Southwest Park Avenue and Harrison Street. Lunch Monday-Friday.
Portland now has a second contender for iconic food-cart chicken dish from Southeast Asia, and its name is mii gai. Nong Poonsukwattana, maker of Portland's go-to Thai chicken-and-rice dish, khao man gai, named Laotian cart Haan Ghin when asked which food carts in town excited her most—alongside reborn Korean spot Kim Jong Grillin'.
The cart's trademark mii gai ($7)—literally, chicken noodle—is one of only two items on the menu, and it's a brilliant mash-up of textures and flavors. The dish's sweet-and-sour-sauced egg-noodle vermicelli is topped not only with sliced chicken thigh but with crisp, fatty fried bits of chicken skin that could be a bar snack all by themselves.
This is especially true when the skins mix with fried shallots and the cart's homemade chili oil, as well as the tar-black jaew bawng garlic sauce studded with copious pepper seeds. Tack on the earthy undercurrent of ong choy leaves, and the dish brings bitter, salty, sweet, sour and spice into full concert.
The other dish on the menu, a ground-chicken lettuce wrap called laap gai ($7), is packed with sticky rice. But neither the slightly floppy lettuce nor the rice offer enough contrast to overcome the tremendously soft texture of that ground lemongrass chicken, which leaves the dish satisfying but eventually monotone, even with the pungent jaew bawng. It feels like a side to that tremendous main course—just like the lovely, sweet coconut rice ($2.50) wrapped in a banana leaf.
If Haan Ghin's mii gai hasn't made more inroads into Portland's food consciousness since opening last spring, it's partly because of the location: It's tucked away in Portland State University's South Park Blocks. And its opening and closing schedule is often geared toward student schedules; they shut down last December when the students left.
But there's no better reason to go back to school than that tasty, spicy, soft, crunchy mii gai—even if hanging out with college kids makes you feel creepy. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
Nong's Khao Man Gai
609 SE Ankeny St., Suite C, 740-2907; 411 SW College St., 971-255-3480; Southwest 10th Avenue and Alder Street, 971-255-3480; khaomangai.com. Ankeny: Lunch and dinner daily. Other locations: Lunch Monday-Friday.
[FIRST DISH IS THE CHARM] Nong's has added a Southeast walk-up to her food-cart army serving the landmark khao man gai dish (chicken and rice) that launched a million articles. You need nothing else. You have to show up before 1 pm or you don't get fried chicken skin on the side. You want fried chicken skin on the side. But no matter how many items are offered—and no matter how many times you rewatch that episode of Chopped where Nong dismantles a pig like it's a sand castle—you will find yourself returning to that one original item: tender chicken served on a bed of sticky rice with soybean sauce. It's sticky, rich, beautiful and perfect, exploding with ginger and chili and garlic. Yum. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
6 SE 28th Ave., 360-1453, paadeepdx.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
[PARTY IN THE FRONT] PaaDee's backroom pop-up, Lang Baan, gets the press—both local and international—at this cheery little spot, and it also gets reservations all the way out to August. Sheesh. But wanna know a secret? The extra care they've been taking in the back of the house has been filtering up front, including a som-o appetizer with betel leaves, in a place that was already the best casual Thai restaurant in town. For proof, try the plaa saba yang se-ew, grilled mackerel in garlic-mirin-scallop sauce that is as tender as a young girl's dreams of romance, but at least twice as deep. A fried whole trout is $16 and worth it, with sweet apple livening up the fish sauce, and the khao soi ($12) comes with bone-in chicken that leaches its marrowed richness into the broth. PaaDee is a treasure. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
Pad Thai Kitchen
2309 SE Belmont St., 232-8766. Lunch and dinner daily.
[DOUBLE-WINDSOR THAI] An unchanging fan favorite of generic name and irreplaceable service that seems as much a permanent fixture as the Hawthorne Bridge, Pad Thai Kitchen keeps things simple with dependably excellent renditions of classic American Thai fare. The unassuming space is always half-full of area couples faithfully reordering the pad khee mao ($9.50)—drunken noodles attaining a perfectly chewable density that never strays toward heaviness—with sides of peanut sauce ($2) so rich and oil-free they could double as dessert. Newcomers should sample the title dish or the justifiably renowned pumpkin curry ($9.50), whose sweetened and deceptively spicy creamed broth accentuates the savory tang of grilled pork or chicken chunks. Longtime regulars otherwise content with their old standbys should brave the fragrant zest of Rock and Rolls ($6.50), a lemongrass chicken appetizer. JAY HORTON.
Samui Thai Kitchen
3616 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 231-9898, samuithaikitchen.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
[A MOUTHFUL OF SOUTH] A passable plate of pad thai could easily be found at any number of the myriad Portland Thai restaurants and food carts (Yelp helpfully recommends 243). But the reason to go to Samui is for the southern Thai specialties that lean heavily on the spicy end of the spectrum. Rich, coconut-based curries like the Koong Chu Chee with marinated prawns and crisp steamed veggies ($15) begin creamy and sweet before blossoming into a heat that no amount of Thai iced tea can fully extinguish. If you're feeling aromatically adventurous, try the Pad Sator ($13) made with stir-fried petai beans (aka stink beans). And for dessert, nothing says authentic like a deep-fried Snickers bar ($7), because phuk it. PENELOPE BASS.
3384 SE Division St., 236-3573, pokpoksenyai.com. Lunch and dinner daily, breakfast weekends.
[ROADSIDE THAI] Andy Ricker's Sen Yai is a pale blue Kuaytiaw roadhouse of unabashed kitsch and unexpected décor, from cookbook pictures to fake flowers. Get at least one noodle dish both for flavor and filler; the standby is the Kuaytiaw Reua "boat noodle" bowl with three different kinds of meat and a boatload of herbs. But Ricker's phat sii ew ($11) also has a surprising delicacy that makes it a lovely counterpoint in a menu studded with bolder flavors. Beyond that, play around. The dragon egg ($7) is basically a Thai Scotch egg, while the khao phat naem rice dish mixes sour pork sausage with tomato and fish sauce for an almost bewilderingly dense flavor. Pro tip? At breakfast, a Thai-chili bloody mary ($9.50) is on offer to set off the sweet-savory mildness of Jok ($8), a Thai porridge dish that reads a bit like cream of rice. It's probably the smartest Sunday-morning breakfast decision in town. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
601 SE Morrison St., 234-4102. Lunch and dinner daily, late night Friday-Saturday.
[NEXT-TIER THAI] This retro-nostalgic facsimile of a Thai bodega run by PaaDee/Lang Baan chef Earl Ninsom's brother—which is also a working Thai bodega, with soaps and produce and clay cooking pots on offer—serves possibly the best pad Thai in town for $10, with preserved shrimp, garlic chive and a light-hearted brightness foreign to a Portland far too accustomed to a sort of dull peanut sludge. But it's their northern specials, especially the clay-potted gaeng om ($12)—a pot filled with pork that cooks its flavor into the bracingly peppery broth as you eat—and the khao soi, which boasts tenderized, stewy chicken legs and the sharp bite of mustard greens that keep me coming back, again and again, for my fix, my brow sweating heavily from both steam and hot, hot chili. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.