Cilantro is the most consumed fresh herb in the world — more than double all other fresh herbs combined — thanks largely to its premier status in Chinese, Southeast Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, African and Latin cuisines.
Aside from its reported medicinal properties as an antidote for stomach upset, cilantro's universal popularity prevails with its ability to draw out other flavors in a dish and its chameleon-like ability to change flavor according to the companion ingredients.
At Cilantro Vietnamese Bistro in Clifton Heights, the pungent perfume of cilantro — and lemongrass, the other aromatic herb of Vietnamese fare — wrap around the senses as you enter the tiny restaurant that opened three months ago in the former Jerusalem Café.
Darren Phan, the energetic young owner (who left behind the exciting world of brokering mortgages to start his own business) supervises two pans that sizzle and pop on the four-burner stove, pausing long enough to welcome customers and answer questions.
Cilantro's menu is fairly limited, according to Phan, who comes from a restaurant background; his family owns Little Saigon in Kettering, where his mother prepares over 250 different dishes. In comparison, Cilantro's is a mere 45 items of appetizers, meal-sized soups, stir-fried noodles, vermicelli salads, vegetable dishes and veggie noodle dishes — very adequate for a campus location of mainly carry-out with student-friendly pricing (the most expensive items are $6).
Although cheap and fast might get you in, lively flavors and contrasting textures will hold your attention. The Goi Cuon ($1.50 each), little soft rolls of diaphanous rice "crepes" stuffed with chilled vermicelli, shrimp or tofu and fresh basil leaves, are perfect hand-held packages and the sort of fast food more of us should opt for. Although Cilantro's Goi Cuon are simpler than other versions I've eaten, the value is undeniable: Three will set you back a "whopping" $4.50 and make a satisfying, delicious, healthy lunch.
I couldn't resist one of the meal-sized soups my first time in Cilantro, opting for Mi Tom Heo Sate ($6) after Phan exclaimed without hesitation that he eats it nearly everyday.
Most Vietnamese soups are a base of vermicelli rice or egg noodles and broth with any combination of pork, thinly sliced beef, meatballs, shrimp or chicken (occasionally tofu) to which you stir in crunchy mung bean sprouts, hot sauce, hoisin sauce and a big squeeze of lime. The Mi Tom Heo Sate was both delicate and bold, completely gratifying.
Mesmerized by the smell of lemongrass, I related a tale to my dinner companion that in Indonesia, young girls are sent out to the fields to cut the stalks due to an ancient belief that the herb is at its most fragrant when picked by someone with a virgin's unadulterated thoughts. That was compelling enough for him to order the Bun Ga Xao ($5.50), a vermicelli salad with lemongrass chicken. He enjoyed it in a way I'm embarrassed to tell you.
I returned to Cilantro the next day for a lunch of Bun Rau Cai Sa Ot ($5.50), another version of vermicelli served with vegetables in lemongrass. Again lovely, subtle flavors, but I would have liked more vegetables and less noodles, and perhaps in a bowl instead of Styrofoam (a small complaint, as I understand it is cost-effective for setting the prices as low as Phan does).
Did I mention cheap? Cheap and good? Cheap and fast? Fast and good? Cheap, fast and good-for-you? All good reasons to keep Cilantro on your restaurant radar. With only one other Vietnamese restaurant in Cincinnati (Song Long in Roselawn, although a fusion of French and Vietnamese will open later this summer in Oakley), the sensory-arousing qualities of this cuisine is one of the best reasons to make sure it stays. ©
Cilantro Vietnamese Bistro
Go: 2510 Clifton Ave., Clifton Heights
Hours: 10:30 a.m.- 9 p.m. Monday-Friday; 4:30-8:30 Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Payment: Cash only
Red Meat Alternatives: Nearly half of the menu is vegetarian, Vegan items also available.
Accessibility: Front door and one table are accessible, bathroom is not.