Most likely spurred on by similar success in LA, Portland’s food stall scene has exploded in the last year. Stalls now allegedly number in the upper 500s and several so-called ‘cart pods’ can be found in various Portland neighbourhoods. But despite the buzz, not all carts are buzzing with customers. In fact, I’d say that relatively few appear to draw substantial numbers of diners. One of the lucky ones is Nong’s Khao Man Gai:
A native of Bangkok, Nong has been in Portland seven years and among other things, worked a stint at Pok Pok. In 2008 she decided to go into business for herself and less than two years later, her stall is one of the most popular in Portland. As illustrated above, the lines go around the block, and the amount of press this girl has received is pretty amazing:
Nong got in relatively early on the food cart trend and was able to score a prime downtown location. The food she’s serving is also very good (I’ll get to that in a minute). And I know that her success is also the result of good old-fashioned hard work. But if you ask me, a substantial portion of her success is a no-brainer: Unlike other carts that try to serve as many items as possible, Nong clung to the central tenet of good Thai street food: serve one tasty dish that you can do really well. Her dish is khao man kai (Hainanese chicken rice), and other than drinks, that’s all you can get at her stall; no pad Thai, no vegetarian green curry, no dessert. And despite the fact that she’s serving a single dish the vast majority of Americans have never even heard of, it’s worked.
After having read about Nong’s Khao Man Gai on websites and blogs for the last year, I was finally able to try a packet firsthand. Ducking into the lobby of a nearby building, I dug in and almost immediately my suspicions were confirmed: I reckon that Nong’s khao man is as good — or perhaps even better — than that of your average Thai cart or restaurant. The rice was toothsome and slightly oily (as it should be, yet often isn’t in Thailand) and had the slightest fragrance of galangal and ginger. The chicken was tender and tasty and the dish comes accompanied by an exceptionally rich and fragrant broth — the delicious by-product of boiling those chickens. And perhaps most importantly, Nong’s nam jim (dipping sauce) is pretty much spot on: tasty and moreish, sour, spicy and salty, but with a slight emphasis on the sweet.
Nong’s Khao Man Gai
Near cnr of SW 10th and SW Alder, Portland, Oregon
10am-2pm Mon-Fri & 11am-2pm Sat
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It was back in 2007, via this New York Times piece about dining in Portland, Oregon, that I first heard about Pok Pok. Only about two years old at that time, the restaurant had gone from a house-bound takeout stall selling a limited repertoire of dishes to one of the most talked-about restaurants in Oregon. Upon reading the piece, I immediately wrote an email to chef/owner Andy Ricker, who to my surprise, was already aware of this blog.
Since then, and via his numerous visits to Thailand, Andy and I become friends and have eaten and even cooked together many times. But I haven’t been home to Oregon in several years and had never eaten at Pok Pok until now.
My first visit to the restaurant was during the day and my four dining companions and I ordered a decent chunk of the lunch menu. There was (pictured above, from left to right) Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, a moreish combination of salty, sweet, sour and meaty that is by far the restaurant’s biggest selling item; Kai Yaang, grilled chicken based on a recipe and cooking method that Andy came across in Chiang Mai; Neua Naam Tok, grilled beef served northeastern-style with a rich, spicy dressing; Yam Khai Dao, a ‘salad’ of fried eggs; and Khao Phat Puu, fried rice with crab.
The verdict? Excellent. Obviously some people are going to question my impartiality here — and justifiably so — but I think even Andy would agree that I’m critical to a fault about what I eat, and although not everything was absolutely ideal (the grilled chicken needed some work, an issue which has since been corrected, and serving sizes are definitely more American than Asian), it was a solid, delicious meal and the flavours and textures were all there. The Papaya Pok Pok (not pictured) was as tasty as any som tam Thai I’ve encountered in Thailand, and the fried rice with crab had a spicy richness that in my opinion, ought to be exported east. My mom, who’s been on several visits to Thailand and who loves the food there, was convinced, as were my other dining companions, a chef friend who lived in Thailand for a few years and my half-Thai friend. But perhaps most impressively, my dad, who has a mortal and irrational fear of lemongrass and coriander, genuinely appeared to enjoy the meal, suggesting that this is good food on many different levels.
My second visit was at night, when Pok Pok’s dinner menu boasts some dishes I can’t imagine you’ll find anywhere else in Portland or perhaps even in the US. We had Laap Khua, northern-style fried laap; Kuung Op Wun Sen, prawns cooked in a claypot with mung bean vermicelli; Cha Ca La Vong, a delicious dish of almost buttery turmeric-marinated catfish served with fresh herbs and noodles; and a truly excellent Hoi Thawt, mussels fried in a crispy batter, a dish that, like Nong’s Khao Man Gai, I’d wager is tastier and more expertly-prepared than its average Thai streetside equivalent.
3226 SE Division St, Portland, Oregon
503 232 1387
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