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Ask any restaurateur what the business is really like and you'll be treated to a litany of common complaints: picky health inspectors, unreliable purveyors, incompetent staff. Query Robert Nguyen and you'll get a more up-close-and-personal, not to mention illicit, point of view: officials who require payoffs in return for doing nothing, bribable customs agents, and employees who steal more than they serve.
That's because during the late '90s, right before some major shifts in Asian power politics, Nguyen was operating an American-style eatery called Yesterday's in his native Vietnam, where, he says, chaos rules the restaurant biz. Nguyen notes that, when he was on the premises, the place made money serving its high-ticket items like New York strip steak and fajitas to homesick expatriates. But while he was back in the States, where he had trained at hotel-management school and run corporate entities like Ruby Tuesday's, the losses would accumulate. When he discovered that even his aunt, whom he had put in charge of the restaurant while he was away doing the ordering and shipping, was taking home the bacon instead of selling it to the clientele, he closed up shop and settled in the United States for good.
Vietnam's loss is Boynton Beach's gain. Nguyen has an eye for the reverse jab and figured that, since American-style food sold well in Vietnam, the opposite would be true in Palm Beach County. To that end he opened Red Cyclo, a contemporary Southern Vietnamese eatery and art gallery named after the bicycle cabs that comprise a large part of the urban transportation system there. Though the restaurant is a bit tough to spot in its recessed strip mall off North Congress Avenue, the authentic cyclo positioned in front of its doors makes finding it a mite easier. And now, after a successful three months in business, Nguyen's only gripes are pretty legitimate ones: The still-to-come beer-and-wine license (any day now, he hears); the watercolors, pen-and-ink drawings, and bamboo sculptures he can't keep in stock because they sell so well; and customers who tend to stick to safe favorites such as chicken pho (a meal-size portion of rice noodle soup).
I'd like to think that the reason Nguyen stopped at our table and told us all these rather intimate details is that we ordered outside the box, asking for the grilled chicken in wild betel leaves (an evergreen climbing plant grown in Asia). But Nguyen, a young, personable guy who also does the cooking, dropped by simply to tell us that he was out of the betel leaves, which he grows himself because they are not a commonly found ingredient round these parts. Yet even if he'd had the leaves handy, he would have made the glad-handing rounds in order to acquaint himself with every new patron and greet the regulars, of whom there are already plenty.
Although we were disappointed by the temporary unavailability of the betel leaves, which are supposed to aid digestion and work as a mild stimulant (somewhat necessary in a place where the only other intoxicating substance as yet is jasmine tea), we happily sampled the marinated grilled beef that would have been rolled inside them. We were also able to indulge in replacement exotica. A mixed salad of lotus stems and the chopped leaves of the polygonum plant was crisp and refreshing. Garnished with freshly poached shrimp and seasoned with some tangy lime and ground peanuts, the salad made an intriguing textural start to a far-from-prosaic meal.
Some items that sound bizarre aren't nearly as foreign as they seem. For instance Red Cyclo offers both shrimp mousse, served skewered on sugar cane stalks, and marinated pork mousse, grilled on bamboo sticks and presented over vermicelli noodles. The term mousse is somewhat misleading; these are really more like small cakes, with the shrimp and the pork finely ground and wrapped around the grilling medium of choice. In the case of the crustacean, the savory kebabs got a boost from the hot sugar cane, which squirts just a little when bitten. The pork arrived with the bamboo sticks already removed; the dish would have looked a lot like spaghetti and meatballs were it not for the addition of sliced cucumbers, bean sprouts, pickled shredded carrots, and radishes. For all the added ingredients, the pork mousse and vermicelli was actually a little bland, even with a few shots of Cyclo sauce (sweet-and-sour fish sauce called nuoc cham). Along with some expertly prepared, deep-fried spring rolls stuffed with ground pork, crab, carrots, onions, and mushrooms, the pork mousse is one of the dishes that Nguyen's timid customers consider safe.
Not that ordering the catfish in sweet and salty black-pepper sauce constitutes living dangerously. Living deliciously is more like it: The fillet was served still simmering in the caramel-color sauce, which supersaturated the translucent fish with a typically Vietnamese triad of flavors. Paired with the sides of jasmine rice and steamed broccoli that accompany all main courses, the catfish was an eminently satisfying dish, complex enough to keep the palate from longing for anything else.
One of the things distinguishing Southern Vietnamese cookery from other Asian cuisines is the use of tomatoes, a homegrown crop. Chopped tomatoes enrich both egg drop soup, borrowed from the Chinese but revitalized with lime juice as well as the fruit of the nightshade vine, and hot-and-sour soup. Unlike the Chinese hot-and-sour, the Vietnamese version features a clear broth spiked with celery, bean sprouts, and pineapple chunks in addition to tomatoes. We were delighted with the overabundance of vegetables spilling over the top of the bowl and pleased with the perfectly balanced spicing in this light, savory soup. We weren't quite as appreciative of the vegetarian main course of tofu, which had been fried just a little too long. But the lusty tomato sauce that dressed the overcooked soybean curd was neither watery nor pasty, softening and accenting the tofu perfectly.