In 2003, Nong Poonsukwattana arrived in Portland from Bangkok with two suitcases and $70. She worked as a restaurant server for her first five years, and cooked at Pok Pok for a year before opening her first food cart, Nong's Khao Man Gai, in April 2009 at the corner of SW 10th and Alder in downtown Portland.
The cart specializes in one item: Khao Man Gai (Thai chicken and rice), a simple, delicious dish of juicy poached chicken, rice cooked in broth and aromatics, Nong's signature sauce, and a few slices of cucumber and cilantro, all wrapped up in butcher paper. She fine-tuned the recipe by testing ingredients from different markets and perfecting the sauce in her apartment kitchen.
The business has grown to two additional locations: a second food cart near Portland State University and a 36-seat restaurant in Southeast Portland that doubles as a production space for Nong's bottled sauces. The brick and mortar restaurant also has an expanded menu, including a vegetarian version of her signature dish, a pork and rice option, and spicy house-made pickles. We couldn't wait to try it all.
Chicken and Rice (Khao Man Gai)
You can't go wrong with this signature dish ($8). Moist and tender strips of organic poached chicken are perched on top of a scoop of rice that's simmered in chicken stock and Thai herbs. On the side, there's crisp cucumber slices and cilantro, a light chicken soup, and Khao Man Gai sauce (a tingly mix of fermented soybean, ginger, garlic, chili, Thai vinegar and soy sauce) for pouring on top of the chicken and rice.
Opting for a 50/50 split of white and dark meat is a good way to go, but the white meat is so moist and tender that dryness doesn't seem to be an issue. You can get extra sauce (the first one's free, after that, it's 25 cents per serving) in case you need a little more for the grains of rice that remain untouched by the first dousing.
You can also customize your order with extra chicken or rice ($2), crispy chicken skin ($1) chicken liver ($1), opt for gluten-free sauce, or upgrade your portion size to a "piset" for $3 more, which nets you more chicken, more rice, more sauce, and chicken livers. If you don't want liver, say so and they'll give you extra chicken in its place.
The spice level is fairly mild, but if you want to ratchet up the heat, ask for some fresh Thai chilies or Nong's house-made nam prik pao (Thai chili sauce) on the side. Dabbing the tips of your chopsticks in the thick paste is enough to provide a noticeable uptick in flavor and heat.
Tofu and Rice (Khao Man Gai Jay)
The vegetarian version of the signature dish comes with creamy locally-made tofu from Ota Tofu, which introduces a silky and creamy texture to the dish, but doesn't add much in terms of flavor. The rice (cooked in vegetable stock) can't quite match the version cooked in chicken stock, so you'll definitely need extra Khao Man Gai sauce. Our take: If you want to eat a vegetarian dish, the tofu with peanut sauce below is the better bet.
Pork and Rice (Khao Kha Muu)
The sole pork option on the menu ($8) features big chunks of pork shank that are slow-braised in Coca-Cola, cocoa powder, and Thai and Chinese herbs and spices with pig's feet and a whole lot of marrow. The fatty, tender, ginger-tinged meat is served over steamed jasmine rice with Thai chili sauce, mustard greens, and a soft boiled egg. The meat itself is juicy and spoonable, and the stick-to-your-ribs dish makes perfect sense on rainy days. The spice level is around medium, so adding a sprinkling of chilies (or some pickles on the side) is a great way to introduce heat and acidity and add complexity to an otherwise mild, comforting dish.
Chicken and Rice With Peanut Sauce
The battle for the tastiest dish on the menu comes down to the original chicken and rice and this peanut sauced version ($8), served with plain jasmine rice. The creamy, fragrant sauce made with peanuts, coconut milk, makrut lime, and chili strikes the perfect balance between sweet and spicy. It's a little thinner than what you'd typically get with an appetizer platter of grilled chicken skewers, so it spreads over the steamed chicken, sinking into the moist chicken and soaking into the rice like a coconut-milk based gravy. If you gravitate towards cream curries, this dish will hit all the right notes.
Tofu and Rice with Peanut Sauce
In this case, the vegetarian version ($7) is almost as excellent as the chicken option. You lose the tender texture of the meat, but because the steamed tofu and the sauce meld together wonderfully, you gain a thicker, silkier peanut sauce.
Fried Chicken Skins
Crispy chicken skin is a hot commodity at Nong's, sometimes selling out before the lunch rush properly gets going. The hot, popcorn-sized nuggets of skin are fried in chicken fat, chicharrón-style. They're good and salty, with a satisfying crunch. For $1, you get enough to share, so if you love crunchy, salty, savory things, by all means, go for it.
Chicken livers ($1) are poached in chicken fat. Ideally, they should have the texture of pâté, but mine were on the gritty side. Skip these unless you really like liver.
All of the plates come with some sort of vegetable, so you might not need to order an additional side of steamed vegetables ($2). If you do go for it, make sure to douse the plain veggies with peanut sauce ($2) or Khao Man Gai sauce (25 cents).
These house-made pickles ($3) are really excellent. They're tangy, with some serious heat, thanks to the thin strands of Thai chilies mixed in. The acidic bite pairs particularly well with an order of pork, or you can always snack on them all by themselves before the main event. The portion size is generous, so you might want to get a to-go container so you can spice up your sandwiches for the next week to come.
Vietnamese Coffee and Thai Iced Tea
Nong's Vietnamese coffee (available hot or iced, $3) is made with Stumptown beans. It's smooth and sweet, without any burnt or bitter notes. The Thai iced tea ($3) is also tasty, and made with enough sweetened condensed milk that it could easily qualify as dessert.
Speaking of which, the one item that wasn't available during my visit was Pandan flavored soft-serve ice cream. The kitchen staff is playing around with various flavors (and has received numerous requests for green tea ice cream from customers), but like the crispy chicken skins, demand often exceeds supply.