Nong's Khao Man Gai
Multiple locations, including 609 SE Ankeny St., Suite C, 740-2907, khaomangai.com.
Nong Poonsukwattana knew Portland didn't need another typical Thai restaurant. That was obvious when she arrived on the heels of her now-ex-husband, who attended Portland State.
After a year working at Pok Pok, she got an idea. She bought a food cart just ahead of full-blown cartmania and started working on making the perfect chicken and rice.
The eponymous dish at Nong's is still the main offering, six years and several offshoots later. You need nothing else: tender chicken served on a bed of rice with soybean sauce and a little palate-cleansing soup. It's sticky, rich, beautiful and perfect, exploding with ginger and chili and garlic. It is, Poonsukwattana says, exactly what she would serve to her friends or family.
As told by Poonsukwattana…
"I came to America with the dream that I would have a better life. With the cart, I started everything from scratch. The idea was just to create something for myself, a future for myself, with no man, just one woman. I want to make a living making things with my hands that I'm proud of.
What I learned from working at Pok Pok is that there are 500 Thai restaurants in Portland and I had to make something different. Where I'm coming from, you can do just one thing—a whole family makes one thing very well and passes the knowledge to the next generation. At the market, there would be like 500 other vendors who would compete, so you would have to be good.
I just make chicken and rice like it's supposed to be, and that's what I know. There are four parts of the dish: rice, chicken, sauce and soup. The hardest part of the dish is rice. If you try to train 10 people to make rice, there will be only one person who can make it.
With each ingredient, I got the best. With soy sauce, it's like tequila—you can buy $15 tequila or you can buy $70 tequila. I chose the one that's the best. In this process, everything came down to a choice I'd make, and I wanted to pick the best one.
When I started, it was hard. When I opened one day, I worked all day and only made $40. I was crying. I asked myself if I was happy. And the answer was yes, I was proud of what I made."
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