Hat Yai brings together the Malaysian flavors and down-home fried chicken of Southern Thailand's most distinctive food town.
When chef Akkapong "Earl" Ninsom was a kid growing up in Bangkok, he'd take trips once each year to the far southern tip of Thailand to visit his grandma. For a month, he'd stay in the region home to Hat Yai, the southernmost metropolis of Thailand by the border of Malaysia. The food was a different world from what he knew at home.
"Most of Thailand, the dishes they serve in restaurants are the same dishes," says Ninsom. "Hat Yai—it's different."
There he found stalls serving roti flatbreads with rich and fiery curries next to stalls where another man might grill meat skewers marinated in thick chili paste and blended with the sweetness of coconut milk. Next door, another cook might make dishes served on jasmine rice like kua gling—a searingly hot, fermented ground pork dish whose heat ascends and spreads until it fills your whole world.
And of course there was gai tod Hat Yai, South Thailand's famous fried chicken. It's not too different from what your Tennessee mom would make for company on Sunday, except it's rubbed with whole coriander seed and buried in crispy fried shallots, served with bright chili-vinegar dipping sauce the color of a tropical sunset.
"There are always these four stalls next to each other," says Ninsom. At each little stall, each cook might make the same few dishes for years, honing them to perfection.
At Hat Yai, our Pop-In of the Year, Ninsom and partner Alan Akwai have combined the specialties of all four spots into one space on Northeast Killingsworth not much larger than one of those Southern Thai market stalls.
Hat Yai is part of a new breed of ambitious counter-service spot serving uncompromising food every bit as good as you'll find at any restaurant with waiters and tablecloths, but in the quick, casual format that has become Portland's hallmark.
Hat Yai is a tight-quartered hallway of a place where chef Taweesak Teesompong—a veteran of famed Thai fine-dining restaurant Nahm Bangkok—teams with Hat Yai native Duangduean Tattaruji and former PaaDee chef de cuisine Amporn Khayanha to bring Southern Thailand's fire-forged mélange of flavors to Portland in completely uncompromised form.
"The flavors you get in Thailand are the same flavors here," Ninsom says.
That's the rule Ninsom made for Hat Yai.
The roti and curries are so much like the flavors in Muslim-influenced southern Thailand that the restaurant has developed a stable of loyal Malaysian customers who didn't know until they entered a restaurant in Portland that their curries and roti had traveled across the border to Thailand.
And the beautiful balance of kaffir, lemongrass, turmeric and fermented spice in Hat Yai's ground pork comes with that same world-destroying heat you'd get in the south of Thailand, whose food's sadistic streak is legend—heat that's meant as pick-me-up cure, Ninsom says, for the constant overcast skies that also afflict Portland.
If you don't like heat, well, don't order that pork.
"We try to warn people," says Akwai. "There are people who come in again and again for the pork. They want the heat."
Akwai, for his own part, says the dish is a bit hot for him.
And Akwai's opinion on the food matters quite a bit. All the way back to the early days of Ninsom's Southeast 28th Avenue Thai restaurant PaaDee, he's been Ninsom's go-to taster. Ninsom is trying to bring over authentic Thai dishes that Americans haven't tried. And Akwai, along with other Portland chefs in town, are the guinea pigs. If Akwai doesn't like it, Ninsom might not put it in his restaurant.
The two met back in 2011 while Ninsom was planning PaaDee and Akwai was making the Asian-inflected cocktails of now-closed Japanese fusion spot Wafu. Since then, Akwai's been both tasting the dishes at Ninsom's restaurants and making those beautifully paired cocktails with flavors of tamarind and ginger. But when Akwai tried that terrific fried chicken at a dinner at Ninsom's backroom prix-fixe supper club Langbaan back in September 2014, the flashbulbs went off in his head.
"I was blown away," Akwai says. "It was so, so good, and not in this complicated, cerebral way—like comfort food. I turned to Earl and said, 'People will love this. We could do a place that just sells this.'"
But after that initial idea, it took a year and a half of scouting and preparation before Hat Yai was set to open its doors.
When the restaurant finally opened on Northeast Killingsworth Street in May, demand was so high for that tasty fried chicken—its crisp crust sugary and deep with spice, its dipping sauce like Frank's Red Hot that's been pickled—it ran out in the middle of dinner service the first day. And so Hat Yai prepped twice as much the next day. And it ran out again. And so cooks doubled it again, working from eight in the morning till midnight each night just to keep the small kitchen in stock.
But finally, Ninsom says, Hat Yai has systems dialed in, and the chicken is tasting the way he remembered it. He says it's even better than the fried chicken you can get in the namesake city of Hat Yai today, where an influx of tourists has led to compromises in the food.
"They don't use the coriander," he says. "They use cheaper ingredients."
What's missing there these days, he says, is the depth of flavor. But on Killingsworth, he says, the flavor you get every time you walk in has that same rich depth he can remember from his youth, when he traveled south each summer to a place called Hat Yai.