Eat well. Eat fresh. Eat often. These three sentences serve as both tagline and personal philosophy for local restaurateur Darren Phan, owner of Cilantro Vietnamese Bistro, Clifton’s 9-year-old brothy, herby, vermicelli-filled landmark.
Cilantro relocated late last year to a larger space on West McMillan Street, just a few doors down from its old address. The move marks the beloved Vietnamese restaurant’s evolution from a tiny hole-in-the-wall to a robust, slightly more refined dining experience, with ample seating and a brighter, hipper ambiance that still manages to leave its affordability and close-knit, community feel intact.
“Half the reason why I still am in the restaurant business is my staff, my regulars, the customers that come in ... because those are the people that touch your lives on an everyday basis,” Phan says.
To him, Vietnamese cuisine isn’t merely a clever concept or a trend — it’s the centerpiece of his life, keeping him grounded and connected in the three decades since he and his family fled a war-torn Vietnam. A collection of family recipes and flavors brought over from the motherland serve as the heart from which joy and laughter still pump.
“A lot of my greatest memories are actually dinner time with family,” Phan recalls. “We were always sharing laughter over food. Cousins, aunts — there was a big group of us. I feel that the whole dining experience is not just the food. Yeah, you have to have good food to go along with it, but it’s about taking time out of your day and breaking bread with the people you care about.”
The affection he shares is easily reflected in Cilantro’s lineup of dishes.
His mother’s shrimp cake appetizer is a comforting fried marriage of sweet potato and shrimp, an unlikely pairing that whets the appetite for the entrees that follow.
Cilantro’s menu emphasizes freshness, from the steamy, classic pho noodle soup, authentic hu tieu and spicy sate variants, to Phan’s popular “Bun” noodle bowls of vermicelli, romaine and bean sprouts topped with chicken, beef, shrimp, “porkabobs” or fried rolls. Banh mi sandwiches and stir-fry bowls round out a slightly expanded menu, and Phan has added his parents’ favorite Vietnamese desserts, like the fried bananas drizzled with Nutella and the French-inspired flan custard.
Phan’s path to success has been a journey peppered with both hardship and tragedy. Five years after the fall of Saigon, his family fled what had once been a comfortable lifestyle in South Vietnam.
“Let’s face it, these were well-educated, college-educated people leaving their country, coming to the United States to work in the assembly lines, to do whatever it takes to give their kids an opportunity — to put food on their table,” Phan says of his family.
“My dad actually died on our way over here. My mom was so brave. She was pregnant with my little sister. We were on the refugee boat and in the middle of the night my dad was pushed over the boat. It was a little fishing boat that had like 50 people on it,” Phan says.
Only three years old, Phan was spared the memory of his family’s early struggles as they immigrated to the United States. Instead, he remembers a happy, cohesive childhood with home-cooked meals as a comforting backdrop.
“The only knowledge I had was only of good things when I was a kid, growing up, living in a trailer court, surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins — laughing and eating; we didn’t know we were poor,” Phan says.
Years later, his aunt opened a restaurant in the Dayton area to help support the family. Phan’s parents later took over the business, setting into motion a familial connection to food that Phan eventually embraced and folded into his Clifton business after attending the University of Cincinnati and saving money from his nights bartending.
Opening in 2004, Cilantro was among only a handful of Vietnamese restaurants in Cincinnati, earning a reputation among its diverse group of regulars as an affordable spot for delicious food using fresh ingredients. Several more Vietnamese options have since entered the scene, which couldn’t make Phan happier.
“I think it’s great. I think that the more options people have, the better it is. I love the fact that you can get four or five different phos in the city. It gives you an option. Isn’t that really what we want: choices?”
Cilantro Vietnamese Bistro
Go: 235 W. McMillan St.
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily