Nong’s Khao Man Gai Puts Down Roots
Karen Brooks explores coconut soft serve and “chicken squeezing” at the Thai wonder’s new brick and mortar.
“Nong’s Khao Man Gai. Chicken and rice. That’s all we do.” Yes, Nong’s famed food cart has made a single Thai dish a mantra and a life’s mission.
But the tag line, which opens the website for Nong Poonsukwattana’s budding empire of dreams, doesn’t begin to capture what this dynamic and gutsy entrepreneur does for Portland: Nong lets us watch one woman reach for the stars, one perfect grain of rice, one slice of poached chicken, one hellaciously good drop of homemade Thai chile sauce at a time.
From her pioneering Nong’s Khao Man Gai cart at SW 10th and Alder to her teeny new brick-and-mortar at 609 SE Ankeny, Nong never rests, never stops pushing, never stops dreaming of a better life. In the process, we’ve all stood a little taller.
The new Nong’s Khao Man Gai runs daily, 11 am to 9 pm, and Nong herself can barely keep up with the crowds. Thai chicken and rice is still front-and-center, but now it arrives in a neat pile on a plate rather than wrapped, old school, in white butcher paper. The formula hasn’t changed, but somehow it tastes less nuanced, less transporting—or maybe I just miss the ritual of unfolding a bundle of magic on the street. The menu extends to hunks of cola-braised hog, pickled mustard greens, and a ramen egg heaped around jasmine rice. It's a filling, homey meal that looks like a mirage for the starving.
But what really grabs me at Nong’s restaurant is the look and feel, somewhere between Thailand’s Chinatown and a Brooklyn art-school project. Blondie’s old-school New Wave rocks the sound system, but the sound you’re likely to remember is the plaintiff wail of yellow rubber duck hanging by the cafeteria-style ordering counter. Every kid in the place is fixated on this object, and when they squeeze it (which happens every five seconds) it releases a sound you’re not likely to forget, like a chicken’s last gasp before plunging into the pot. Nong’s may be the only place on the planet in need of chicken squeezing hours.
The sweetest find is Nong’s new “KMG Ice Cream,” drifts of coconut soft serve fattened with half-and-half and quietly underlined by lemongrass, which adds a subtle depth and nuance. You can get it by the cup for $3, but best is the chilled, musky screaming orange Thai tea float, capped with that luxurious coconut ice cream.
Nong’s Khao Man Gai
609 SE Ankeny
7 days a week, 11 am–9 pm