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.

1-poppy_7486

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.

2-poppy_7487

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.

3-poppy_7488

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.

1-poppy_7583

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.

4-poppy_7490

Advertisements

Food Cart Capital; Dump Lunch

I find Portland to be very diverse, not ethnically or “color-wise” per se, but culturally, or sub-culturally should I say; hippies, goths, pierced, inked, sober, high,… all co-existing in this peculiar city. And it is the people that make it peculiar.The city is naturally located in a beautiful corner, with rivers and mountains and greens, but is overshadowed by an overcast of clouds and mists of rain, and cracked streets and filth spotted sidewalks, which give it shabbiness and character. Portland does have character.

I walked over the bridge past the long line that still stood patiently outside of Voodoo Doughnuts (which I have yet to try), into the heart of downtown, passing by rows and rows of food carts, not stopping until I got to one particular one: Dump Truck. It’s a yellow cart that stands higher than it’s neighbors, getting me on my tiptoes to reach for my order, selling nothing but dumplings (Ah, now you get it). In fact, they offer a dessert dumpling- think apple pie- though I did not try it and so have nothing to write about there.

5-photo 3

6-photo 2-3

What I ordered was also non-conventional of a high, if not higher magnitude. My lunch was a box of eight bacon cheeseburger dumplings, steamed. I filled a little sauce cup with their “secret sauce”, what they suggest for this particular dumpling of theirs, and a cup with sweet but spicy chili sauce, just because I like it hot.

7-photo 1-3

4-photo 1-4

1-photo 4

 I took my box, gratifyingly warm, with the sauces, a plastic fork, and a few napkins, and walked a few meters over to the red brick square and set up. I sat on the stairs, poked my fork into a dumpling, thinking I should have ordered the sampler, instead of putting all my eggs in the same basket. I was surprised, pleasantly surprised, in what awaited me inside. My mind had created the anticipation of crumbles of hamburger meat, crispy crunchy bits of bacon, and an ooze of American cheese. It was far from what I had expected, and gladly so. The Dump Truck made it work. It was surprisingly… enjoyable, this bacon cheeseburger dumpling of theirs. The bacon was mildly rendered, soft but thin and delicate, and hallelujah, I detected no slices of American cheese; it was more like a sauce, almost like a light gravy, but cheesy and meaty. And there were onions- I think it was the onions that brought it all together.

2-photo 3-1

The secret sauce though, was strictly unnecessary- even nasty. Although I only know of Hamburger Helper through tv commercials and passing by the boxes in the supermarket aisles, the addition of the sauce made me think I was eating pasta and Hamburger Helper with ketchup on top. And their Secret Sauce did remind me of ketchup, but tangier, and of a lighter color, transforming a creative and surprisingly delicious dumpling into a reminiscence of McDonald’s. I see no reason why their “secret sauce” should remain a secret- I for one would never be interested in stealing the recipe. I did prefer it with the chili sauce, although only a touch. It didn’t need sauce at all if you ask me; I didn’t want to mask the interesting flavors of itself with something from a squeeze bottle, and its innards were moist from what I’m calling the gravy, to survive without being dipped into anything else.

3-photo 2-4

And so, I had my bacon cheeseburger dumplings under the Portland clouds while people watching the homeless with a cardboard sign begging for money for food and weed, French speaking tourists giggling as they heard their voices echo in the center of the square’s corner, and a young man cautiously climbing the stairs next to me, feeling the ground ahead of him with a long branch before his every step. After making the last step, holding his arms high and victorious, he yelled, “You thought I was blind, didn’t you?”.

You must agree, Portland does have character.