Sometime around the conclusion of June, 2013
I don’t know how I’ve gone without telling you about Nong’s khao man gai. I’m honestly in awe that I haven’t even mentioned it; I’ve been preoccupied raving in person to every face I encounter. That and the fact that I’m lazy and have yet to transfer the photos from my camera to my laptop.
So, I’ll call this my last blog post on Portland, and dedicate it to my last meal there. It was towards the last days of my trip. I was walking back from Downtown to the hotel, alone, hungry, and my feet nearing exhaustion in my Toms- not a recommend walking shoe specifically for the Pacific Northwest. I saw a sign quoting Nong’s Khao Man Gai is open, with long-necked chickens in three blocks at the top, and an arrow to the left. The logo clicked familiar- a food cart in one of the downtown pods closed earlier than closing hours. Later, I’d learn that yes, because after the lunch rush, they easily run out of food, and go home early.
The signs took me to a block down and around the corner from where I was staying, to a little shop, with food to go, and a few tables and chairs to eat in. The wall was covered with reviews, newspaper clippings, and photographs, including Amanda Freitag standing outside the downtown cart. For those who don’t watch the Food Network as religiously as I do, Amanda Freitag is a regular judge on Chopped. If you’re thinking you have no idea what I just said, well, she’s a big deal.
Before you go to think my trip was merely a culinary one and not educational at all, I will share with you a little history lesson I learned that day myself. Nong came to the 9-10 or so years ago. She worked her way up from kitchens to her own cart, which is serving up just one thing, chicken and rice. If there’s just one thing on the menu, it has to be damn good.
The to-go shop, though, goes beyond their standard and large sized chicken and rice, giving customers a vegetarian and pork option. I’m neither a vegetarian, nor a fan of pork unless dried, smoked, cured into its bacon, proscuitto,… form. I ordered the khao man gai. Chicken and rice. You’re given an option of white meat, dark meat, or mixed. White meat.
I carried my paper bagged lunch to the hotel, and luckily, it’s bottom didn’t steam off until I was inside my room, propping it on the table. In front of me, I had a plastic tub with its lid sealed shut, a small cup of sauce, and a parcel, wrapped in waxed paper and secured with a rubber band. At first, I thought she must have forgotten to put my chicken and rice in there, or she misunderstood my order. But then, I unwrapped it, slowly and carefully, and there it was, my chicken and rice, and another little cup of sauce.
It appeared bland, white chicken atop white rice, decorated with a few sprigs of cilantro and thin cuts of cucumber. I took a fork and it was tasty. The chicken was moist and flavorful, and I could bet my left hand that rice was cooked in the same liquid the chicken had bathed in. I opened up my tub of soup, and found it to be rather a broth, but delicious and comforting on another glum Portland afternoon. I went back to the chicken, and poured one of the sauces over it, and suddenly good became magical.
They bottle that sauce, and with good reason. It should be found in supermarket aisles right next to the Kikkoman for all I know.
It was a perfect meal for a cold, rainy afternoon; homey and comforting, simple and delectable, with a soy ginger sauce that took it to the next level. Seven dollars had never made me so full. And I don’t know what went into the making of it, but it felt decently healthy. As soon as I mouthed the last grain, I thought to myself, we can’t leave Portland without the guinea pig trying this.
Khao man gai did not end up being the guinea pig’s favorite of the food carts. I think his heart leaned towards the wood-fire pizzas that came straight out of a legit wood-burning oven in a cart called Pyros. Yes, a real oven inside a food cart. I can’t imagine the temperature highs in there.
But, I can’t blame him. The guinea pig I mean. For not putting Nong’s on his top list. It was a rare sunny day in Portland, and we set out to have lunch at their downtown cart, not the airconditioned to-go shop, hitting the busy rush and the harsh noon sun. I’ll admit, the chicken wasn’t as tender, and the hot tub of broth wasn’t as comforting when your back is exposed to UV rays and sweat is trickling down your face. This is why cloudy with a chance of rain suits Portland best.
When waiting in line at the cart, I spotted Miss Nong herself, black cap, black top, hair dyed bleach and half tattoo sleeves- blending in perfectly with the inked Portland scene. She was stopping by I guess, to check on things, because it seems now she’s doing too well to run the joint herself. She has a quirky white guy to do it for her.
The guinea pig and I will just have to go back sometime, and try Nong’s once again, but on a cloudy day, with sprinkles of rain and breezes of cool. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a day like that in Portland.