Recipe for success: Three Cincinnati guys engineer their own Asian cuisine movement

CINCINNATI -- What do you get when you bring together three University of Cincinnati graduates--each with a degree that has nothing to do with food? A successful group of restaurateurs, naturally.

The partnership of David Le, Duy Nguyen and his younger brother, Bao Nguyen, and their foray into a restaurant business called Lang Thang Group can only be described as counter-intuitive. 

"We love this city, so we are going to make the place we love a place we want to be," Le said. 

It all started at UC: Le pursued mechanical engineering, Duy Nguyen was a marketing major, and Bao Nguyen studied information systems. After graduation, they practiced their respective professions--for a while. 

Today, poised to open their third eatery, the three are on a mission: To share the things they like with Cincinnati, and to make a difference in its cultural landscape. The men also want to serve as role models to younger Asian-Americans and make Cincinnati a place that appeals to Asians.

Duty and obligation? Not so much

The three are sons of Vietnamese refugees. Born and raised in the United States, they continue to straddle and reconcile two very different cultures. Le, the appointed front man, recounted how their childhood experiences were different from many other kids. 

“We had to translate for our parents, and we did not have a lot growing up," he said. "Our parents sacrificed a lot for us to get to where we are."

The threads of duty and obligation were woven into their identities. They did things they were supposed to do--seizing every opportunity their parents never had, earning their degrees, and carving out their professional careers to secure their piece of the American Dream.

In 2009, Le made a decision that shocked those close to him: He quit his engineering job at Toyota.

“This may not have been the safest route in terms of careers, but I wanted to live life,” he said. 

Le reconnected with the brothers Nguyen, and it became clear what they had to do. They would open a pho shop. Pho (pronounced fuh) is traditionally a savory and hearty beef broth, scented with spices like star anise, cinnamon and ginger, and served with rice noodles, wispy thin slices of beef, and fresh herbs like mint and basil.  

“We wanted a pho shop to hang out at so we opened one,” Le recounted. 

The group opened Pho Lang Thang, a traditional Vietnamese restaurant, at Findlay Market in October 2010.

On the menu: Foods they like to eat

"Lang thang," as Le explained, sums up an attitude of not taking things--anything--too seriously.  When he and the Nguyens were kids, their concerned parents would fuss at them for being “lang thang.” 

It was all-hands-on-deck when I caught up with Le and his business partners at their latest venture, Café Lang Thang, in Over-the-Rhine. On this day, there was nothing "lang thang" about the way they were taking care of business.

Duy Nguyen, Lang Thang Group operations manager and self-professed "party animal," greeted my handshake with both hands, a subtle but distinctively Asian gesture of humility. Bao Nguyen, who takes care of the group's IT and financial work, spoke gently and politely. 

Café Lang Thang is the group’s third venture in just three years. The group's success with Pho Lang Thang was soon followed by the opening of Quan Hapa  in Over-the-Rhine at the end of 2012. Quan Hapa is a stylized gastro-pub offering Asian street food, ranging from okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) to congee (rice porridge). 

"We just put the foods we like to eat on the menu," Le said. Judging by the success of Quan Hapa, many people agree with their choices. 

"Selling Asian food in Cincinnati is not easy," Le continued. "If we try to do what we think others like, we usually don't have much success. So instead, we take the approach of introducing the foods we know and like to the people."

"We want everyone to feel welcome and comfortable"

Cafe Lang Thang, opening soon, was inspired by what the group saw as the lack of quick casual breakfast and lunch options in Over-the-Rhine. The eatery offers a variety of soups, salads, sandwiches, baked items and of course, beverages. 

The menu is eclectic and edgy, with an unmistakable Vietnamese accent. There are unabashed crossover items, such as togarashi caesar (togarashi coated cashews, romaine lettuce, ginger and anchovy dressing, crispy wontons, parmesan) and xiu mai banh mi (Vietnamese style meatballs and red sauce sandwich, served on a Vietnamese baguette with ramen chips).

The bakeshop offers items like pâté chaud (hot pie), elephant ears (green tea, coffee and sugar), and banh bao (bun with meat or vegetable filling).  

Cafe Lang Thang offers the classic Vietnamese coffee, Saigon phin drip coffee, customarily served with condensed milk. There are whimsical concoctions on the menu as well, such as blueberry lychee smoothie, spiced yuzu limeade and strawberry coconut tea.

“One overarching experience we want everyone to have is where everyone feels welcome and comfortable, regardless

of race, socio-economic levels and profession,” Le explained. “It will be a place that customers can come back to multiple times a week." Most of the menu items fall in the $3 to $6 range, with the highest priced item at $8.

Having spent time with the Lang Thang Group trio, I got the clear sense that success to them wasn't so much about fancy cars and swanky lifestyles. It is more about the freedom to live in the moment, and spend time with people who matter to them: Eating, drinking, and just plain hanging out. 

If you go:

  • Pho Thang Lang, Findlay Market: 114 W. Elder Street, Cincinnati
  • Quan Hapa: 1331 Vine Street, Cincinnati
  • Cafe Lang Thang: 1106 Race Street, Cincinnati (Opening soon)
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