One advantage of a small takeout place is the restaurateur's ability to focus on the food since the space requirement is smaller, rent is lower, and fewer employees are needed. In fact, many of these ethnic spots, such as Austin's Caribbean Cuisine and Thai Thai Takeout, are manned by the owners and their immediate families. The trick, of course, is to channel authentic indigenous flavors into forms recognizable enough not to alienate the mainstream, but captivating enough for those who know the cuisine to return.
Linda Ngo does this. In fact, she takes pride in offering home-styled southwestern Vietnamese cuisine, a style of Vietnamese food not found in Charlotte. Two months ago, Ngo and her husband Tong (Tony) opened the humble Kiên Giang Food 2 Go. They named this mom-and-pop after their native province in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, a place in which the cuisine is dominated by jasmine rice, fin and shellfish, and the freshest ingredients.
Currently, Ngo has about 25 items on her menu, and while some are universal, such as spring rolls, chicken bahn mi, and pho, Kiên Giang has other dishes both compelling and brilliant.
One of these is Goi Ngó Sen Tôm Thit, a vibrant cold salad of ethereal lotus stems, halved shrimp, and chopped peanuts, cabbage and carrots. This mix is mingled with slivers of mint and deep red banana flowers and then bathed in house-made fish sauce. This Vietnamese rendition is an inspired improvement on the predictable "crunchy" salad.
Since pho is a popular soup, it sells out early. But the Bún Riêu Cua (crab noodle) is a soup not to be missed. Here, a bevy of fried tofu — creamy with just a bit of chew — bobs in a steamy bowl of deep-flavored pork broth filled with crab cakes, shrimp, tomatoes and vermicelli. Blitz this with sprigs of mint, bean sprouts, a hot chili pepper and a spritz of lime. The richer bún riêu has more heat and depth than any pho.
Although Ngo notes that stir fry is not a focus of Vietnamese cuisine ("We steam, boil and braise"), the roster offers Bun Bo Xao Xa, thinly sliced beef infused with lemongrass with braised pearl onions steeped on a bed of vermicelli. And while this dish was fine enough, it could not compare to the carefully articulated treat of a crispy quail threesome nestled on jasmine rice.
Before the Ngos moved to Charlotte, they owned a 3,500 square foot Vietnamese restaurant in Las Vegas. On the West Coast, Ngo says people are familiar with the items on her menu. Here, she's trying to readjust to her customers' expectations, but she is determined to maintain her authenticity. She hopes that Vietnamese expats will find their way to her place after work to take home some down-home goodness.
Like all good mom-and-pops, the food here is pure comfort and extremely reasonable. Most entrées are under 10 bucks. But Kiên Giang is very much a two-person operation with a unique rhythm. This means you may wait for an order to be filled. Currently, Kiên Giang has no website or even a takeout menu. So you'll linger in the small dining room, watching Ngo artfully plate her dishes in takeout boxes. Still, if being patient results in a wholly delicious, wondrous meal, who wouldn't wait?
2719 Central Ave., 704-910-6466. Hours: Wednesday through Monday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Lunch special at 10 a.m. weekdays. Closed Tuesday.