This food cart has been getting a lot of press lately and is now one of the most popular food carts in Portland. They’ve been written up in Bon Appetit, Saveur, and many others, all of them praising Nong’s Khao Man Gai for serving exceptional chicken rice. I took it upon myself to try Nong’s Khao Man Gai to see for myself how good it really is. But before I jump into my review, we should have some background on the food Nong’s Khao Man Gai serves.
Khao Man Gai is the Thai version of chicken rice, a very popular dish in Southeast Asia. Chicken rice was originally from the Hainan province of southern China, but it quickly spread throughout the surrounding area. Chicken rice is about as simple as it sounds. Whole chickens are poached in water that is flavored with chilies, ginger, and other spices that widely vary. The resulting stock is then used to cook the rice giving the rice an oily finish with a light chicken flavor. Chicken rice is typically served with a side of sauce. In Thailand, the sauce is a combination of fermented soy beans, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, chilies, and a little rice wine vinegar. It is also served with some very thin stock as a soup on the side. A few sliced cucumbers and sprigs of cilantro are added on the side as well. This is a working man’s dish, a very popular street food throughout Southeast Asia. People take their chicken rice seriously.
So how did Nong’s Khao Man Gai stack up? Very well. I ordered the large size, which comes with more of everything, including a few poached and chopped chicken livers. The chicken was amazing; perfectly soft and moist, not overcooked at all. It was subtly seasoned, complementing the chicken flavor, not detracting from it. That was the most chickeny chicken I have had in a long time.* The livers were perfectly cooked, nice and soft, providing just a bit of richness to the party. I was especially impressed with the rice, specifically how perfectly cooked it was. No, it wasn’t fluffy, but it was soft and oily, the perfect compliment to the chicken. It took on a light chicken flavor, the spices being more pronounced in the rice. There was a good balance of the rice sticking together and separating into individual pieces. This is hard to achieve. I was grateful for the cucumbers and cilantro on the side to add some freshness and lightness, not to say that the rest of the dish was heavy or in need of freshness. There were also quite a few drinks to choose from, including mango juice, lychee juice, and Vietnamese coffee. I had the lychee juice, which tasted as if they just squeezed a lychee into a can. Very fruity and syrupy, no trace of a sugar taste or anything artificial.
To set the record straight, I love meat. Bacon, beef, fish, it’s all good. For me though, the King of meats is poultry. To have a really good chicken is something special. It’s one of the most versitile, delicious types of meat out there. So when people treat it poorly (overcook it, under season it, do too much to it, beat it with a mallet, discard the skin) I get mad. There are way too many people out there who go through life happily believing ”Chicken is boring.” They have not experienced the true goodness of chicken. So when I say something is really chickeny, that it is the essence of chicken, that it allows the chicken to reach its full potential, I am not joking around. Nong’s Khao Man Gai does all this.
What really got me: all the ingredients were very fresh and tasted like they should. The meal tasted clean, which I know is a weird way to describe something, but hear me out: it felt so right to eat that chicken rice. You know how sometimes there are meals that you just feel guilty eating, that hang in your gut for an eternity? I love that shit, the fat and the guilt. But what’s even better is when I have an amazing meal that I don’t feel guilty about. All my body could say as I was eating was “MORE”. This is good street food at its finest.
Okay, slow down a second. I know it sounds like I’m just jumping on the bandwagon and praising Nong’s Khao Man Gai like everyone else. Well, that’s true: Nong’s Khao Man Gai deserves praise, but a different kind of praise. It’s been getting the treatment that food writers give to superior restaurants. We’ve been saying how much better it is than all the other food carts, how this is really amazing chicken rice that deserves a place in heaven. This is all true, but we need some perspective on the matter. This is a food cart. They make street food, and lots of it, for fairly cheap. Its unfortunate that our expectations for food carts are so low that Nong’s Khao Man Gai is getting so much praise. Nong’s Khao Man Gai should not be an exception, it should set the standard. Street food should all be like this: people who specialize in one area of cuisine, doing cheap, fast eats that are really good. I am declaring here that this should be the new expectation. Nong’s Khao Man Gai certainly meets that expectation. It exemplifies it. But there are plenty of other awesome food carts that are doing the same thing and not getting press, like Adam’s King of Shawarma on SW 3rd right near Voodoo donuts. That guy slings some amazing shawarma. Yet where are his Bon Appetit articles? Where are his awards? Food carts should get praise, but I think its fundamentally wrong to subject them to the same ranking that we do with restaurants.
Nong’s Khao Man Gai is a great food cart. They do chicken rice really well. I think the bar is set, and that Nong’s Khao Man Gai gives us a very concrete foundation on which to build our views of other food carts. It’s just a food cart doing what any good food cart should do. That being said, I will definitely be making more trips back to Nong’s Khao Man Gai for the amazing chicken rice.
I’m usually not that big on fundraisers, but when I saw that there was a fundraiser with Iraqi food, I stopped reading and hopped on Google maps to see where I needed to go. If I had read a little bit more, I would realize that it was all the way in North Portland, in the not so nice area. ”Damn,” I thought, “how am I going to get up there?” Fortunately, there’s this wonderful thing called public transportation that actually works in Portland.
Being the respectable and thorough journalist that I am, I did a bit of last minute research on my phone just before I got to the event. I found out that it was hosted by Better Life USA, a non-profit organization based in Portland that does work with Middle Eastern and African immigrants to help them acclimatize to living in America. They have a sister organization in Egypt that does, more or less, the same thing. I stalled outside the door for a few minutes to look up some Arabic phrases, should I need them, as well as to better acquaint myself with what sort of food I would be eating. None of the articles I found were much help in deciphering what made Iraqi food any different from any other Middle Eastern food, and it was cold outside, so I bravely decided to walk in without knowing anything about the food I was about to eat. Fortunately, it’s somewhat excusable for a journalist to not know anything and have to ask other people; it’s kindof the entire point of journalism.
After sitting down at a table, I was immediately struck by the diversity of the people surrounding me. There were young college aged kids, some older, more frumpy adults, some aging hippies, a few business men, and even some little kids. This was a veritable melting pot of every walk of life from Portland culture. With an admission price of only $10 and a promise of Iraqi food, I’m surprised more people didn’t show up, but they still had a staggering 160 people. I sized up the situation and found the most promising people to interview: Lisa Kelly, the executive director of Better Life USA, and Saad al Ameri, a very nice Iraqi chef who gave me more chicken biriani than he was giving to everyone else. But before my interviews, I wanted to be thorough and have something to eat.
The food was late arriving, and the line was amazingly long. As with most other catered fundraisers, it was buffet style, and it wasn’t the best organized. I thought, “I might as well wait for the line to die down and read the pamphlets about Better Life USA that were so generously laid out on the tables for the people who, like me, came with only a vague idea of what was being accomplished.” This was quite naive of me, as the line didn’t die down. At least I was more informed.
Finally, I made it through the line and sat down with my set of plastic cutlery and my paper plate heaped with everything I could get my hands on. I will just give a very quick rundown of my dinner. There were no falafels left, but there was a bit of tatziki sauce, which was quite watery and bland, with almost no garlic and none of the usual sour yogurt taste I’m used to. The Chicken Biriani was a wonderful mix of aromatic spices with rice, chicken, and sweet pieces of fruit. This was something completely different, and I loved it. The eggplant stew was hearty and filling, holding all of its integrity with powerful flavors. The kebab was alright: nice and lamby, but too cold to taste if there was spice of not. The grilled chicken was equally disappointing, being quite dry and having the spice just sitting in clumps on top of it. The real low point was the boring white bean stew with rice. It was bland and cold, and that’s about all there was to it. I was uplifted by the kibi though, being a very dark, meaty version of the dish with deep spices and a very satisfying texture. The beet salad was a bit of a revelation in terms of how fresh and delicious vegetables can be. It was all served with tough Pita, which was a bit disappointing as well. But fortunately, the baklava was some of the best I’ve ever had, and that’s saying a lot. I’ve been to Turkey and had some really amazing baklava, but this baklava was divine. It had just the right amount of filling, a very pleasing flaky outside, and it was drizzled with a perfect mixture of fresh honey and rose water. I would do so many things for just one more piece of that baklava.
After eating, I was interested in finding out what it was that made Iraqi food different, so I talked to Saad al Ameri, the man who seemed to favor me in the buffet line. He didn’t speak much English, so we found a translator. I found out that he was a former officer in the Iraqi military who went into the restaurant business with a few of his friends in 2003. He was happy to tell me all about Iraqi food. ”The difference is in the spices; that is what makes Iraqi food special,” he told me. Saad explained that Iraq has a unique geography that allows for extensive trade with India and the orient, and that most of the spices used in Iraqi food are more Indian in origin than in other Middle Eastern cuisine, such as cardamom, cloves, tamarind, and turmeric. Some methods of cooking are also more Indian in nature. Iraq also is able to offer its people more diversity in ingredients than other Middle Eastern countries, being on the Persian gulf and having plenty of fertile land from the cradle of the Tigris and Euphrates. There’s more fish in Iraqi cuisine than in other Middle Eastern cuisines, for example. But Iraq is quite similar to other Middle Eastern countries in that the people are very proud of their food. Their culture is immersed in their food, as one would expect, being one of the oldest cultures on the earth. Saad was enlightening to talk to, and even though he was speaking in Arabic, I could tell that he was excited about Iraqi food.
Lisa shed some light on their operation itself: Better Life USA is simply organizing a few food carts to be owned by the Iraqis. Originally, Better Life USA would be owning the food carts and doing all of the logistics, but they decided later in the process that having the Iraqis own the food carts would be a better option. ”Vocational dignity helps a successful transition,” Lisa said. ”There’s something in the simple ownership of the cart that makes for a good transition.” Better Life USA is focused on making sure the Iraqi refugees are transitioned well for the long run, and they have a commitment to their goal that I have not seen in other organizations like Better Life USA. Their idea is to integrate the Iraqi refugees while making them a vital part of society. Having them own food carts seems like a wonderful way to do this.
Lisa is definitely passionate about her job, and it comes through. When I told her she gave very good quotes, she was surprised and told me that she’s never been much of an eloquent person. I’ve been thinking about what she said for about a week now. Eloquence, quite frankly, is overrated; someone who is eloquent about everything gets boring. Lisa is passionate, and its her passion that comes through and makes her more able to articulate what she wants to say; she really cares about it. The same can be said of Saad, the man who I interviewed earlier. Just the look on his face expressed a deep care for his work and his people.
This event has been a real eye opener for me. I learned about Iraqi cuisine and got to eat some wonderful food, yes, but what really did it was seeing the passion and compassion with which everyone operated. I was surrounded by people who cared about food and each other, and they were truly devoted to that. It’s something that hasn’t happened to me very often, and I doubt it will ever hit quite like it did again. I realized how powerful food was that night, to bring people together over a meal. Saad told me an Arabic proverb: if two people cook from the same recipe, they will never cook the same exact dish because of the passion of the chef. I really got a feeling of that during the fundraiser. Lisa put it expertly: “By welcoming the cuisine of people, we are welcoming the people themselves.” I couldn’t agree more. That night, I really loved my job.
Although I was fed at the fundraiser, I was only able to get a little bit of food before they started to run out. As I walked back to the bus stop in the rain, I couldn’t help but stop at a shawarma food cart for a late night fix of lamb shawarma. After that first bite of utter bliss, I pondered what I had been through and how heart warming my night had been. Treasure this moment readers, for this is one of the few times I will leave my cynicism aside and pull my head out of my ass. I knew at that moment that I loved the food world, that it is where I belong. The experience of sharing food is something I will always find exhilarating, and especially when it is done amongst people who really care about the food and each other. Food is, in a way, an expression of love and acceptance towards each other. The simple act of sharing food with others is one that I will never grow bored of.