We are always on the lookout for mom-and-pop eateries where chefs like to dine on their nights off. So when we spot a photo online featuring a trio of cooks tucking into generous portions of Vietnamese fare, we waste no time getting to the Everett restaurant in the picture. This unassuming spot on Revere Beach Parkway, sandwiched between a Suzuki dealership and an auto alarm store, is easy to miss.
Formerly Pho Number 9, Kiengiang Restaurant is named after a coastal province in South Vietnam. The 60-seat eatery was opened by husband and wife Loc and Kim Nguyen a year ago; they also do the cooking. On a weekday afternoon, the place appears to be a home away from home for its mainly Vietnamese-speaking patrons. At one table, a solo diner in a baseball cap, slurping soup noodles, watches Vietnamese videos on his phone. A group of workers, all regulars, banter with the server. A whirring blender, turning out fruit shakes and bubble tea, adds to a soundtrack of Latin jazz, while aromas from the kitchen make us eager to order.
An appetizer of roast quail ($8.95) is a delicious beginning. We taste Chinese five-spice in the fish-sauce marinade, which has turned the two birds, cut lengthwise, a deep brown with delightfully crispy skin.
Duck salad ($10.95) features a generous pile of shredded green and red cabbage, carrots, and basil, dressed in a garlicky fish sauce and sprinkled with crunchy peanuts. Portions of bone-in cleavered duck sit on top of the vegetables. Be careful of a bone shard or two. Fresh spring rolls ($3.95) are serviceable, stuffed with cool noodles, shrimp, and iceberg lettuce. They are pretty standard, as is the peanut sauce for dipping. The dishes that really shine are to come.
If you’re not familiar with banh xeo ($8.95), the savory Vietnamese crepe, this is definitely the place to try it. Shrimp and sliced pork are folded into a golden turmeric-infused batter of finely milled rice flour and coconut milk. The moist crepe is fried and flipped to look like an omelet, but contains no egg. Folded inside are sauteed bean sprouts. Artful slices of cucumber, carrot julienne, and whole leaf lettuce (for wrapping up portions of crepe, if you like) are on the side, along with the herb purple shiso, which we adore for its minty taste and rarely see at other Vietnamese spots. We tear the leaves into shreds, sprinkle them on the crepe, and enjoy the best banh xeo in town.
Kiengiang is also the place to go for noodles. We count 14 kinds of pho, the iconic soup noodles, in sizes small, large, and extra-large ($6.95, $7.95, and $8.95 respectively). A dining companion tucks into the very good broth with the eye-round steak and fatty brisket. Unfortunately, some of the noodles have clumped together. Thinner noodles in the seafood pho, with tender shrimp and fried fish cake, are perfectly prepared and the broth is full of appetizing shellfish flavor. If you’re looking for noodles without soup, order bun, cool vermicelli topped with meat and fresh vegetables. Our well-made and satisfying plate is garnished with char-grilled pork and a crisp eggroll ($7.95).
A couple of dishes could use retooling. Soup billed as “hot and sour” ($12.95, large only) is neither full of heat nor very tart, but rather too sweet. These fragrant bowls, prepared with tomato, pineapple, and bean sprouts, and on offer with a choice of catfish, chicken, or shrimp, would be promising with better balanced seasonings. The same goes for the caramelized pork chop ($10.95). Dial down the sugar in the marinade a notch and the savory pork ribs, served with jasmine rice, would be just right.
We are finishing up our meal on a Sunday night when the late evening crowd starts rolling in. On our way out, we spy a group of men walking in. Are these the chefs from the online photo?
We can’t tell for sure, but if they are, it’s no surprise they are back for more.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.