Maybe it's no surprise that the best fried chicken in Portland is inspired by the South. But at North Killingsworth Street's fast-casual Hat Yai, in a neighborhood that's suddenly the fastest-growing restaurant district in town, the inspiration is the south of Thailand.

That crispy-skinned, tender Hat Yai fried chicken, named after the food-rich metropolis in Thailand's southern tip near Malaysia, is served with a sweet chili sauce that adds just enough juicy spice to complement the floral notes of the coriander without overpowering it. It's like Tennessee heat gone subtle and aromatic—more gain than pain.

Not only was Hat Yai recognized as one of the top new restaurants in last year's guide, it's the second restaurant in our top 10 helmed by chef Earl Ninsom (see Langbaan, our number two, here). But each restaurant he's made, from PaaDee to Langbaan to Hat Yai, is a wholly separate production, bolstered here by the cocktail skills of partner Alan Akwai.

In the spring and summer, get the tamarind whiskey smash accented with mint and lemon; in the colder months, go for the comfort of the coconut mango horchata.

You'll be amazed by the whirl of activity coming from behind the counter at the wildly popular restaurant, which runs lines out the door every evening, but even more impressed at the depth and balance of flavors in the dishes that emerge from the compact, bustling kitchen. In a tiny, wood-slatted hall of a space with plastic, blue-checked tablecloths, Hat Yai shames full-service restaurants with three times the staff.

(Thomas Teal)
(Thomas Teal)

Start with the steak or chicken "Golae-style" skewers, marinated in coconut milk and chili paste, for a succulent morsel that's perfect for sharing…or not. The turmeric curry, described on the menu as "very spicy," delivers hard on that promise, but the slow, buttery burn of the curry is punctuated with pungent, salty mussels. The bitter betel leaf serves as a perfect conduit for the curry, drawing it in and absorbing its flavors while keeping the dish in proper proportion. That's the wonder at Hat Yai—that a restaurant could pack in so much flavor, yet retain such a gentle balance.

Hat Yai, 1605 NE Killingsworth St., 503-764-9701, 11:30 am-9 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 am-10 pm Saturday. $.

Pro tip: For two, if you can handle the spice, get a half-chicken ($12), the turmeric curry ($14) and the blazingly spicy ferment of the southern Thai ground pork ($12). Augment with roti ($3).