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

Onions and Turmeric



3-poppy_6453

Persian food is not meant to be pretty. It’s meant to taste delicious. Everything may seem overcooked, but time works to the advantage of Persian stews, just be sure to never ask an Iranian to make spaghetti, that’s all. The hours help everything ‘settle down’ and fall into place, where and how they should be, developing flavor and depth. You might see chefs “perfectly” cooking the lamb thrown at them in a television challenge to a medium rare, claiming it’s the only way to cook lamb, otherwise it becomes tough, chewy, dry, and inedible. Iranians, unless Westernized, don’t enjoy a bloody steak. They like their meat brown and well done, but so moist it dissolves in your mouth without much chewing required. They’ve been butchering sheep as their primary choice of meat for centuries, and have been “overcooking” it to tender perfection. Medium rare is not the only way those sheep can be cooked.

It’s simple. Think of osso buco. A tough shank, usually veal, that’s seared, then simmered for hours in sauce until it falls off the center bone to the point where it needed to be tied in string before hand. The idea is the same. The meat is browned then simmered into the stew until it “flirts on your tongue”, as my sister once said. (She said this in reference to chocolate however; she is not a big consumer of meat).

Iranians rarely ever cook meat without two things, onions and turmeric. My mother cannot sauté raw meat or poultry without the accompaniment of some diced onion and the yellow powder, even if it’s chicken meant for Stir-Fry that will later be joined with soy and peanut butter, or ground beef that will meet tomato sauce and be topped with bechamel between layers of lasagne- and my mother does make a delicious lasagne. I will admit that I, too, have been somewhat sucked into the superstition, adding at least a sprinkle of turmeric for most any of my creations.

Since a while, the guinea pig has been putting in requests for ghormeh sabzi, more hinting his craving rather than explicitly asking for it. He’s had my mother’s, which sets the bar far out of reach and intimidates me enough to not want to consider it an option. After a month of procrastination and the sensation of guilt, I checked my freezer to see if I had any sabzi stored for times like these. (Sabzi, means greens, and ghormeh means boiled or pot roasted meat; Ghormeh sabzi is a dark green stew, made with meat and kidney beans-black eyed peas if you’re from the Turkish heritage, and sabzi, a mix of finely chopped spinach, parsley, cilantro, chives, and fenugreek, respectively.) I thought I was in luck when I found a ziplock of the herbs already measured, chopped, and sautéed, but it must have been a bag that was long neglected because it had a stench of freezer to it, similar to, and maybe worse than, the scent and taste of chopped frozen spinach. It may just as well have been the perfect opportunity to change what was for dinner that night, but once I decide on a menu, my mind is a difficult one to revamp. And so I went to the Co-Op, and bought my herbs fresh, chopped them in my small handblender attachment, and added them to a heated pan of oil. Even my mother doesn’t do the dirty work herself; she has a guy who does it for her. He takes her order of how many kilos worth she wants, and he washes and grinds everything into bag that she will fry then divide into portions and store in the freezer, and consume long before the stench ever sinks in.

I would not complain if I had more kitchen space or a proper, decent capacity Cuisinart, but still I cannot say too much; my kitchen smelled pleasant and of fresh herbs. Oh, I do hope I didn’t lose anyone at “cilantro”; the guinea pig too does not care for cilantro, but will do a happy dance for this stew. I believe whatever it is about cilantro that turns some people off, is cooked off in this dish. I had a professor who was a strong abhorrer of the herb, but could not believe how much she enjoyed the bowl of cilantro infested ghormeh sabzi my mother passed along to her. But then again, that was my mother’s.

I soaked my rice and started my stew. I lightly fried a half onion in some light olive oil with a generous pinch of salt until they were translucent enough to accept the meat. I had bought half a pound of stewing beef, half a pound of stewing lamb. I opted for half and half after seeing the lamb at 12.99 per lb, the beef at half that price. The meat browned and I added the turmeric, yellow and spicy, and fried them for another two minutes. Then I added the greens that were sautéing in a neighboring pan, gave them a stir, and added water, brought it to a boil with the kidney beans. I soak mine overnight and precook them separately and drain them before adding them to my stew, but you can drop them right in. If you do decide to use your legumes from a can, please rinse them off first- don’t dump them directly in the pot. I then turned it down to a simmer, and gave it time and dried limes- whole, crushed or powdered- whatever you can get through airport security; I am content with the substance in its legal powdered form,- until everything was settled down into place.

5-poppy_6458

It needed those three hours to turn from a bright green to a dark shade of forest, almost black. And it continued for another 45 minutes for the bottom of my rice to crisp, while I grated cucumbers to a bowl of yogurt and dried crushed mint. The guinea pig enjoys his ghormeh sabzi with all the works;  yogurt, cucumber, and mint, and a quarter of a raw onion to bite  as he goes. Manly, yes.

7-poppy_6465

4-poppy_6455

6-poppy_6460

Like I said, Persian food is not meant to be pretty in pictures, but tasty, comforting, and damn delicious in person.

I did doll up the yogurt, however.

2-poppy_6449

Now I shall call my mother and boast of my Sunday dinner, because I made mine entirely from scratch, dirty work and all.

And Here We Go Again

I know I’ve been away from blogging for quite a while now. It’s time I made my return.

A couple months into my occultation, my heart was warmed to see requests for a return, text messages and facebook exclamations from friends, family, and acquaintances expressing their longing for another post. As big a smile they brought to my face, in practice I ignored them, like an uppity snob. This morning, after sitting in quietly to a conversation of New Year resolutions and goals the night before, I’ve decided I must restart now, before my readers are bitter, and I let too many months pass by to be able to undo it all. The randomness of my stream of consciousness brings me to say, if Tupac ever wants to come out of his occultation too, he should do so, before seventeen more years have passed and he’s lost his fan base to the new generation of whatever is going on at the moment.

My blogging decreased when the guinea pig migrated West for the summer, taking my inspiration away with him. But, it was the TSA tragedy that put it to a halt; finding my camera lens shattered after a long Tehran –> Franfurt, Franfurt –> Boston flight followed by three hours aboard the Dartmouth Coach to Hanover. With my guinea pig back and my camera as good as new, I am left with no excuses, and much to say. My more recent holiday travels were a merrier experience; the guinea pig proposed on one knee, I said yes, and no cameras were broken, although U.S. Agriculture did throw away my two kilos of smoked Persian rice I attempted, and failed, to smuggle into the country. What a shame. I put my backpack down to relieve my shoulders from the heaviness, as I stood by the belt waiting for the guinea pig to catch up and our bags to come out. As soon as my back pack went on the floor, a little beagle as cute as any puppy sniffed out an innocent bag of dates, which in the end, sent me and all of my luggage for full inspection, and my rice dinners to cancellation. Damn dog.

It started in Italy; I visited the guinea pig and his family in a small town a forty five minute train ride from Venice. Their house was tucked in the countryside, warmed with a wood burning stove, with a sour pomegranate tree outside their kitchen window, used only to infuse grappa, the region’s nurtured liquor, adding a few drops of antioxidants to their post-dinner guilty pleasures. Speaking of dinner, every meal illustrated my imagination’s hope, multiple courses, brought out one by one, one after another. Never did I think I would enjoy a white slice of pure pig’s fat, but lardo on bread surprised my taste buds with gratification.

My day in Venice included heavy fog, sauteed onion slathered sardines (of course fresh from the water and not from the can like the American conception of the small fish), and a lot of white polenta, although I prefer mine yellow. I find white polenta to have no flavor, which is probably intended. I trust Venetians, if not all Italians, have their reasons for continuously pairing it with seafood.

We found a small place across the station for breakfast, petite simple sandwiches of crusty bread and luscious prosciuttto, speck, and salami and cheese. It was filled with locals happy to have somewhere hidden from and untouched by tourists, getting a cheap but tasty drink before work, what seems to be the Venetian way of life. We walked in and I let the guinea pig lead; I learned that not many speak English in Italy. The shopkeeper stood behind a counter, with a display of sandwiches exhibited beneath glass. He interrupted the guinea pig before he could utter his second word towards our request, claiming he’s on his break. He then put a short stemmed glass on the counter, filled it with wine, and tipped it over into his throat, and let out an exhale of satisfaction, then asked what we would like. We were tempted, and ordered Cabernets for breakfast, because when in Venice, do as the Venetians do.

Breakfast in Venice

I won’t go into detail but I will say that my guinea pig’s Venetian proposal was not the cliche champagne on a gondola. It was the dessert to a full day of our style of excursion; simple and sweet, in San Marco Square on a satisfied stomach and tired feet. My tongue may have been still black from the cuttle fish in ink sauce dinner; but my fingers and toes were warm after the delightful mug of hot chocolate, and my heart was smiling.

And there you go. We’re engaged. If anyone had any doubts about whether or not they were smelling a love story between the guinea pig and me, I’m sure they’ve now been cleared out a bit. Not too shabby of a comeback, no?