Damn, I am lucky to live in Portland. This time of year always reminds me of that, and despite the monsoons lately, when the rain finally lets up, I take a look around, and wow, it’s green and luscious and amazing here. I spent two years in Boston, and it seemed like it was winter one day and then hot, humid summer the next. Oregon’s good at drawing out its springtime, making us all linger a little longer outside on our lunch breaks on those days where the sun actually sticks its landing.
It’s a great time of year for getting out to the food carts, too. My most recent new taste obsession has been at the SomTum Gai Yang cart. The cart offers several options, but most of it revolves around a combination of items with a spicy papaya salad called som tum.
According to wikipedia, som tum combines “the the four main tastes of Thai cuisine: sour lime, hot chili, salty fish sauce, and sweetness added by palm sugar.” It is derived from a Lao dish, tam mak hoong, which makes a lot of sense to me, as the flavors reminded me of food I recall at my Lao friends’ houses in high school.
The salad is tangy and fresh – in addition to shredded unripened papaya, there are also crispy green beans, cherry tomatoes, and a good kick of spicy lime sauce (they ask how spicy you want it — I’m slowly building up my heat tolerance, but I find mild/medium bearable).
The Gai Yang part of the cart name refers to the Lao style BBQ chicken, which in this case was fairly mild which made it a good partner to the intensely flavored papaya salad. Below is a picture of how this may be served as street food in Thailand — here in Portland, the serving was disappointingly not on a stick, but came still on the bone instead in small pieces. A little plastic baggie of sticky rice (which may be what’s on the silver tray below) also comes in the combo meal — I guess it’s cooked in the bag somehow. It’s an unusual serving method, but I broke it up and mixed it in with the juices of the salad.
- Gai Yang Cart in Thailand, Image courtesy of Heinrich Damm (User:Hdamm, Hdamm at de.wikipedia.org)
The first time I visited this cart, I had the combo with the chicken, papaya salad, and sticky rice for $7. The next time I was curious about branching out a little and went with the dish featuring salted egg & peanuts with the papaya salad, otherwise known as Som Tum Khai Kem, for $6.50. Okay, this may not be for everyone, but I loved it. The salted egg is a sliced up sodium-soaked hard-boiled egg. It’s an odd taste, but I love salt, especially in combo with lime and spice. This dish is also good for a lighter lunch – the crunch and spice will wake you up, and the papaya base makes it fresh rather than heavy. So many Thai dishes (especially the curries) come in such heavy portions over rice and are almost too much for the office worker to digest and stay alert! I’ll definitely be stopping back here on the (hopefully) hot summer days in Portland coming up.
Located on SW Alder, between SW 10th & 11th — just a few doors down from Nong’s. Hours typically lunchtime, M-F.