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Archive for the ‘Food Carts – Downtown’ Category

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
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.

Details:

Located on SW Alder, between SW 10th & 11th — just a few doors down from Nong’s.  Hours typically lunchtime, M-F.

503.522.9543

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You’ve got to admire the simplicity of a food cart that serves one dish.  Or the outright brazenness perhaps – this, this is exactly what you want to eat.

Nong’s Khao Man Gai is a cart that does exactly that.  There’s something pretty zen about a cart that makes the same meal over and over again day in and day out.   Their dish is pretty simple: boiled chicken, sauce, rice, and broth, but there’s more to it than it sounds.

I haven’t been to Thailand, but from I’ve read, khao man gai is a common street food dish in Thailand.  The recipe on one website is prefaced by the description of the dish as a ” ‘high end’ street vendor dish because it’s more complicated to make, and requires a fairly sophisticated cart and tools.”

The cart owner is originally from Thailand, but she spent some time working in one of Portland’s most highly rated Thai restaurants, Pok Pok, before venturing out on her own.

Here’s the cart:

Nong's

Nong's Khao Man Gai - SW 10th and Alder

So, there are a few options – the regular khao man gai  ($6) which is a butcher-paper wrapped pile of sticky rice cooked in chicken broth, topped with slices of boiled-till-tender chicken, cilantro, cucumber slices, and a little container of sauce.  This package is presented to you like an origami present all folded up, a rubber band holding it together, and then slipped on top, there is another little container of broth and a spoon/napkin.

You can also add extra chicken, chicken livers, extra sauce, or supersize your khao man gai (piset).

The Menu!

Drink Menu

One of the highlights of the drink menu is the Vietnamese coffee (made with Portland’s Stumptown Coffee!) which I prefer to the often overly-sweet Thai iced tea.  The rich, strongly brewed coffee is complimented by sweetened condensed milk.

Nong's description of Khao Man Gai

So, as described above, one of the key parts of the khao man gai is the sauce.  I mean, otherwise it’d be kind of dull – chicken + rice?  The sauce is zippy, a little spicy but not much, and definitely garlic-filled.  It’s very fresh tasting, definitely not from a bottle, and it has that magic that a good Thai dish has – a balance of tangy and sweet and spicy, all at once.

I forgot to take a picture of the cute wrapping job or the even cuter food cart lady herself (her and her crew are usually jamming out to some good beats while chopping chicken furiously).  There’s usually a long line for this dish, and I hear she frequently sells out for the day.

The package unwrapped, with broth to the left and sauce on top.

Now with the sauce poured on top.

The broth is very simple – it usually has a wisp of greens or some bitter melon, not much else.  Somehow – add all together this becomes  a special dish that is both exotic and comforting at the same time.  It’s a bit like a deconstructed chicken noodle soup with a little extra zing.  I must admit this week’s serving of chicken wasn’t my favorite – a few “bits” were left that were a bit ugly, but that’s the risk of eating meat, I suppose (this is one of my rare meat-excursions).  That won’t stop me, I’ll be back again for this magic combo.

Essential Details:

Nong’s Khao Man Gai
website
Corner of SW 10th & Alder, Portland
971.255.3480
Open M-F, 10am until sold out!

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One of the best parts of my job is lunchtime!  I’m lucky enough to work in downtown Portland, and within a short walk in nearly any direction, I can eat a meal from nearly anywhere in the world.  And no, I don’t mean the Pioneer Place mall food court.

If you live in Portland, the business of food carts is old news to you probably, but it’s an amazing intersection of a supportive health department, cheap vacant lots, and a food-curious populace that has led to the ever growing number of food carts in Portland.  You can find an amazing guide at foodcartsportland.com

Bosnian, Thai, Indian, Japanese, French baguette sandwiches, the list goes on and on.  Some of the best and most original food is being served at food carts.  Oh, and most affordable too – most carts’ meals are in the $4-6 range.  New immigrants, cash-poor new culinary grads, landlords holding onto vacant lots till office vacancies decrease  – these are just a few of the characters involved in this restaurant-less renaissance.

One of my recent favorites is Sonny’s Bowl – largely for its simplicity and strong flavors.  He (Sonny?) offers 3 options – all vegan.

Now, first of all – I’m sorry to my friends that swing that way, I will never unless they can create a vegan brie. I love my cheese & real ice cream, too much.

However, you WON’T NOTICE – I promise.  Okay, so this dish I ordered – you might, if you’re not used to soy subs for meat.  I got the #3 (it’s my fave) – soy curls, green beans, ginger-citrus sauce, and brown rice.

Soy curls, btw, wtf? I know, right? Okay, so I’ve been eating mostly veggie since circa 1995 and have spent 8 years of that time in PDX, certainly a vegan mecca if there were ever one (no joke, actually, I just googled “vegan mecca” and a blog about Portland was the 3rd hit), but I never knew about soy curls till this past year.

I guess they are a form of TVP (texturized veggie protein), but somehow they are all the rage in Portland.  Anyhow, I know for you meat eaters, you are now doubting me, but they are pretty tasty.  And filling.

And the Sonny sauce (that’s what I call it) is what makes the bowl.  Each of the bowls is like KFC for the vegan set – a unique blend of secret spices.  Yum, I wish he sold the sauce in a jar.  The fresh veggies and brown rice add that healthy feeling, so important in January when we’re all thinking we should start working out, right?  The other two feature proteins, too – for those who may be soy-curl-adverse, the other bowls feature black beans and garbanzos.

The #3 is a little spicy, a little gingery, a little bbq-ish, and a little something else.  Really good!  (oh, but hey, Sonny, I think my Chinese noodle thingies on top were a little stale this round, but maybe that’s my fault for putting the lid on & steaming them a bit?).

So for $5, this is my shot of what you get – not bad huh:

sonny bowl

*sidenote: oh, and I feel I have to add – yes, that’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Committed.  Yes, her of the Eat, Pray, Love fame.  I feel like I have to make the disclaimer that I’m borrowing it from a friend at work.  I’m just rarely a hardback buyer (sorry book industry!), and I feel guilty when I see one if it’s not from the library.  But, I’m excited this time to not have to wait for the 465 holds on 50 copies at the library to clear, so I can read it as if you haven’t heard about it, it’s all about the history of marriage, a topic I find pretty interesting (and wrote a paper in grad school about once even).  I have mixed feelings about Gilbert as a writer, but she certainly sucks me in.

anyhow, if you haven’t eaten at a food cart yet, do it!  And if you haven’t eaten at Sonny’s Bowl yet – do it!

Essential Details:

Located at SW 3rd & Washington cart pod.

Hours – food carts hours vary, but generally M-F lunchtime.

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