With pho shops popping up like crocuses across Northern Virginia, it's hard to know which one to choose for a taste of the delicious Vietnamese noodle soup.
Luckily, a thoughtful reader pointed me in the direction of Pho Cyclo, off Route 50 in Falls Church. Half-hidden behind the jutting exterior of a Giant Food store in the Yorktowne Center and squeezed next to a Starbucks, Pho Cyclo nevertheless manages to distinguish itself with a small deck outfitted with tables, chairs and a bamboo and wicker rickshaw adorned with a pot of flowers (okay, they're fake, but it's still a good effort).
Inside, that effort continues with a decor that seeks to surpass the cafeteria feel typical of many pho shops, though the effect is more clash than eclectic. Modern cylindrical sconces throw a diamond pattern of light across the gold-painted walls. Thick plastic tabletops offer bright splashes of yellow and blue, and the smooth, curved wood and chrome chairs are more kitchenette than cafeteria. It's a cheery, casual place with service to match.
Like other pho shops, Pho Cyclo offers a handful of variations of the traditional noodle soup, with different cuts of beef -- eye of round, flank, brisket and soft tendon among them. There are also chicken and seafood versions, as well as a vegetarian one with tofu, broccoli, snow peas and carrots.
The soup comes with a plate of garnishes, such as fresh bean sprouts, sprigs of purple-stemmed Thai basil, slices of jalapeno pepper, a wedge of lime. Adding those to the hot soup infuses the light beef broth so that it becomes richer and more flavorful with each spoonful.
Thuy Nguyen and her husband, Tim, opened Pho Cyclo a year ago, but the family is hardly new to the food business. They also own the nearby Bale Deli, a Vietnamese carryout place, which opened in 1990. The first Bale Deli was opened by Thuy Nguyen's parents in San Jose in 1978. Since then, several of Thuy Nguyen's seven siblings have opened branches in Atlanta, Chicago, Orlando and Philadelphia.
The family also owns two Pho Cyclo restaurants in Chicago and Philadelphia. Although Tim and Thuy Nguyen opened the Chicago branch, Tim Nguyen, who grew up in Falls Church, said homesickness prompted him and his wife to turn that venture over to one of Thuy Nguyen's sisters so that the couple could return here.
Although the restaurant touts pho in its name, the menu offers quite a bit more, including other fragrant soups such as cho lon (a mix of barbecued pork), minced pork, "bacon" (crispy baked croutons of pork rind) and black shrimp, served with rice noodles in chicken broth. A similar soup, Saigon, is made with thin egg noodles.
More than a dozen starters serve to whet the appetite, including baby-back ribs and batter-fried calamari.
For something a little different, try the shrimp cakes on sugar cane, bite-size nuggets of shrimp paste threaded on short sugar cane skewers and then deep-fried. Patrons of Bale Deli will recognize the hot and savory bites, one of the most popular items at both the deli and the restaurant. With just a hint of spice, they are delicious eaten plain or dipped in the fish sauce that accompanies them.
Noodles dominate the menu; there are 17 vermicelli platters to choose from. One of the favorites among regulars, with good reason, is the Four Flavors Vermicelli, which is topped with fragrant lemongrass pork, slices of crispy fried rolls, grilled shrimp and shrimp tempura. As with pho, the plate is garnished with bean sprouts, basil and jalapenos. Other vermicelli variations include one with beef-stuffed grape leaves and one with minced pork kabobs.
There is no shortage of rice dishes either, including several fried rice selections. The stir-fried rice is light, not grease-laden, and chock-full of vegetables, such as carrots, corn and green beans. The handful of yellow curry dishes -- beef, chicken, seafood or tofu -- are sweet and smooth, served over pearly, slightly sticky rice.
Thai-style iced coffee and iced tea (both with cream) are among the beverage choices. Better, though, is the lemon iced tea, which is more lemonade than tea, tart, sharp and refreshing.
Tim Nguyen said plans are in the works for a new restaurant in the area, possibly one that will serve sushi as well as Vietnamese fare. Like the others, it will be family-run. "We're a big family," he said.
Got a restaurant recommendation? E-mail Domenica Marchetti at firstname.lastname@example.org.