The restaurant is small, but the crowds have been colossal for Pho Lang Thang in the 10 months since they’ve opened, spilling into the single lane that runs between it and the market house of Findlay Market. There, a half dozen or so people sit on five-gallon buckets around a sheet of plywood stretched across sawhorses. They’re slurping bowls of pho and wrapping jaws around hefty Vietnamese-style deli sandwiches known as bánh mì. It may be the best seat not in the house—the under-ventilated restaurant is heavily incensed with oil (your clothes, hair, and skin will be wearing the same pungent smell) from frying crisp cha gio, batons of rice wrappers stuffed with glass noodles, minced pork, mushrooms, and carrots. Order them anyway, and ask for lettuce leaves (which are supposed to, but don’t always, accompany them), fresh herbs, and mung sprouts. When wrapped around the thumb-sized rolls, given a squirt of sriracha and dipped in the thin limey-sweet nuoc mam pha (mixed fish sauce), the layers of flavor and textural contrasts transform the street snack from ordinary to exhilarating. Pho Lang Thang’s owners Duy and Bao Nguyen and David Le have created a greatest hits playlist of Vietnamese cuisine: elegant, brothy pho made from poultry, beef, or vegan stocks poured over rice noodles and adrift with slices of onions, meats, or vegetables (the vegan pho chay is by far the most flavorful); fresh julienned vegetables, crunchy sprouts, and herbs served over vermicelli rice noodles (again, the vegan version, bun chay, is the standout); and bánh mì. Be sure to end with a cup of Vietnamese coffee, a devilish jolt of dark roast and sweetened condensed milk that should make canned energy drinks obsolete.
Pho Lang Thang
114 W. Elder St., Over-the-Rhine
Prices: $3–$9. Lunch Tues–Sun, dinner Tues–Sat.
Originally published in the September 2011 issue