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Kien Giang
Christopher Gardner

Kien Edge: Behind its unprepossessing storefront, Kien Giang serves some of the most uncompromising and delicious Vietnamese food in the valley.

Authentic ingredients and cooking styles please Kien Giang's Vietnamese patrons

By Andrew Pham

WE ALL HAVE a sturdy favorite we take for granted, one of those fine little coves to call on when cooking seems a chore. Recently, some people have been twisting my arm to find out my favorite haven for Vietnamese food, and I confess that there is one diner I frequent in South San Jose.

Kien Giang has authentic food robust with uncompromised flavors and without any tourist frills. Nearly all the patrons are Vietnamese-Americans. Sketched in an economist (not minimalist) flourish of chromatic lavenders, the dining room, industrial-grade carpeted, conveys the best that a run-of-the-mill fluorescent affair can hope to be with scant investment. Exposed insulation layers the ceiling between smartly hung pastel banners, which are coupled with a seascape mural on the far wall to create a pavilion impression over Formica tables and bistro chairs.

Ambient music varies widely depending on who pops in the CD. Service is actually fast and more courteous than at many more Westernized Vietnamese restaurants; however, on busy nights the kitchen lags and courses arrive tardy at the table.

The house specialty is seafood, and one of its best appetizers, steamed live prawns, isn't on the menu. In the back, the kitchen stocks an aquarium tank with live jumbo prawns. Freshness makes all the difference, so the only thing for the cook to do is migrate the critters from the tank straight into the steamer, then to the table. At $16 for roughly a dozen bright orange-red whiskery prawns, this starter is undoubtedly worth every penny. I recommend trying these crustaceans without the accompanying dipping soy broth with spring onions because their natural flavors are much more intense alone.

Traditional Vietnamese meals include a soup often eaten with a small scoop of white rice. Boldly flavored with fish sauce, the sweet and sour catfish soup ($6.50; serves two to four) is fairly good, rich with tomato, cilantro, sprouts, Chinese celery, catfish, pineapple and okra (a nice nontraditional touch), with all the vegetables verging between fresh and cooked, as they should. Much of the soup's success depends on the timing of the vegetables (each goes into the pot at a different time). The pair of catfish steaks are cut half as thick as they ought to be and, consequently, appear rather tough.

Ideally, the tamarind broth sharply splices vegetable sourness and natural fish sweetness, but here it tastes sugary because the kitchen succumbed to the ease of canned pineapple. Fresh pineapple really does wonders for flavors, giving this soup its signature zing. But, frankly, I haven't seen restaurants going through the trouble of scaling this prickly fruit in years. What a shame. Still, Kien Giang's soup beats four out of five restaurants'-and that is saying a lot.

Kien Giang's menu shows originality. Other restaurants often copy what is successful here. One of the big draws is the salt-fried spare ribs (No. 136, $6.50), which is the kitchen's special deviation from a prawn dish commonly called Firecracker Prawns or salt-fried prawns. It is a salty and mildly sweet dish in which fatty spare ribs are salted, frozen and then pan-fried with salt in extreme heat to create a crispy coating while preserving a tender core. A second flash-panning finishes the morsels off with scallion and red chile for extra spunk. It's simple and goes perfectly with plain rice (which, fortunately, the kitchen steams well).

Rau muong (on-choy, a spinachlike vegetable) forms the backbone of the Vietnamese peasant's diet. This leafy vegetable grows like a weed in the tropics and inevitably sprouts up on every table as frequently as corn or potato in the Bible Belt. The most popular way to serve this green is in a garlic oil stir fry-sometimes with a dash of fish sauce or even shrimp paste (No. 169, $5). A requisite side dish for almost any meal, rau muong is cooked until the leaves wilt and the stalks soften but retain a fresh crunch.

The restaurant does some decent Thai renditions, but their true forte is Vietnamese food. For instance, the Thai noodle--while decent--only makes a mildly interesting statement about scrambled egg, onion, scallion, sprouts, thin slices of fatty pork, shrimp, delicious pieces of squid and whole roasted peanuts. As for Vietnamese desserts, standard sweets--tapioca puddings, tropical fruit shakes and flan ($1.50 to $2.75)--round out the menu and rise slightly above average fare.

Wherever I may be in the South Bay when a craving for home-style Vietnamese food strikes, Kien Giang is definitely worth the drive.

Kien Giang

Cuisine: Vietnamese homestyle cooking
Ambiance: casual, bustling diner
Menu: $4­$16 (anything over $12 serves at least two)
Hours: Sun.­Thu. 10am­10pm; Fri.­Sat. 10am­11pm
Address: 2060 Tully Road, San Jose
Phone: 408/270-4350

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From the May 1-7, 1997 issue of Metro

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