Café Lang Thang in Over-the-Rhine, from the proprietors of Findlay Market’s Pho Lang Thang and Gateway Quarter’s Quan Hapa, offers Vietnamese street-style food that won’t drain your wallet — even if you dine with them once or twice a week (… or sometimes three times, let’s be real); nothing on the menu is more than $8.
Located on Race Street, less than a block north of Central Parkway in the old Enzo’s location, the unassuming Café Lang Thang blends in with its neighbors, set apart only by a few sparsely painted decals on the windows.
The small space feels open, with exposed ceiling beams, and the dining area has enough seats — mostly stools — for more than 20 people. One table seats six comfortably and the rest of the dining area is rounded out with small two- or three-person tables and an area of seating at the bar.
Along with a concise breakfast and lunch menu, Café Lang Thang sells a mix of Asian foods, condiments and snacks along the entrance wall leading up to a cooler of interesting bottled and canned beverages; if you don’t want a Coke, grab a can of FOCO brand tamarind or roasted coconut juice. They even have a bakeshop, featuring sweets from the owners’ mother’s recipes.
The lunch menu, though on the small side, is full of goodies to satisfy everyone, including vegetarians. They have a P.B.J. ($5) with your choice of white or wheat bread for the kid in you (or for the one that you brought), and a choice of four banh mi sandwiches between $6 and $8: roasted sirloin, Xiu Mai (Vietnamese style meatballs), roasted cauliflower or madras curry chicken salad. My dining partner and I settled on the roasted sirloin and cauliflower banh mi. We also ordered the sticky rice of the day ($4) from the breakfast menu.
For starters, their soup and salad menu features items such as squash salad ($4) dressed with soy vinaigrette and a Togarashi Caesar ($6), topped with crispy noodles and a ginger-anchovy dressing. Since it was bone-chillingly cold outside, we got an order of the crab and asparagus soup ($4).
Their drink menu boasts almost as many options as the food menu. Customers can order anything from a limeade to Vietnamese coffee. After trying Pho Lang Thang’s coffee, I was confident in Café Lang Thang’s mastery of the Saigon Phin drip coffee ($3.50), hot or iced, with or without sweetened condensed milk. (I ordered mine with less condensed milk.) When summer comes around (or maybe when we’re free from the polar vortex), I want to try one of their flavored limeades ($4): strawberry coconut or blueberry lychee.
After placing our order at the register, we found a couple spots at the bar. Most of the seats were taken since we showed up around noon on a Monday. The soup came out in a big ceramic bowl and smelled wonderful. The asparagus spears were shaved into thin ribbons and cooked perfectly, left with some integrity and bite. They pulled the crabmeat into bite-size hunks that perfumed the soup with a fresh sea aroma. The sticky rice that day was packed with meats and vegetables and served with a side of soy sauce, a nice alternative if you don’t want a sandwich. My cauliflower banh mi was garlicky perfection. The baguette was tender and didn’t fight tearing. The inside was stuffed with room-temperature, roasted cauliflower on top of mushroom duxelle (a mixture of cooked chopped-up mushrooms) and a cashew aioli. They finished the sandwich with tangy pickled red onions that were pretty, but mostly delicious.
My friend’s roasted sirloin banh mi was surprisingly bland by comparison and out of its element next to everything else in front of us. It had the texture I wanted out of a sandwich — the crunch from the vegetables, the tang from the pickled red onions and the tender layers of meat — but its flavor was pedestrian in comparison to everything else.
The banh mi come with a side of chips or you can upgrade to a soup or salad for an extra charge. The puffy crisps, which look like pale pink Cheetos, are actually shrimp chips. They’re fun to munch on between bites of your banh mi. As for the coffee, Café Lang Thang nailed it. We let our coffees drip and finished our lunch before enjoying them. The condensed milk in the coffee is definitely a sweet treat after a savory lunch.
I’m looking forward to trying out the Xiu Mai banh mi next time or stopping in for breakfast for a Banh Pate Chaud, a pork-filled puff pastry. With a small menu and reasonable prices, this little eatery could be just what the neighborhood needed.
Café Lang Thang
Go: 1106 Race St., Over-the-Rhine
Hours: 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-3p.m. Saturday