I finally had a chance to try out Nong’s Khao Man Gai, a food cart located in downtown Portland at the corner of SW 10th and Alder Street, when I was visiting last month. Nong’s has received numerous mentions in a variety magazines including Gourmet Magazine, Men’s Health, Saveur, Travel & Leisure as well as in newspapers, both locally and internationally, including The Globe and Mail and The Sydney Morning Herald. It’s no secret that Portland is known for its food carts and there are hundreds of them all around the city. But for Nong’s to consistently be mentioned in the Top 5 or Top 10 list of dishes or food carts to try in Portland, that must say something about how good their signature dish is. Normally, I wouldn’t go out of my way to seek out Asian food while visiting Portland since I visit Vancouver, BC several times a year and Vancouver is the mecca for Asian food. However, I was intrigued after reading the numerous reviews about Nong’s and decided to make an exception.
Nong’s specializes in one dish called Khao Man Gai, which directly translates to ‘oiled rice chicken’ and is a very popular street food dish in Thailand, particularly in Bangkok. The Khao man gai dish actually originates from the Hainan province in China and is often known as Hainanese chicken. So basically what Nong’s serves is the Thai version of Hainanese chicken and rice.
It’s a no-brainer as to what to order at Nong’s since the one and only item offered is the Chicken and Rice ($6). You can customize your order by requesting for extra sauce ($1), extra chicken ($2), extra rice ($2), or add chicken livers ($1). Or you can get the large order (or Piset, which means ‘Special’ in Thai) and you will get more chicken, more rice, more sauce, and also chicken livers for $10. Since this was my first time, I decided to get just the regular order of Chicken and Rice, which comes with 8 oz of rice and either one whole chicken breast or a quarter leg of a chicken. Nong’s uses organic free range chicken from Draper Valley to make this dish. The chicken is poached whole in a liquid containing salt, sugar, garlic, and ginger. The rice is then cooked in the chicken broth with the addition of garlic, ginger, shallots, and galangal. The chicken and rice are served with a special soybean sauce made from fermented soybean puree mixed with garlic, ginger, Thai chilies, vinegar, and sugar. The sauce is normally mildly spicy but you can ask for the sauce to be spicier and they will throw in more Thai chilies into the sauce for you. The dish is garnished with some cucumber slices and cilantro. What’s also noteworthy is that instead of serving the dish in plastic or foam containers, Nong’s actually wraps the chicken and rice into a neat bundle using butcher paper, like how they served it traditionally in Thailand before the advent of plastic and foam.
The order of Chicken and Rice was exactly just that – chicken and rice. However, don’t let the simplicity of this dish fool you. I can easily say this was one of the best versions of Hainanese Chicken and Rice that I’ve ever had. Keep in mind that this is the Thai version and is slightly different in flavour than the Singaporean or Malaysian versions though there are some similarities. Hainanese Chicken is typically fairly mild and delicate in flavour so don’t expect a blast of flavour from the chicken or the rice alone. Personally, I thought this dish was executed perfectly. The boneless chicken pieces were very tender, silky, and flavourful. The rice was cooked to perfection. It was moist and more flavourful than any other rice I’ve had accompanying Hainanese Chicken. But the real star of the show is actually the special soybean sauce. It provided the perfect sweet, sour, salty, and spicy combination that unified all the components of the dish and provided an additional depth of flavour to the chicken and rice. I started off just dipping the chicken pieces into the sauce but it was so addictive that I ended up pouring the sauce over the whole dish.
The Chicken and Rice came with a bowl of thin clear soup served on the side. This light soup is made from the chicken broth along with some mustard greens and is purposely bland/mild as it serves as a palate cleanser for the chicken and rice.
I was lucky I actually got to experience Nong’s Khao Man Gai when I was in Portland last month. As it was the day after Thanksgiving, many of the food carts were closed. In addition to Nong’s food cart, I had wanted to check out Tabor for their schnitzelwich and People’s Pig for their porchetta, both of which are also located in downtown Portland. Sadly, both of them were closed due to the holiday. I should mention that Nong’s is hugely popular and often sells out so do try to go early to avoid being disappointed.
The economy in Portland must be really booming as many food carts and eateries are expanding and opening additional locations. Nong’s is one of the many famous ones that have recently opened up a second location. In fact, they had just opened the second location the week after Thanksgiving and it happened to be the day I was leaving Portland so I didn’t get a chance to try it out. This second location is at Portland State University (PSU food cart pod) and apparently the kitchen is much bigger so they are now able to offer more items on the menu, in addition to the famous Khao Man Gai (chicken and rice). This new location will definitely be on my list of places to try next time I’m visiting Portland.