Although Cincinnati is home to several thousand citizens of Vietnamese descent, there are only a few eateries here representing that country’s cuisine. Each one is casual, serving what could easily be considered street food. That makes a lot of sense given that the charm of Vietnamese food lies in its freshness and simplicity.
You don’t need a white tablecloth to appreciate salads, noodle bowls and sandwiches flavored with fish sauce, shrimp paste, bean sauce and piles of fresh herbs — the characteristic ingredients of the cuisine.
But to make this food stand out from all the other options in the restaurant universe, you must build upon those simple dishes with crisp vegetables, deeply flavored broths, just-picked herbs and the best-available proteins, be that meat, seafood or tofu.
We can thank brothers Bao and Duy Nguyen for providing what is probably the area’s best Vietnamese food. Along with business partners and comrades-in-arms, they have operated Pho Lang Thang in Findlay Market since 2011 and opened Quan Hapa on Vine Street a couple years later. This fall, they got the chance to move their original restaurant from the cramped, market location to a newly renovated building a stone’s throw away on Race Street.
The new space is stunning, and such an upgrade from the original Pho Lang Thang that you feel like you’re almost in a different universe. The dining room is at least three times as large, and so much more pleasant now that cooking fumes don’t infuse the dining areas as they did in the old space. A tall, pressed-tin ceiling with exposed pipes and ceiling fans makes for a retro-industrial feel while more contemporary touches include hanging balloon lights and the splash of a large mural along one wall.
The 14-seat bar definitely is a welcome addition. The Findlay Market location served only soft drinks and strong, sweet Vietnamese coffee, still available here, but now you can select from a dozen draft beers, many more suds in cans and bottles and a short but carefully selected list of wines by the glass or bottle.
Don’t overlook their playful, Asian-accented cocktail list, either. I’ve tried — and liked — both the Thuoc Bac (Aperol, elderflower, rosemary tincture and lime; $8) and Tigers Love Pepper (based on gin and accented with just a bit of Thai chili; $10).
I’ve had two meals at the new location: a weeknight dinner with several friends and a solo lunch at the bar on a busy Saturday. In its first months of operation, the menu hasn’t changed appreciably although its owners have suggested they plan to add shareable appetizers to the noodle soups, salads and banh mi sandwiches that make up the core of their food offerings.
The food is conveniently adaptable for meat lovers, flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans — not to mention those who avoid gluten or lactose. In fact, I don’t think you’ll find any lactose in the house except for sweet cream in the coffee.
I arrived with three friends on a quiet weeknight and we started with drinks and appetizers. My Tigers Love Pepper cocktail was slightly spicy with a dash of chili, a companion’s glass of California chardonnay was an impressively generous pour and the others selected from the list of draft beers. I didn’t try the fried spring roll but enjoyed the fresh flavors of both salad rolls — one vegan and one with shrimp and pork ($4.50 two rolls). Dipped in an umami-rich peanut sauce, the rolls were a satisfying and yet light way to start dinner.
Next we tucked into a bowl of pho chay ($12) consisting of vegan broth, rice noodles, chunks of tofu and bamboo shoots. The broth was surprisingly flavorful without any meat or fish component, at least for this omnivore.
Along with the soup, we ordered my favorite part of the meal: banh mi bo ($8.25), a sandwich with strips of tender beef, crunchy fresh vegetable strips such as carrots and zucchini, and a spicy mayonnaise dressing that our server whipped up for us by combining regular mayo with a teaspoon of special hot sauce.
I’ve always loved those sandwiches and that’s what I invariably ordered at the original Pho Lang Thang location. The spectacularly fresh, yeasty baguette that surrounds those ingredients harkens back to the French colonial influence in Southeast Asia and is a perfectly delicious combination of cultures.
I made a return visit a week or so later to try the bun (noodle salad), which I thought was a good choice for lunch — although any of the main menu items can work just fine for either lunch or dinner. I had mine with beef ($10.50) at the recommendation of the server, who said she thought that made the most flavorful addition to the vegetables.
It was a large bowl with sections of bean sprouts, lettuce, julienned carrot and zucchini, plain rice noodles and a little bit of cilantro, plus the strips of beef. A container of clear, slightly sweet rice-vinegar dressing came on the side. I thought the soft noodles, crunchy veggies and salty beef worked well together although the dressing was a little bland for my taste.
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This was probably their busiest time of the week — noontime on a Saturday when the Findlay Market shoppers and sightseers found their way to the place. There was a wait for tables until a little after 2 p.m. but the staff moved efficiently and seemed to keep the hungry hordes happy.
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