HUNGRY IN PORTLAND
NAME: NONG’S KHAO MAN GAI
PLACE: Portland, OR
DATE: June 16, 2017
WHAT: Thai Street Food
SW 10th & Alder St. Portland, OR 97205
609 SE Ankeny St Suite C Portland, OR 97214
CHEF: Nong Poonsukwattana
PRICE: $ - $$
WHAT TO EAT: Khao Man Gai : Poached Chicken & Rice
Portland has one of the most progressive food scenes in the country. City blocks are dedicated to food pods (groups of food carts), restaurants on every corner, and one of the top microbrewery cultures in America. I often wonder how they support it all, and if Portlandians ever eat at home. One of my favorite things to do is spend time exploring their robust street food scene. Portland was my first real experience with quality American street food and I still remember it clearly. I was in town for a research chef convention when I found myself on Alder street and my head began spinning from the sheer amount of food carts jammed around a single city block. It made me feel like a kid with a new pack of 64 Crayola’s. Each crayon was a new experience! I had no clue which one to use first, but eventually I just dove in and soon all the colors were well worn.
Recently I took my daughter to Alder street for her first visit. We took some time and walked around looking at all the different options. I was excited to share this iconic American location with her. After about thirty minutes I asked the silly question, “Did you see anything you want to try?”. I could see the look cross her face. She was the eight-year-old with the big box of new crayons in front of her with no clue where to start. I suggested the Thai crayon, Portland was one of the first cities to embrace restaurants like Pok-Pok giving authentic Thai a voice in this country. So, with a little direction, we started walking the pod again, but this time looking for a good Thai cart. We turned the corner of SW 10th street, and saw a little yellow and bright red cart with a hand-written menu. It was “Nong’s Kahn Man Gui” a semi famous single dish Thai cart, that only serves poached chicken with rice. I maneuvered us in front, and threw Maddie a nod at the cart, she shrugged her shoulders. I’d seen that shrug before, it meant “really? This is what you want?”. It was as much approval as I was going to get from her at that moment and we started towards the booth.
The line was already eight people, and more were circling. It was moving at a quick pace and within a few minutes we were next. Nong’s was by far the busiest booth on the block. Our server, a cute young lady wearing a vintage black Ramones shirt, asked what we wanted. It seemed silly, I mean the menu is only one item. I started asking a few questions, and I can almost feel the air let out from the people behind me, they got in line behind the one person who just couldn’t follow food cart protocol.
In only a few seconds Ramone handed me a small sauce container, a cup of broth, and a wax paper bundle held together by a rubber band. The basic paper wrap is possibly the most perfect to-go package, and ideal for a simple Asian street food. Excited and lunch in hand, Maddie and I started out on our next mission, find a place to eat. A trip around the block, no open places to eat, and we magically ended up in front of our car. She, nods towards the rental “this is as good of a place as any”.
We stepped in front of the car, slapped down the paper pouch, and by either convenience or necessity the hood became our new table. Maddie opened the package, and the white wrapping became our plate and placemat, a masterful built in double use. We got our first glimpse of the meal that has people waiting in a long line. It was understated and beautiful all at once. Simple poached skinless chicken and white rice, an artfully tossed sprig of cilantro, and a few English cucumber slices. Monochromatic, yet visually intriguing. The two containers held a simple broth (the poaching liquid), and a dark sauce. I dunked a piece of chicken in the broth, it was good, but I’m surprised that there was a line for this. Maddie took a piece and dunked it in the dark sauce, a smile quickly went across her face, I followed suit. This is the moment in movies where you would have cued the trumpets and started playing hallelujah. In more basic words, the sauce was mind blowing, changing simple street food in to a must try Thai dish. A dish worth waiting in a twenty-person line for. The flavor is ginger on top of ginger with a vinegar tang, balanced with sugar, a little fermented soy paste, and all tied together with hot Thai chili peppers.
We were both so surprised by the sauce, that we started talking about the flavor, and how much it made the dish. Slowly our conversation turned to the weather or the cool experience that is Alder street. I can’t remember where that afternoon went, but it was genuine and nice. Cart food brought us a little closer together that day, through a shared experience of tasting something new, something unexpected. The joy of simple street food and the experience of breaking open the box of 64 crayons together will be a memory I’ll have for a lifetime.
A little history of Nong’s: Nong’s started off as a single dish cart on Alder street. Nong is the name of the chef/owner. She worked her way through some of the best Thai restaurants in Portland, honing her skills prior to starting her first cart. Nong’s has since branched out to a brick and motar restaurant and a second cart. The food they put out is simple, flavorful, and authentic. It is places like Nong’s that keeps me excited about exploring hole in the walls everywhere!
The Pig is formally trained in the culinary arts, a graduate of the C.I.A., worked in the food industry for over 40 years and currently travels the country as a research chef searching food trucks, street vendors, little restaurants and hole in the walls seeking out the best this country has to offer. For more great articles, culinary travel guides, and tips on travel and cooking follow us to our website.