The surge of admiration and demand for Thai food in Portland has grown steadily for more than a decade, but really picked up speed in the past five years or so. In that window, chef Earl Ninsom opened prix fixe Langbaan, where seats are spoken for an astonishing six months out, as well as the more accessible Hat Yai. The fast-casual spot is an excellent reminder that the food in Thailand is regionally diverse—there's a big world out there beyond pad thai.
Ninsom's summer trips to visit his grandmother as a child took him 500 miles south of his home in Bangkok down the thin stretch of land extending toward the Malay Peninsula. He would spend time in Hat Yai, the largest city in its province, and eat from street stalls that inspired the flavors at this Northeast Killingsworth Street counter-service joint. The humble skinny strip of a dining room echoes the simplicity of those stands, and you can watch the team work quickly but methodically in an open kitchen. There's just a hint of stateside Southern character, too, and not just because there's fried chicken. Countryfied touches extend to the rustic wood, cheery blue-and-white vinyl tablecloths and drinks served in Mason jars.
Start with chunks of skirt steak ($5) the size of ice cubes served skewered. Marinated in coconut milk and chili paste, the tropical notes lead with heat sneaking up on the back end, expanding and filling your mouth with each chewy bite—though there's cooling relief found in a garnish of cucumbers, sweet pepper and cilantro. The muu hong ($13) is a big bowl of fatty, creamy indulgence—melty morsels of pork belly peek out from under a fried egg with crispy, curled edges. When you break the yolk, a bed of jasmine rice is ready at the bottom to soak up the sunny liquid. And then there's that fried chicken. Order the crispy-skin leg quarter with tomato soup-colored curry and roti, a buttery fry bread that's a little puffier than a tortilla. It's an extremely affordable, transportive meal to Ninsom's summers in the southern metropolis of Hat Yai.
Pro tip: The kitchen may look small, but it can turn out big flavors in large quantities. Consider swapping out the normal, dull wings at your next Super Bowl party for some Hat Yai chicken (starting at $115 for 20 people).