting when it comes to turning out bowls of pho, the noodle soup slurped at street food stalls in Vietnamese villages and now beckoning Niagara locals to the restaurant’s home in a Dunn Street strip mall.

Ditto for the stir-fried southeast Asian dishes that round out the menu at Pho Xyclo, named after the three-wheeled rickshaws weaving through the clogged streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

Rather than order her vegetables from a restaurant supply company and risk them not being up to snuff, Pham heads to the grocery store every day to load up on peppers, cucumbers and lettuce.

“That way I know how fresh it is. If it’s in a shipment, I don’t know how long it has been sitting there,” Pham insists.

Her palate is also so attuned to the tastes of her birth country, Laos, that she senses subtleties in the rice noodles she serves. Pham knows immediately upon taste whether they’re made with rice harvested at its peak or reaped at the tail end of the growing season.

“It’s just like Niagara grapes. You know when they are at their best and when they’re not,” she says, as tables fill up around her during Xyclo’s dinner rush.

It’s those nuances that won me over when I first visited last year with a food writer friend from Edmonton.

She ordered the namesake soup. I asked for the Singapore noodles, those thin rice strands made pungent with curry powder, and requested the vegetarian version.

Within moments, Chau was at my table to determine the reason for my meat-free choice. Was I vegetarian for religious or ethical reasons? Was it an allergy? If it was any of the above, he would have someone scrub the kitchen counters, wok and utensils again to be sure they were fully rid of any traces of meat.

That was a first for me as a diner. Often, the V-word brings about stifled eye rolls or desperate offers of fish rather than an exploration of my values so that a chef can accommodate me.

Soon after our meal arrived, our chatter gave way to the tapping of chopsticks against ceramic dishes. As someone who hails from a city filled with rave-worthy Vietnamese joints, she was wowed. My Singapore noodles became the standard to which I held versions elsewhere.

It’s the same for other diners who make Xyclo a regular stop for the flagship pho, or the sought-after pad Thai made from scratch with tamarind and crab paste rather than pre-fab sauces.

Ask Chau and the secret to full tables and five-star ratings is “one simple rule: love. It’s applied to everything in life in general,” he says. “You put love into it, sooner or later you get it back. People notice.”

Pham puts it more bluntly: “When I eat something and I don’t like it, I don’t want to make my customers eat it.”

That means the strength of Xyclo’s bittersweet Vietnamese iced coffee is double most other places because she savours a strong brew. The pho broth is made fresh daily with generous amounts of beef bone and bundles of herbs to prove neither she nor her cooks are shy with ingredients.

Pham likes “to play around with food,” putting her own spin on Xyclo’s home-cooking. She’ll wrap deep-fried spring rolls in a fresh roll, and dub it a Kim Roll. She and Chau offer a variation of pad Thai made with coconut milk for those who want a riff on the original.

She does her best dreaming of new dishes during the quieter days of winter. Chau, who emigrated from Vietnam, figures out how to configure the kitchen to add more traditional fare like banh nep, which he describes as Vietnamese dim sum.

They do it all as though running a restaurant is all they’ve ever known. But Xyclo, which opened in 2012, was a second chance at prosperous careers after their casino jobs dried up.

Pham took a year off to travel the world before setting her sights on becoming an esthetician. When the granite business run by her husband and his business partner proved too small for the strip mall space it occupied, she and Chau decided a restaurant filled with granite counters would be a better fit.

Judging by the short-lived lull in diners on a Monday afternoon, Pham and Chau have hit the proverbial jackpot they once helped others score.

“We show we care,” she says, “and that’s why our customers come back.”

— Strip Mall Gems is a monthly feature of Eating Niagara that focuses on the standout eateries sandwiched between the convenience stores, laundromats and shops in our plazas throughout the region. Got a favourite hole in the wall I should know about? E-mail eatingniagara@gmail.com or tweet @eatingniagara. 



Featured Businesses

Go to the Marketplace »