Chicken and Guns
Best for: Flame-licked chicken skin and starchy shooters.
The woodpile lining the front of Chicken and Guns, along with the nearly 5-foot-tall stack of hulking bags of charcoal, are the first sign that most of the cooking here is done in the open air. But that's not the only thing that helps set this ruggedly handsome truck apart in a city teeming with top-notch cuisine from kitchens on wheels. Chicken and Guns continues to crank out some of our favorite cooked birds in town—and that includes traditional brick-and-mortar contenders. Take a seat under the corrugated metal awning at the dark wood counter lit by hanging Edison bulbs—it's what a modern dude ranch chuckwagon might look like—or spread out at one of Cartopia's wide picnic tables and dig into a half-hen ($16) with your fingers. Flame-licked skin is infused with flavors from the oak and mesquite fuel, which is about as close as you can get to tasting the aromatic smoke of a fall leaf burn. The exterior of the bird is also enhanced by a wet and dry rub of vinegar, oil, garlic and spices. Orders still include potatoes (the "guns" in the cart's name), baked and twice fried, making the starchy shooters more substantial than tots but just as crunchy. When you inevitably reach the bottom of your paper-lined basket, don't toss the shards of crispy skin with the bones. Dip those treats in any remaining sauce: a good, vinegar-heavy chimichurri and a great Peruvian-inspired aji that's like a spicier Green Goddess and just as creamy. ANDI PREWITT.
Best for: Fried chicken, roti and curry dipping sauce so rich and addicting you won't want to share.
Prior to Hat Yai, sandwiches and hyped-up brunch were the best a counter-service spot in Portland could do. Then came Earl Nimson, owner of PaaDee and its Thai supper club spin-off, Langbaan, who shattered the ceiling of casual restaurant achievement by focusing on the food of Hat Yai. The city in Southern Thailand near the border of Malaysia is renowned for its fried chicken and curry sold by vendors in open-air markets. It's now famous here, too, and rightfully so. With a deep red hue and rich blend of sweet and spicy flavors like cinnamon, red chile and cumin, the house curry ($4.50) is the star of the show—outstanding as both a dipping sauce for the fluffy roti ($3.50) and the crispy, lightly sugared fried chicken ($7-$25, $12-$18 as a curry and roti set). Heat is essential to cut all the sweetness, so add to your order a plate of Southern Thai ground pork ($13), which balances mouth-numbing spice with the cooling herbaceous accents of turmeric, lemongrass and lime. PETE COTTELL.
Kee’s #Loaded Kitchen
Best for: A generous serving of lemon pepper "gold dust" fried chicken that'll feed you for days.
3625 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 503-516-2078. Noon-5 pm Thursday-Saturday, 1-5 pm Sunday. Closes early when sold out. $-$$.
A "plate" at Kee's #Loaded Kitchen—WW's 2018 Cart of the Year—is a severe misnomer. Are you hungry? For $20 to $40, depending on what's being served, you get enough food for two lunches, plus the better part of dinner. What Kiauna "Kee" Nelson dishes out four times a week is essentially a homestyle tasting menu. On the day I visited, that included chicken strips fresh from the fryer and seasoned with lemon pepper "gold dust," and a massive slab of cheesy, beefy, gooey lasagna. And there was still more: mesclun salad with hot sauce dressing, banana pudding with banana cake at the bottom, fresh-baked bread, and limeade. Check Facebook or Instagram (@keesloadedkitchen) to see what's cooking in advance. Seeing the food strain against its clamshell container is a true "holy shit" moment. And Kee's personality is as generous as her food. She teases one regular for not ordering a full plate and mock-shames another into adding salad. "I want to put a couple more strips in here," she said before handing me my container. That made it a dozen, and the lasagna fed three people. #Loaded, indeed. JASON COHEN.
Best for: Weeknight wings and inventive Thai cocktails.
Multiple locations, visit pokpokrestaurants.com for telephone numbers and hours. $$.
Pok Pok's Vietnamese fish sauce wings ($16.75) are the stuff of legend. The sticky morsels are juicy and sweet with an optional smoky chile paste zest and a subtle crunch. You will be required to roll up your sleeves to suck every last bit of chicken off the bone. Order the spicy version for an extra kick of heat and flavor, and don't neglect the pickled vegetables that come on the side. When it's on the menu, throw in an order of tom yam kung naam khon soup, which is an ultra-comforting bowl of hot, creamy broth, prawns, massive King Oyster mushrooms, and other Thai veggies. And don't overlook Pok Pok's cocktails, which are made with an array of housemade drinking vinegars—like the Lord Bergamot ($13), made with tea-infused vodka, and the Hunny ($13), a sour, sweet and grapefruit-tart concoction. ELISE HERRON.
Reel M Inn
Best for: Broasted chicken—crisp on the outside, moist on the inside—and giant jojos.
2430 SE Division St., 503-231-3880. 10 am-2:30 am daily. $.
Bulldoze the Oregon Theater, demolish every other restaurant and bar on Southeast Division, but take away Reel M Inn and, goddamn it, we riot. In a part of town gone numb to development, the fried chicken at this tiny, graffiti-stained, incongruously nautical-themed dive is worth fighting for, at least until someone figures out the mad alchemy that's allowed this place, of all places, to broast the finest birds in the city. It's not like there's an undercover Michelin-star chef in the kitchen, or any kitchen at all—just a deep fryer jammed into a corner behind the bar and manned by whomever happens to be on can-cracking duty. No matter how long you watch that bubbling vat of oil, the secrets never quite reveal themselves. The menu provides some tidbits—the chicken is hand-breaded daily and never sees the inside of a freezer—but it still doesn't explain how Reel M Inn achieves that perfect crispiness-to-succulence ratio each and every time, or how it can keep selling a meal containing a breast, thigh, leg, wing and four big-ass jojos for $11.50. MATTHEW SINGER.
Best for: That peanut brittle chicken and several rounds of fancy drinks.
This spot from Seattle chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi (Joule, Revel) shares its building with the outdoor gear store Evo, but inside, it's a party, with Korean-inspired drinking food (from chef de cuisine Diane Lam) in a sleek space with weekend DJs and a decorative wall of boomboxes. While you expect the booze to keep flowing at any rager—here I prefer the Revelry Old Fashioned ($11), with roasted corn-infused bourbon, or soju (essentially low-alcohol Korean vodka) in flavors like pineapple chile and fortune cookie ($4)—but you need provisions to keep the night going. Dinner options include noodles, rice bowls and a kimchi pancake with pork belly and bean sprout ($13). But most of all, you're here for the fried chicken tossed with peanut brittle ($14): an 8-ounce portion (six to eight pieces) of spicy-sweet, crispy-caramelized boneless thigh that is like high-end popcorn chicken (or perhaps, given the peanut brittle, Cracker Jack chicken). It's also available at happy hour in both slider ($7) and small-plate form ($11), but the stuff is so addictive you'll probably want a double order. JASON COHEN.
Best for: Church picnic fried chicken that'll transport you south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Whatever mouthwatering mental imagery Southern food may conjure for you, Maya Lovelace has always sought to exceed those expectations. Anyone who has paid a visit to her beloved pop-up Mae will instantly picture fried chicken—visions she's polished to a shine with the rendered fat famously used to coat the poultry. Those yard birds, along with other dishes served at the itinerant series of suppers, now have a permanent home at Yonder. Now before you start to fret that Lovelace has gone and tinkered with the chicken, take a deep, calming breath and have a seat…because she has tinkered with the chicken. All that means is you now have a difficult decision to make when ordering. In addition to the various cuts ($8-$30) buttermilk brined and varnished in three fats before being powdered in a spice blend, they now also come dipped in a vinegar-based, North Carolina-style mixture and get the Nashville hot take on finishing chicken parts. I found myself returning again and again to the classic. The deep brown crust that encases the flesh is, after all, what made all Portlanders in the fried chicken game re-evaluate their technique, and it's one of the rare times I tear into food and it doesn't even dawn on me how boorish I must look until every morsel is gone. ANDI PREWITT.