In 2003, Nong Poonsukwattana moved across the world from Bangkok, Thailand to Portland, Oregon. When she arrived, Nong only had two suitcases and $70 to her name. To make ends meet, Nong took a job at a local Thai restaurant. After years of hard work and saving money, Nong opened her first food cart in 2009 in downtown Portland. The name of her cart was Nong’s Khao Man Gai.
As with many restaurants and food stalls in Asia, the food cart specialized in only one item. And, that dish was chicken and rice.
In some countries, it’s known as Hainanese chicken rice. In Thailand, it’s known as khao man gai, which translates to “rice oily chicken.” Khao man gai is a popular Thai dish of poached chicken, aromatic rice, and soup. It’s simple but full of so much flavor when prepared the right way.
In 2014, Nong opened her first brick and mortar restaurant in southeast Portland. In 2018, she opened a second location in downtown. Also in 2018, the original food cart closed to make way for the construction of a hotel.
Since opening her first cart, Nong has won awards, been on televisions shows, and was a James Beard award semifinalist. She even sells her own khao man gai sauce made with garlic, ginger, and fresh chilis. While the menu today features new items, nothing compares to the khao man gai. On my recent visit to Portland, I visited the southeast location to try the famous chicken and rice out for myself.
Interior of Nong’s Khao Man Gai
As I walked through the doors, I entered a small but bright open room. The décor of this room was industrial and modern with concrete floors, exposed pipes, and a garage door. To the left was a counter with the menu hanging above it. Behind the counter was a bright, open kitchen busy with chefs and workers. These workers were taking orders, preparing food, and handing out plates of food. And, they greeted me with a smile and asked if I had any questions about the menu. As with many places in Portland, I ordered from the counter and returned to the counter when my food was ready.
After ordering, I noticed a small, quaint dining room in the rear of the restaurant. The room was unique and vibrant with bright orange walls, Thai artwork, hanging lightbulbs, and colorful table tops. While simple, the room was cozy and homey. It reminded me of something I would find in Thailand or Southeast Asia. And, the casual ambiance reminded me that the food was the star. Another thing to note was how the intimate room had only a few tables. This was perfect for smaller groups and couples. If you aren’t able to find an open table, you can find tables outside on the sidewalk.
Nong’s Khao Man Gai Menu
The menu at Nong’s Khao Man Gai was simple but had great choices. If this is your first visit, I recommend the signature dish, khao man gai. This dish put the tiny food cart on the culinary map of Portland. I would be happy eating the simple but delicious dish every visit.
If the khao man gai seems a little too simple for you, which it shouldn’t, then you can opt for one of the other options. Options included Pork & Rice ($15.00), Chicken and Peanut ($13.00), and Tofu & Peanut ($12.00). As I love anything with peanut sauce, the Chicken and Peanut is another one of my favorites.
The menu also featured a good amount of sides including brown rice, jasmine rice, peanut sauce, veggies, pickles, soup, and ice cream. You could also order add ons. This included chicken liver, chicken skin (if they don’t sell out), chicken wings, and extra portions of chicken, rice, or sauce.
Khao Man Gai (Hainanese Chicken Rice)
The first time I experienced Hainanese chicken rice was at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken, a small food stall in Singapore. It was here were I tried the simple dish of fragrant rice and aromatic chicken. Locals, tourists, and celebrity chefs such as Anthony Bourdain flocked here to try the dish for themselves.
The Khao Man Gai ($13.00), served at Nong’s Khao Man Gai, is a Thai variation of Hainanese chicken rice. There were four elements of this dish: chicken, rice, soup, and spicy sauce . Served on the side was fresh cilantro and crunchy, sliced cucumbers. While some might find the dish to be too simple, sometimes less is more. And, if you knew what went in to creating this dish, you would never think it was simple.
The most important component of the dish was the poached chicken breast. Some might find the chicken to be too basic, but there was something special about it. Here was how it was made. Added to a pot was chicken along with water, garlic, ginger, pandan leaves, salt, and sugar. After simmering, the chicken absorbed all the flavors of the ingredients, especially the ginger. Though simple, I found the chicken to be aromatic, moist, juicy, salty, and sweet.
The jasmine rice was as flavorful as the chicken. And, its preparation was similar. Added to a pot was rice, chicken fat, garlic, shallots, galangal, ginger, and chicken broth. The result was a fragrant, fluffy, and delicious rice that paired well with the chicken.
Accompanying the chicken was a flavorful soup made by simmering Chinese winter squash (opo squash) with chicken broth. I enjoyed pouring the broth over the chicken and rice to add another layer of flavor.
The final component of this dish was the spicy sauce. I don’t know all the ingredients of the sauce but I could taste garlic, red peppers, ginger, soy sauce, and vinegar. I enjoyed the spicy, slow burn. As with the soup, I drizzled the sauce over the chicken and rice to add a kick of heat and flavor to the chicken and rice.
I loved everything about Nong’s Khao Man Gai. The combination of flavors and textures elevated a simple dish to something special and flavorful. If you enjoy comforting foods for the soul, then this is for you.
As mentioned before, Nong’s Khao Man Gai was a counter service operation. I ordered at the front, found an open seat, and returned to the counter when I heard my name called. When done, I bussed my own table. While my interaction with the staff was brief, I found the staff to be friendly and attentive, even late at night. If I needed any help or had any questions, I know the workers would be there to help.
The story of Nong Poonsukwattana, how she moved from Thailand to Portland and opened a food cart, is the American dream. Though her version of khao man gai was simple, it was something special. I could taste her love for food in each bite. And, I could taste all the flavors of her home in the chicken and rice. With each bite, I reminisced about my trips to Asia. But, I was glad I didn’t have to travel across the world for this great dish. While Portland has many great restaurants and food stalls to try, Nong’s Khao Man Gai will always be one of my favorites.
- Flavorful, fragrant, aromatic Khao Man Gai
- Friendly staff
- Limited seating
609 SE Ankeny St C, Portland, OR 97214
GPS Coordinates: 45.52238,-122.65941
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