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Nong's Khao Man Gai


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#1 ExtraMSG

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 08:42 PM

I have a mini-feud with a couple of non-Portland foodie (feudie?) friends about Hainanese chicken rice. Southeast Asians obsess over the stuff. It's all over in Thailand and Malaysia. They love it. I've never really been able to get into it, however.

For one thing, rice is about my least favorite starch. To me, it's akin to foam, where there's not something substantial enough to chew on. Even dishes like paella don't excite me. For another thing, it's just boiled chicken and rice.

They essentially accuse me of being a barbarian with a palate about as subtle as Alec Baldwin's child-rearing techniques. Maybe so. I've had the dish several times in both Malaysia and Thailand at places highly recommended for it, and it never became something I crave.

So, it took some cajoling to get me to go. Yeah, it's been open less than a week, but it's only a block from the deli. It's cheap. It's quick. Nong used to work at Pok Pok. There's no real excuse. So I went.

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Nice, well-maintained, very clean cart. Nong herself is cute as a button, a diminutive Thai button from Bangkok. You'd like to snuggle and make-out with her she's so cute, but you'd probably feel licentious, like you just kissed your sister with tongue.

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Menu can't get simpler. There's khao man gai and your choice is just whether you get more of the parts you like or not. I think this is part of the allure for my friends. It's the master (mistress?) and her magic pot of broth, finely tuning her specialty without distraction, in search of the perfect dish. One of the friends noted that his Thai buddies had heard about it and while they don't care if they ever get to Pok Pok, they're excited by Nong's so much that they've already heard about it thousands of miles away.

I don't believe in perfect dishes. I believe that once you get to a certain level of quality and execution, palate takes over. I also don't believe someone like me has the upbringing or experience to judge a dish like khao man gai fully on its own terms and that those terms are fairly fluid anyway -- from generation to generation, region to region, street to street, family to family. I'm certainly not going to understand the nuances that would distinguish this plate of chicken rice from the plate I had at a night market in Bangkok, assuming the rice and chicken are cooked properly. So many traditions and cultural attachments that you almost have to grow up with, like a fat white boy from Elmira, Oregon, trying to understand gangsta rap. I ain't gonna be gettin' into the flavor of nobody's kool-aid. Fo' shizzle.

I just got the basic khao man gai, nothing extra.

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It came packaged so neatly, you'd think Nong was Japanese. But no, she's Thai and been here six years.

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You get a tightly mounded scoop of rice, cooked in chicken broth, topped by several ounces of sliced, poached chicken. Slices of cucumber come on the side, along with a sauce and soup.

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Here's where my barbarianism shows itself. I'd like it to be more intensely flavored. The rice has a light chicken flavor with the requisite greasiness from chicken fat. The chicken is mild, the skin almost gelatinous, as is the way of khao man gai. The sauce is delicious -- soy, ginger, garlic, and chiles -- but possibly too intense for the mild chicken and rice. I used less than a quarter of the amount she gave me for the whole thing. I remember the rice being intensely chickeny, almost like you had sopped up the drippings of a roast chicken. This wasn't that. And the flavors beyond the chicken -- the ginger, garlic, galangal -- didn't really show themselves to me. But hey, I'm a barbarian. Me like flavor strong. No thinky thinky bout bock bock.

The soup on the side is very light, somewhat oily and underseasoned, with a perfectly cooked piece of green Chinese melon, and a single stalk of cilantro.

I enjoyed the meal. I loved the sauce. Everything seemed expertly executed. There was no doubt that it was popular with Thais. All the other ladies from the Thai carts seemed to be going there for lunch. Few places in Portland have I heard so much Thai being spoken. It was like a convention of crows: "kha kha kha."

But I'm not eager to return. Not because it wasn't good as far as I can tell, but just because it's Hainanese chicken rice. I definitely think those who like the dish should seek this place out, though, and I'd love to hear other opinions. It had only been open 5 days, too, when I tried it and I'd like to see if she tweaks it over time. For $10 you can get some chicken rice from her and an order of xiao long bao from Asian Station. Perhaps that's enough to turn a barbarian like me into a courtly gentelman over time.

Nong's Khao Man Gai
SW 10th & Alder
Portland, OR 97205
971.255.3480
http://www.khaomangai.com

You can order by phone, text, or web.
The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was. ~Brillat-Savarin

Nick Zukin, Mi Mero Mole & Kenny & Zuke's

#2 polloelastico

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Posted 09 May 2009 - 07:26 AM

I think I'm with you on most of this - except I love rice and can eat it probably with every meal.

My mom made a Vietnamese version of this, and for me it was all about the sauce to dip it in. Her's was a maggi/soy/fish sauce version with lots of lime and spiked with sambal, minced bird chilis, and chopped cilantro. The chicken itself was poached in a liquid that was perfumed with a bit of star anise, cinnamon, perhaps some other whole spices. The chicken was poached whole, and then, once cooled, cleavered into neatly sectioned chunks (i.e. legs cut across into two pieces, thighs into 3-4, breast into 4-6) for consumable efficiency.

It was pretty good, but most of the time I thought...this would be better if it was my mom's grilled lemongrass chicken.
“Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” — George Carlin

#3 ExtraMSG

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Posted 26 June 2009 - 12:42 PM

http://www.oregonliv...dish_to_go.html

If chicken and rice doesn't rock your world, then chances are you haven't been to Nong's Khao Man Gai (pronounced cow-mon-guy). Even in Portland's varied, vibrant and ever-expanding food-cart scene, this downtown cart stands out, with a one-item menu authentically styled after the street vendors of Bangkok, where sellers are known for a specific dish or specialty.

Working with intense focus, 29-year-old Nong Poonsukwattana unmolds jasmine rice onto a square of paper, carefully stacking tender poached chicken, cucumber slices and cilantro on top.

Getting the textures right is key -- succulent velvety meat and moist herb-scented rice. But the coup de grace of khao man gai is the sauce, made with fresh ginger, garlic, sugar, fermented soy beans and chile. Poonsukwattana gets it just right, morphing a seemingly simple dish into a sweet, sour, salty, hot (mildly so) phenomenon that's hauntingly delicious.


I didn't think the Oregonian did featured reviews on single carts, especially one with only one dish. Not that I'm complaining.
The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was. ~Brillat-Savarin

Nick Zukin, Mi Mero Mole & Kenny & Zuke's

#4 nervousxtian

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Posted 26 June 2009 - 04:48 PM

I love this place.

Nick, you are a barbarian for not loving rice.

#5 ExtraMSG

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Posted 26 June 2009 - 09:19 PM

I'm certainly willing to accept that possibility.
The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was. ~Brillat-Savarin

Nick Zukin, Mi Mero Mole & Kenny & Zuke's

#6 maija

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Posted 16 July 2009 - 01:22 PM

I'm hooked on this cart - probably have been visiting here about every 2 weeks. I am a rice lover, though, especially sticky rice. It's total comfort food for me. This dish is great for me, as I love the sauce and the simplicity of it. Plus, the chicken is so nice and moist. And, as you pointed out, Nick, it is a very elegant packaging - much more aesthetically pleasing than a typical plastic food cart box. The portion size is perfect for me - filling but not overwhelmingly so.

I also have been hearing she makes great iced (Vietnamese?) coffee, although I haven't tried it yet. I think she uses Stumptown?

#7 Laksa

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Posted 20 July 2009 - 04:11 AM

The rally exciting thing about this cart, great chicken aside, is that it is preparing SE Asian food which has not been completely bastardized to extract maximum profit from clueless round-eyes. There are probably myriad shortcuts to take making Hainan chicken but one whiff of the broth is enough to know this cart strives for the genuine article.

First pok pok, then Ping, Red Onion and now Kao Man Gai. Not too shabby, Portland!

#8 ponzu

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Posted 21 July 2009 - 06:19 PM

I'm new to Portland. I've been here about 3 weeks and have already eaten at this cart 5 or six times.

To my taste buds it is absolute ambrosia.

The chicken is poached in such a way that the stock completely penetrates the flesh leaving aromas of Galangal, ginger and garlic in the very core of the meat. Also it is so carefully cookeed that even the breast which I usually dislike is moist , soft and tender.

The rice is just so chickeny and complex. When you see them mix a freshly steamed batch of rice you see hige chunks of Konbu, galangal and other spices. The grains manage to be at once coated with flavour like a pilaf and stuck together like sticky rice. Amazing.

Finally the chickeny rich mildness of the chicken and rice are perfectly counterpointed by the sauce which absolutely pops with sweet salty garlicky intensity. In my case I order it extra spicy which comes with a bunch of Thai Bird chiles diced up in it.

The miuld broth in turn counters the intensity of the sauce.

I'm a sucker for places that just do one thing absolutely perfectly and in my mind Nong's is just such a place.

#9 Amanda

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Posted 22 July 2009 - 06:47 AM

Welcome to the forum, ponzu!

Best regards,

Amanda

#10 sacman

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Posted 21 August 2009 - 09:21 PM

Went to Nong's today for lunch with Mrs. sacman.

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Nong was just cute as could be, and cracked this grin when I asked if I could take her picture. Her helper in the back is Jonathan, also from Pok Pok.

We ordered the piset.

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Nick's right about the packaging. Very minimalist, but quite effective and artful.

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Our food. Nong was out of livers so we got extra chicken.

Nick's also right about the seasoning and the barbarism of Big White Guys. I wanted more seasoning. I have heard from many sources about the garlicky kick of the soup. Truth be told, I thought it was just a mildly-flavored chicken broth to moisten the rice. There was no melon in our soup at all, just a piece of cilantro.

I am not really criticizing this, because overall it was tasty. And really, why criticize for a lack of seasoning? The soy-based sauce that came with it was quite intense, and I did apply it liberally - and so, overall, an enjoyable meal.

Here's the interesting thing. Mrs. sacman LOVED this. She raved about it! We shared the same order of piset, so obviously we were tasting exactly thing same thing. When I asked her just now why she liked it so much, she thought about it for a little while and said it was the simplicity of the dish, and how "clean" it was. To me, it was just (well-prepared) boiled chicken with rice.

We will, no doubt, be back; the food was good. Nong's also has something going for it; quick back-of-the-napkin calculations tell me this stuff has about a calorie per gram. That's a great calorie count for a convenient lunch food. In addition, it's a perfect mile-long walk from the office to Nong's and back.

-sacman
- I am an employee of a Portland-based firm that has business relationships with several local food-related businesses.

#11 Amanda

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Posted 22 August 2009 - 07:40 AM

I really like this cart, myself. The chicken and rice look bland, but it is not. I'd call it refreshing. I thought the seasonings were good enough and the chicken is so lovely and moist. Very subtle, but tasty flavoring, IMO. Definitely worth getting.

Best regards,

Amanda

#12 Dragondazd

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Posted 29 August 2009 - 05:43 PM

I love this place because the tastes are so clean and simple. I can easily go here once a week

#13 chefken

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Posted 02 September 2009 - 01:26 PM

Matthew, my Smoke-master, recommended it to me about two weeks ago. I've been there 3 times since and I think it's delicious. Simple, light, perfectly seasoned and exactly what it should be. And I love the packaging!
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#14 Amanda

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Posted 01 April 2010 - 12:41 PM

My friend and I were on our way back to work from the library. We wanted to get something to eat from a cart and I suggested this one. I told her it had excellent chicken and rice. She said she thought she knew the one I was talking about but didn't know where it was. Her sister-in-law is friends with Nong, but my friend had never had the food from this cart before. I think she didn't think it would be any big deal since she said she makes this stuff at home, but once she tried it, she knew this was an insanely wonderful version of this chicken and rice dish. She loved the sauce. The broth/soup was heartier than I'd had before. It had chunks of green and it was very flavorful.

There was a pretty good sized line for it, but once we paid we were given our food immediately, which surprised me. I guess everything is, for the most part, hot and ready to go from the cookers in there. Nong had a couple guys working their butts off in there and things were humming along nicely. I just LOVE this food!!! This is definitely one of my favorite carts in Portland.

Best regards,

Amanda

#15 jafar

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Posted 02 April 2010 - 04:00 PM

I had forgotten all about this place until I was trying to pick a cart last Saturday and was psyched to see chicken rice, but alas they were sold out :P

It took me years traveling to Singapore and Malaysia before I cycled around to choosing chicken rice from all of the wonderful things to eat. It just looks so bland and uninteresting. But that can be very deceiving.

#16 Angelhair

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Posted 02 April 2010 - 04:19 PM

I had forgotten all about this place until I was trying to pick a cart last Saturday and was psyched to see chicken rice, but alas they were sold out :P


They are open on Saturdays?! YAY!

#17 kalopsia

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Posted 04 April 2010 - 02:34 AM

I had forgotten all about this place until I was trying to pick a cart last Saturday and was psyched to see chicken rice, but alas they were sold out :(


They are open on Saturdays?! YAY!



After seeing this comment, I cross checked with their website and planned to stop by for lunch. I had their usual + extra chicken. To be frank, I was somewhat disappointed this time. Rice didn't seem to be properly cooked and the soup lacked the usual freshness and aftertaste. They have also stopped using winter squash (seasonal reasons I guess) in their soup.

#18 JayinPortland

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Posted 15 October 2010 - 10:24 PM

Finally got around to trying this cart Thursday. Actually meant to try it last week, but my current love of the bulgogi burrito at Korean Twist right next door got the better of me that day.

Added chicken liver (of course), which was probably the best part imo...

I'm really not quite sure what I think about it. Besides that I definitely want to try it again. Ended up scraping every last grain of rice off the paper, so I think that means I enjoyed it. :)

The current special is $1 for added fried chicken skins (Thai gribenes?), which intrigues me sufficiently to think about hitting them again on Monday since I should be downtown for lunch that day. I think this is gonna end up being one of my home cooking obsessions soon.

#19 Jill-O

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Posted 16 October 2010 - 08:52 AM

Thai gribenes!!!

HAHAHAHAHA!!

Love it!
Never give up! Never surrender!

#20 ariel88

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Posted 16 October 2010 - 06:42 PM

I initially had a touch of the "whitey's palate of barbarism" when I first tried Nong's. I wanted to REALLY love it since it has such a following, and I do love the concept of a place focusing on a single dish and doing it very well. My first time through (back in May), I thought it was good, but maybe I had built it up a bit too much in my head? I felt like all the subtlety of the seasoning in the rice and chicken was lost on me, but I really liked the sauce, which I applied liberally. I've been at least 5 or 6 times since then and I like it more each time, now because I dig the contrast of the pungent sauce and the palate-soothing soup, and the chicken is always so moist and the rice is perfectly cooked (I do love me some rice). Long live Nong's!