It may seem a bit precipitous to base an entire business around one dish, especially one as simple as chicken and rice, but that’s exactly what Portland’s Nong Poonsukwattana has done via Nong’s Khao Man Gai. And it’s succeeded—wildly.
But calling the dish simply “chicken and rice” doesn’t do it justice. Poonsukwattana’s signature creation has its origins in Hainan province, China and is popular in her native Thailand, where it’s commonly eaten as a street food. Poonsukwattana’s version of the humble dish involves chicken poached in a broth of ginger, pandan leaves, and garlic, laid atop aromatic jasmine rice and served alongside a soup made from the poaching liquid, to which Chinese winter squash is added. And then there’s the sauce, the piece de resistance that Poonsukwattana now bottles and sells. Nong’s Khao Man Gai Sauce involves fermented soybean, Thai chili, vinegar, house-made syrup, garlic, and ginger, and it positively rocks.
Poonsukwattana prides herself on her ingredient selection, which she’s personally sourced. Her chickens come from Marys Free Range Chickens in the San Joaquin Valley in California, which emphasizes animal welfare.
By now, Poonsukwattana’s story is fairly familiar to her fans. She arrived in Oregon from Bangkok in 2003 with $70 to her name and two suitcases. After a stint at the legendary Pok Pok, Poonsukwattana started Nong’s Khao Man Gai as a food cart in 2009, and Portland fell in love. Now she operates two food carts at Portland State University and downtown at SW 10th and Alder and opened the brick and mortar restaurant on SE Ankeny in 2014.
At the counter, customers order from a menu of khao man gai, available with add-ons like chicken livers, extra sauce, or fried chicken skins; a vegetarian version with steamed vegetables; Coca Cola- and cocoa-braised pork and rice; and chicken and rice smothered in a house-made peanut sauce. Beer, cocktails, and a small selection of desserts are also available at the brick-and-mortar location.
The restaurant is perpetually busy, with a line snaking out the door. There are only 36 seats inside and a few picnic tables outside, so there tends to be a handful of people standing and sipping complementary tea, waiting to poach any available seating. Servers move quickly inside the tight space to deliver food, somehow maintaining a cheerful attitude and exercising an abundance of patience—perhaps a carry-over of Poonsukwattana’s sunny spirit and can-do attitude.