Food Cart Capitol; Nong’s Khao Man Gai

I don’t know how I’ve gone without telling you about Nong’s khao man gai. I’m honestly in awe that I haven’t even mentioned it; I’ve been preoccupied raving in person to every face I encounter. That and the fact that I’m lazy and have yet to transfer the photos from my camera to my laptop.

So, I’ll call this my last blog post on Portland, and dedicate it to my last meal there. It was towards the last days of my trip. I was walking back from Downtown to the hotel, alone, hungry, and my feet nearing exhaustion in my Toms. I saw a sign quoting Nong’s Khao Man Gai is open, with long-necked chickens in three blocks at the top, and an arrow to the left. The logo clicked familiar- a food cart in one of the downtown pods closed earlier than closing hours. Later, I’d learn that yes, because after the lunch rush, they easily run out of food, and go home early.

The signs took me to a block down and around the corner from where I was staying, to a little shop, with food to go, and a few tables and chairs to eat in. The wall was covered with reviews, newspaper clippings, and photographs, including Amanda Freitag standing outside the downtown cart. For those who don’t watch the Food Network as religiously as I do, Amanda Freitag is a regular judge on Chopped. If you’re thinking you have no idea what I just said, well, she’s a big deal.

Before you go to think my trip was merely a culinary one and not educational at all, I will share with you a little history lesson I learned that day myself. Nong came to the 9-10 or so years ago. She worked her way up from kitchens to her own cart, which is serving up just one thing, chicken and rice. If there’s just one thing on the menu, it has to be damn good.

The to-go shop, though, goes beyond their standard and large sized chicken and rice, giving customers a vegetarian and pork option. I’m neither a vegetarian, nor a fan of pork unless dried, smoked, cured into its bacon, proscuitto,… form. I ordered the khao man gai. Chicken and rice. You’re given an option of white meat, dark meat, or mixed. White meat.

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I carried my paper bagged lunch to the hotel, and luckily, it’s bottom didn’t steam off until I was inside my room, propping it on the table. In front of me, I had a plastic tub with its lid sealed shut, a small cup of sauce, and a parcel, wrapped in waxed paper and secured with a rubber band. At first, I thought she must have forgotten to put my chicken and rice in there, or she misunderstood my order. But then, I unwrapped it, slowly and carefully, and there it was, my chicken and rice, and another little cup of sauce.

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It appeared bland, white chicken atop white rice, decorated with a few sprigs of cilantro and thin cuts of cucumber. I took a fork and it was tasty. The chicken was moist and flavorful, and I could bet my left hand that rice was cooked in the same liquid the chicken had bathed in. I opened up my tub of soup, and found it to be rather a broth, but delicious and comforting on another glum Portland afternoon. I went back to the chicken, and poured one of the sauces over it, and suddenly good became magical.

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They bottle that sauce, and with good reason. It should be found in supermarket aisles right next to the Kikkoman for all I know.

It was a perfect meal for a cold, rainy afternoon; homey and comforting, simple and delectable, with a soy ginger sauce that took it to the next level. Seven dollars had never made me so full. And I don’t know what went into the making of it, but it felt decently healthy. As soon as I mouthed the last grain, I thought to myself, we can’t leave Portland without the guinea pig trying this.

Khao man gai did not end up being the guinea pig’s favorite of the food carts. I think his heart leaned towards the wood-fire pizzas that came straight out of a legit wood-burning oven in a cart called Pyros. Yes, a real oven inside a food cart. I can’t imagine the temperature highs in there.

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But, I can’t blame him. The guinea pig I mean. For not putting Nong’s on his top list. It was a rare sunny day in Portland, and we set out to have lunch at their downtown cart, not the airconditioned to-go shop, hitting the busy rush and the harsh noon sun. I’ll admit, the chicken wasn’t as tender, and the hot tub of broth wasn’t as comforting when your back is exposed to UV rays and sweat is trickling down your face. This is why cloudy with a chance of rain suits Portland best.

When waiting in line at the cart, I spotted Miss Nong herself, black cap, black top, hair dyed bleach and half tattoo sleeves- blending in perfectly with the inked Portland scene. She was stopping by I guess, to check on things, because it seems now she’s doing too well to run the joint herself. She has a quirky white guy to do it for her.

The guinea pig and I will just have to go back sometime, and try Nong’s once again, but on a cloudy day, with sprinkles of rain and breezes of cool. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a day like that in Portland.

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Last night I fell asleep on the living room sofa, before ever getting into bed or showering the perfume of smoke and meat off my body. While April nears its end, traces of Spring are only sparsely being seen in Hanover still. Warmer temperatures will stop by, but seem too shy to stay. So yesterday, we were content with sixty-so-degrees of Fahrenheit, and made our way across the river to Norwich for a barbecue, with the guinea pig’s office mates and their families or +1s. The wind was trapped inside the shade of the gazebo that shelters the picnic tables from  the sun, where we sat to exchange conversation. It was a diverse bunch of picnickers,  from Pakistan, India, Vietnam, and Iran and Italy, making for a diverse outdoor meal: Vietnamese sweet barbecued drumsticks and wings, charred on the grill until their skin was crispy and their insides sensational and moist, leaving your fingers deliciously sticky enough to lick them clean, and an Indian wheat pudding with raisins for dessert, that was creamy and gritty simultaneously in each spoon.

My contribution is not one hard to guess. Yes, kabob of course, jujeh kabob, pieces of marinated chicken skewered and cooked over fire. Originally and in Iran, younger chicken are chosen, sacrificing their futures for a more delicate bite, hence the title “jujeh”, meaning chick. The night before, the guinea pig was given the more unpleasant task of skinning and de-boning chicken breasts before knifing them down into pieces while I prepared the marinade in the bottom of a bowl. He continued with the dirty work, moving on to slicing onions, and I undertook the more elegant step of the process, spooning out thick strained yogurt into my red glazed ceramic bowl. I boiled water, and when the kettle started to whistle, I switched it off and poured it over a generous pinch of pestled saffron. Everybody knows that saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, making it the most luxurious of seasonings, but not everybody utilizes it correctly, thus not getting its full potential. Throwing a saffron sprig straight into your pot of what is to become risotto Milanese is an example of incorrect utilization, at least in the eyes of the Persian. A Persian will take the time to pestle his/her saffron with a small chunk of broken off sugar cone, gently and patiently, then storing the powder in an airtight container, and every time, seeping a pinch or so in some hot water, letting it brew before adding it to rice or stew. The saffron flower blooms to expose its stigma, three orange strands of saffron that will add aroma and color to cuisine and beyond, but, use it sparingly; when I said generous, I meant a generously sparing helping– pinches, never a half-cup of the powder, as saffron can be poisonous if consumed in a large quantity. In fact, on the fields outside of Mashhad in Iran, where saffron is cultivated and cropped, the workers wear masks, and are the highest paid amongst the working-class. But back to my kitchen, I added the orange liquid of brewed saffron resting at the bottom of a glass to the yogurt, turmeric, salt and pepper, and stirred to see it turn an intense shade of yellow. The guinea pig’s labor was mixed in, and never did raw chicken look and smell so good to me. We plastic wrapped the top and put it in the fridge, and called it a night.

The fire needed work, and after yesterday, I will say that computer scientists don’t have the skill or muscles one can rely on for an outdoor barbecue. They do much better inside, with numbers on a screen, exercising their forefingers at a slow but steady pace against the left button of their mouse. It’s a shame that the girls had to take matters into their own hands, briskly fanning paper plates above the lit charcoal, spreading the heat and working their arms. Hence my stench of smoke and now defined shoulders. I come from a place where making kabob is a man’s job, but alas, times have changed.

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All’s well that ends well. The kabob was a beautiful yellow outside crusted with black char, and tender and juicy and despite it being breast, not the least bit dry. And, if I may say so, I have gained some defined, and quite sexy shoulders.

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