Nong’s Khao Man Gai
SW 10th and Alder Street
In a way, it was doomed to happen. Given my (somewhat unfair?) comparison of street food from outside North American to the ones in North America, it was almost certain that I had to visit an Asian one for comparison sake. And that brought the eternal question of… Which one(s)? I mean, given that the US can be as multi-cultural as Canada and, in part, I didn’t want to disappoint, I kept looking and looking around. While searching in other sites (Urbanspoon included), all of them seemd to point to two locations: Koi Fusion, which served Tex-Mex dishes with a Korean twish (take that Roaming Dragon, you are NOT the first! ) and Nong’s Khao Man Gai, a cart that sells one and only one dish. While I am sure a lot of you would think that Koi Fusion would have been a better choice (due to a direct comparison with Roaming Dragon), the fact is that I wanted instead showcase what street food ought to be. And, in that case, Nong’s Khao Man Gai was a better option.
I was quite fortunate to go there on a sunny day. The days prior to my visit were a bit gloomy (nothing wrong with that) but a sunny day provides better light conditions! Now, I am not talking about direct sunlight – for comparison purposes, check the ones I took in Mississippi Marketplace (yesterday’s post), where all the pictures of the food were take in such conditions. I am referring to those where you have some form of natural shading to diffuse the light. And, hey, it was mild, it was sunny, what better conditions to be outside for lunch!
The good part was that I arrived at around 11:45 a.m. I parked a block away and could easily see them. What I wasn’t prepared was the line that already formed. C’mon, I know that a lot of people choose to go for lunch “early” to beat the lunch rush but this was starting to get ridiculous! Of course, it might be also due to the fact that Nong’s Khao Man Gai has a really interesting set of hours: while the opening hours were set to be at 10:00 a.m. on weekdays and 12:00 on Saturday, their closing time were not set. Rather, in a true Asian street food fashion, until you run out of ingredients! I guess that added another incentive to be there early enough.
So, after I queued, I had a small wait and there was Nong herself taking orders in a heavily accented English. I will have to admit, for such a thin petite woman, she can certainly command the people inside that 8×8 cart! What was really hilarious though was what followed. At one time, she had to step away for a moment and her second was in charge of the kitchen. Well, nothing wrong with that. Except that is, they were talking in Spanish! Now, I am not being bias or stereotyped or anything. Instead, I will give them kudos. Despite all it is being said about them, you can’t deny they provide a huge percentage of the workforce, specially those that people otherwise won’t do. Now, I am not saying other race/ethnic groups do not do their part: just that the Latino community is more noticeable than the rest. And, the fact that Nong (according to the site, she is Thai) is another example that proves the case. And now, to the food!
First the drink. Now, I could have easily survived with some bottled water I have in the car (hint: always keep some bottles of water in the trunk of your car), I said “why not!”. So, here is their lychee drink. It was OK, not something I will necessarily be crazy about. At least, it wasn’t crazy sweet!
I mentioned above they serve one and only one dish. Here, their Khao Man Gai or, as Nong puts it, chicken and rice. If you have had Hainanese Chicken Rice, you pretty much have an idea of what to expect here. I apologize for not taking a picture of it in wrapped state (yup, it is not served in a container, just wrapped in butcher paper!). This is one of the few cases I was a bit too excited and opened it right away rather than take the picture first. And, while they serve only one dish, they do have some additions, like chicken liver (hey, you are cooking the whole chicken anyway. You might as well server everything!) and, on that day, fried chicken skin (alas, I didn’t noticed it until after I ordered). Also, they serve it in two sizes: a “regular” size and piset which is more of everything. I ended ordering the later.
The order came also with an order of soup on the side which is mostly a broth. It would be a bit difficult to me to describe it as I gulped it relatively fast. I know I was a glutton when I did it; however, I blame it to the fact I was partially choking myself while eating and the soup was closer than the lychee drink at that moment! (Yeah, shame on me). Still, it does follow the same lines my mom did whenever she prepared white cut chicken or Hainanese Chicken Rice: have a side soup along.
Now, back to the main dish. The cucumber I will have to say it was token, nothing wrong with that. If you choose not to eat it, well, nobody will say anything. The liver was dry as expected; however, it wasn’t extremely dry. Now, it is a bit of an acquired taste (probably “metallic” would be my best description) so, if you don’t like liver (and I am not talking foei gras), you will not like this. The good thing is that, if you don’t, just tell them and they will add more chicken!
I made mention above of Hainanese Chicken Rice and you can have an idea of what to expect, i.e. poached chicken. In my case, a direct comparison on my side can’t be avoided. For one, their dipping sauce was almost sweet (despite they mention it is spicy), which contrasts the often ginger-y, almost spicy tones of the dipping sauce used served with the Hainanese Chicken Rice. And despite I got two such sauce containers, I only used half of one – the chicken was good enough on its own. The chicken was tender and moist; however, I would have preferred the chicken a bit more rare. I know some of you might be looking at me strange right now. Rare chicken? Salmonella?! I am not saying rare in that sense, rather the chicken was cooked slightly past a certain point I prefer. I will assume it was done that way as a cover-your-ass safeguard in the case somebody does get sick. So, from that perspective, better safe than sorry approach work for me. Finally, the rice… Given that it is a staple for several Asian countries, different likes/dislikes have certainly developed depending on the region. For me, I have sort of a “depends on the dish I will be eating it with” but, in the case of Hainanese Chicken Rice, I prefer them slightly broken so that, when I put a piece of chicken dipped in the sauce on the rice, it can easily soak that sauce. Here, the rice was a bit more on the whole grain side. In fact, it still had a slight bite to it. Even then, the rice was quite fragrant and easily eaten. So, while not my top choice, it was still good.
Given the limited seats, when I got my order, I asked somebody who was seated by himself if I could join him. He certainly let me. At that point, the somewhat inquisitive nature of me kicked in and asked how he liked his. He said he really enjoyed it and the fact that he is new to the area (moved a couple of months later) but he has been coming here with certain frequency sort of tells me what I needed to know. And the long queues that was formed outside was just confirming it. To me, Nong’s Khao Man Gai does indeed showcase what I believe street food should be: One, probably two or three, dish(es) made well. Though, it wasn’t the cheapest meal (the regular is at $6, piset for $10), it is still relatively cheap given the amount of food provided and how good it was. For that reason, I will certainly come back without much hesitation (other than the ~650 Km drive from Vancouver to Portland).