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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Food Cart Capitol; Off the Carts

This one is for JC, who firmly believes that my all-from-scratch soups are oh-so-good they should be shared with the rest of the world by being readily available on supermarket shelves. My soups even scored number two on her Top Twelve of 2012 list of favorite eats– how humbling. So, naturally, while in Portland I tasted the best soup I’ve ever had, of course I thought of her.

It all started on a Tuesday night when the guinea pig and I went on a dinner date; he suggested to go someplace nice that night, not necessarily fancy but not a stand on the side of the road either. I put on my orange strap wedges and chose the venue: Farm Cafe, which ended up being a block down from our hotel. I made reservations for 7:30 and we were unusually on time. Our hostess was spacey. She wore round spectacles and short pigtailed hair and a blank expression on her face, fitting right in with the Oregon scene. We sat outside under the shelter of an umbrella; you never do know with Portland skies, and ordered  beers. The guinea pig and I both love trying all things local when we travel, especially microbrews. I did find Oregon beers a little too hoppy for my New England taste; their IPAs do not tickle my fancy. Many of our bar adventures did not include vast options of local microbrews on draft, but the Farm Cafe offered a decent variety, and I was able to avoid another hoppy IPA for a dark, heavy stout.

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We were sitting comfortably in our light jackets in the patio with lines of lightbulbs decorating a brick wall and grape vines climbing up the entryway, when our appetizers arrived, baked brie and a bowl of the soup of the day, both to share between the two of us. The guinea pig fell for appearances, diving into the fancy brie, that came hot in a white porcelain boat topped with pine nuts and strawberries that had melted in its own sweetness in the oven. I started the soup, mixing in the black pepper sprinkled on top. Oh that soup. Only inhaling its aroma and warmth was ecstatically satisfying. Beer, cheddar, and leeks. Must I say more? Executed unsurpassably. It couldn’t have been done any better; I doubt it could. It was beautifully smooth, like one of those  Venus commercials where a silk scarf slides off of their recently shaven, perfectly airbrushed legs, but all on my tongue, the background music playing and my taste buds rejoicing.

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We exchanged appetizers. I tried the brie, gooey and warm, sweet from the fresh but baked strawberries, crunchy from the pine nuts, and crispy from the crusty bread. I am a cheese-fanatic. While I have not yet met anybody who does not like melted cheese, I am admittedly a bit of an extreme. So, I surprised myself that although I had no criticism for the baked brie, I wanted the soup back. I thought, it might be my lucky day, since the guinea pig prefers his soup chunky and not blended into baby food, maybe he’ll push the bowl back without my intervention. I’d get what I want and not come off as greedy. Imagine how I felt when I heard him make love to the soup, my soup.

But could I blame him? This was a bowl blended into the perfect consistency of harmonious flavors. The good news is that my last bite, before the entrees were brought out, ended back on the soup: beer, cheddar, and leek. And all’s well that ends well.

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Surely dinner did not end at appetizers. It ended on a sweet note, with dessert. The guinea pig and I couldn’t come to a unanimous decision so we thought to get two and share; one a chocolate molten cake with coffee ice-cream, the guinea pig’s choice, and another a tart rhubarb  crumble with a scoop of cold vanilla bean melting a-top. And these came after entrees, my dijon-spicy eggplant and breadcrumb veggie-burger that came in an almost doughnut-like of a bun, and the guinea pig’s rabbit on spaetzel. Yes everything was delicious; what a wonderful dinner that was. But that soup; I will never forget that soup. If it was not the soup-of-the-day and a permanent menu item, you would have found me skipping out on the food cart scene and at the Farm Cafe every lunch and dinner with a bowl of cheddar, beer, and leek.

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JC, if you find yourself in Portland, (Portland, Oregon obviously), I do hope it’s when the Farm Cafe’s soup of the day is their cheddar, beer, and leek again.

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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

Food Cart Capital- First Impressions

Today I write from Portland. Not Portland, Maine, a mere three hour drive from home, where the sun shines and the breeze cools your shoulders, while the birds whistle and the cold ocean waves slap the rocks on shore, and I sit looking out to the lighthouse, indulging in lobster, the best there is, sweet and just hauled in from the water, served with clarified butter and a nut cracker, boiled to order in the ocean water that now trickles down my arm. I write from Portland, Oregon, located in the Pacific Northwest, inland from the coast, giving me sunburn on Saturday, rain and cloudy skies on Sunday, and temperatures lower than what I had pictured for late June anywhere on the West Coast.

It’s a city whose scenery, unlike it’s East Coast namesake, did not take my breath away. It’s population and energy is what immediately had me sold. We arrived too early for hotel check-in, on the only sunny day we have yet seen, and perfectly in time for their Saturday Market. So, we dropped our bags and walked across the long bridge over the river right into the rows of food and art stands packed with locals, tourists, and a heavily inked population. Tattoos seem to be quite popular in Portland, and I’m secretly wishing if only I had my sister here with me, because this would be the perfect place to get a first piece; she would go first, and then hold my hand while she distracts me from the pain and buzzing sounds. Boh, as the guinea pig would say. I should just get a henna tattoo next Saturday Market.

A small corner among the vast of my knowledge acquired through the Food and Travel channels, is that Portland is the food cart capital. Move over NYC. Rows and rows of trucks stand parked, permanently, along the streets of downtown, or propped in parking lots, some catering to the business crowd, some to the hungover late night bingers. And so, secretly, I was psyched to come to Portland just for the food carts really. Surprise, surprise.

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My first day here though, was a mere introduction, spent happily at the Saturday Market. For lunch, we chose to stand in the longest queu of famished crowds, for a greek cart whose name I shamefully forgot, or did not ever catch. Angelina’s possibly? I ordered a beef and lamb gyros, and still not sure of the pronunciation, j or g, will I ever know? I asked for the works, strips of crisp cucumber and crumbles of feta that were actually impressingly quite tasty. No tomatoes, of course, and no onions, just the greens. And a baklava for dessert.

As we stood in line, soaking up the line, people passed and said aloud what I was hoping, “Look at the line for this one. It must be good.” Oh, but it was. We sat by the fountains and bit into the wrap, and the yogurt dressing dribbling down my chin and fingers was divine. Day one in Portland, street food contently in my belly, my first impression was a positive one.

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