Lang Van – Charlotte, NC
There are some restaurants that are just too precious, wonderful, and important than can be believed––institutions of food that quietly keep people coming back time and time again. In Charlotte, no restaurant can claim this status quite like Lang Van. Vietnamese restaurants are all over the city, and there are some real standouts, but Lang Van has developed a cult following that cannot be matched.
Dan Nguyen married her husband, Tuyen Tran, in Vietnam at age 20. Tuyen emigrated to the United States shortly after, leaving Dan behind for nearly five years trying to make a living and bring her to Charlotte to be reunited. When Dan finally arrived, the couple struggled, even living in their car for a time, but Dan finally got a waitressing job at Lang Van, then owned and operated by another Vietnamese immigrant family. She took to it like a duck to water––she mastered the sprawling menu, exuded joy in every interaction with customers, and became famous around town for her incredible memory, which allowed her to remember every customer and exactly what type of things they prefer from the menu.
Eventually, when the family that owned the restaurant left town, Dan and Tuyen took over, with Dan running the place and Tuyen manning the kitchen. It's now been over twenty years since the Tran family took over, and it has attracted a loyal following quite unlike any restaurant in town. And you can tell when you visit––Dan bustles throughout the dining room and treats every diner like family. "Hi honey!" she calls out to every customer that walks through the door, making you think that each patron has walked through that door hundreds of times.
My buddy Jared and I were seeking a dinner spot one night and I remembered that I had been meaning to make my way over to Lang Van for some time, so suggested it, and Jared enthusiastically agreed, having also wanted to try it. The nondescript storefront in a sort of bizarre suburban neighborhood on Charlotte's east side hides behind fences and gas stations, with an "Open" neon sign that doesn't seem to work, making me think they might be closed on Sundays. But when I walked inside, nearly every table in the compact dining room was full and the energy was palpable. Dan greeted me like an old friend and showed me to a table, where Jared joined me a few minutes later.
The most difficult thing about Lang Van is also the most wonderful––the menu is a breathtaking 130 dishes long, which means it's nearly impossible to wrap your head around what is available and what is the best thing to try. Fortunately, those in the know understand the best approach––tell Dan what types of proteins and flavors you like, how spicy you like your food, and how much you want, and she will have the kitchen prepare a feast. It's like a little Vietnamese omakase.
I had gotten far enough into the menu by the time Jared arrived that I knew to a certainty I wanted to try their summer rolls. Filled with shrimp, vermicelli, lettuce, bean sprouts, and mint, and served alongside their heady peanut hoisin, the rolls were fresh and aromatic; a perfect way to start the meal.
I also wanted to make sure we got a chance to sample Lang Van's version of the quintessential Vietnamese noodle soup––pho, the national dish of Vietnam. Lang Van's version was beautifully aromatic with the essence of cinnamon and coriander, with thin cuts of beef, a hearty portion of vermicelli, and basil, mint, cilantro, lime, and jalapeños served alongside for including in the broth to taste. It was warm and comforting, and kind to my stomach that was still a little upset from all the wine I consumed the evening before. Not the best pho I have had, but a strong contender.
I was excited to see what Dan had in mind for the entrée courses. First to arrive was a rice vermicelli dish with a skewer of spiced and seared shrimp and a portion of spicy pork. We were instructed to pour a sweet and sour-like broth over the top and mix it together, revealing some lettuce and veggies in the bottom. While this dish had some nice bites, I didn't find it nearly as flavorful as what preceded or followed, and I didn't wind up eating too much of it.
The other reason for that, however, is that the other entrée Dan picked for us was so good that I couldn't stop eating it. In a bamboo steamer basket, an off-menu dish of chicken, shrimp, onions, and green veggies cooked in an intensely fragrant ginger and lemongrass sauce was possibly the best Vietnamese dish I have enjoyed, and each bite was better than the last. After eating more than I could possibly handle, and with Jared finishing his portion up, we still had over half the steamer left. What a treat for a future lunch!
With our check we were served little peanut butter cookies, tamarind candies, and rather out of place fortune cookies. Mine read "A great honor will be bestowed upon you in the coming year." Gee, hope it's right!
Lang Van is truly a gem. Is it the best Vietnamese cooking I've had? Probably not––that honor likely belongs to, well, Vietnam. But it's an oasis of hospitality, cheer, and delicious food, and I cannot wait to go back to see if Dan remembers me!