Toronto·Suresh Doss

Savour the Vietnamese braised catfish at this Niagara Falls restaurant

Ca Kho To is one of the signature dishes made at Niagara Falls restaurant Pho Xyclo.

Pho Xyclo is located at 6175 Dunn St. in Niagara Falls

'This is a dish that we make at home,' David Chau says as he demonstrates how to make the restaurant's popular Ca Kho To. (Suresh Doss)

Niagara Falls is visited by millions of people every year. Known to some as an honorary eighth wonder of the world, it boasts the glitz and glamour of casinos along with a wide range of amusement shows and tourist attractions.

Food, however, is generally an afterthought. The city does not immediately come to mind when you think of great culinary destinations.

I'm here to advocate for a detour away from casino floors and the tourist hill. Within a very short drive from the main drag of downtown Niagara Falls, you'll find small, family-run operations with food that will leave an impression.

This is how I landed at Pho Xyclo: a seven-year-old restaurant run by Kim Pham and David Chau. I was introduced to it by my friend JoAnne, who calls Niagara home.

"I met David when I was working at the casino," Pham told me. "There are a number of Vietnamese and Laos people working in the tourism industry." 

Ca Kho To is one of the signature dishes made at Niagara Falls restaurant Pho Xyclo. 0:52

She was born in Laos, while Chau was born in Vietnam. Pham said the two banded together when Chau told her he was disappointed with the Vietnamese cuisine options in Niagara Falls.

"Seven or eight years ago there were maybe two or three Vietnamese restaurants," she said. "Everyone loves pho, but there wasn't much else."

Kim Pham says she and David Chau banded together when he told her he was disappointed with the Vietnamese cuisine options in Niagara Falls. (Suresh Doss)

They found a vacant space in a lonely plaza away from the downtown strip, where Chau insisted on cooking regional Vietnamese dishes from his home, Ho Chi Minh City. 

First, they became a surrogate home to South East Asians working in the tourism industry. Locals would pile in for hot bowls of pho and rice dishes. As Pham and Chau began to understand the local palate, they expanded the menu.

"We have a lot of vegans that visit, so we make vegan versions of all our broths," Chau said.

There's also a small Thai and Malaysian community in Niagara, which prompted Pham to add a laksa to the menu. 

"The laksa sells more than the pho, can you believe that?" she said. "We are a Vietnamese restaurant! Laksa is not Vietnamese!"

There's also a small Thai and Malaysian community in Niagara, which prompted Pham to add a laksa to the menu. (Suresh Doss)

Laksa is so rare to find — let alone a good interpretation of the spicy soup. Pham makes a fantastic version, which has a pronounced turmeric note that alos adds to the bright sunset colour of the soup.

There is also another Pham special: "Kim rolls," a house specialty. It's a crisp, fried spring roll tucked into the middle of a fresh spring roll.

It's a lesson in texture and vibrancy, with pungency and sweetness from the herbs and crunch from carrots, cucumber and the thin wafers of fried roll. They're served with a peanut and soy sauce to accentuate the nutty, salt and umami notes.

'Kim rolls' are a house specialty. It's a crisp, fried spring roll tucked into the middle of a fresh spring roll. (Suresh Doss)

The first dish I enjoyed at Pho Xyclo is one that now I order with every visit. It's a fish dish my friend insisted we try. 

"This is a dish that we make at home," Chau said as he showed me how to make the restaurant's popular Ca Kho To. "It has been passed down from generation to generation."

All the sauces, marinades and pastes for the restaurant's dishes are made in house — sometimes daily by Chau. For the Ca Kho To, he marinates thick filets of basa, a species of catfish, in a secret sauce that contains black pepper, sugar, soy and garlic. 

For the Ca Kho To, Chau marinates thick filets of basa, a species of catfish, in a secret sauce that contains black pepper, sugar, soy and garlic. (Suresh Doss)

After the fish is sufficiently coated, it's placed in a small clay pot known as a nồi kho tộ.

Claypot cooking is common in various parts of Vietnam. I encountered it mostly at small, traditional-style restaurants that were focusing on home cooking. 

"We use claypot because it makes the fish tender and soft and lets the sauce get into the meat," Chau said.

The Xyclo sweet-and-sour soup is also a popular choice. (Suresh Doss)

The pot is then slow-cooked over an open flame. This is how Chau remembers it being cooked at home. 

It takes some time to prepare properly, so if you plan on trying it, order it first. Once finished, the basa in sticky sauce is served with a mound of rice. 

"The most popular combination is to have this with the sweet-and-sour soup," Chau said.

'We use claypot because it makes the fish tender and soft and lets the sauce get into the meat,' Chau says. (Suresh Doss)

There's a pleasing, silky texture on the tender morsels of basa, with a yin-yang of sweet and sour accented by the pungency of garlic. The key is to coat each piece in as much sauce as you can get with each spoonful.

I also found that adding a splash of house chili oil not only raises the temperature of the dish, but brings a nice nutty quality to it.

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