Just before the lunch rush, Nong Poonsukwattana greets me at her namesake Nong's Khao Man Gai in downtown Portland, Oregon. Giant pots of whole chickens bubble in the open kitchen, and the aromas of ginger, garlic, and floral pandan leaves fill the air in the tiny restaurant. The focus here is khao man gai, a classic, comforting chicken and rice dish that's filled with flavor; Nong has been making and selling her version since 2009, when she opened her first food cart in town.
Nong comes from a family of cooks in Bangkok, Thailand. She grew up watching her mother work 16-hour days in restaurant kitchens, her arms scarred and blistered from hot cooking grease. “To be honest, I never thought of opening a restaurant,” Nong tells me. “I always imagined a different life. Like working in an office.” As a child, Nong applied herself in school, where she was often at the top of her class. Looking back, she acknowledges that her academic success was a “cover-up” for a difficult home life.
But Nong learned to cook from her mother, who taught her the foundational techniques. “My mom grew up with her grandma, so her side is old-school; everything we cooked was from scratch. Even coconut milk would come from whole, green coconuts,” she says. As the youngest in the family, Nong was often delegated the laborious tasks of extracting the coconut milk and pounding the curry paste with a mortar and pestle. “My mom was the chef, my sister was like the sous chef, and I was always the one who had to do the prep.” By 13, Nong was working alongside her mother in restaurants.
Nong moved to Portland in 2003 and began working front-of-the-house restaurant jobs to support her family. Eventually, she turned her focus back to the kitchen, and in 2008, she landed a job at a local restaurant.
“[The experience] resonated with me. It taught me to trust my gut.” It also taught her how to run a restaurant kitchen. Nine months later she decided to branch out on her own.
Searching for a concept, Nong thought back to the food stalls of Bangkok, where khao man gai vendors were usually one-person operations. The dish held a certain nostalgia and, most important, it was something she could pull off on her own in the confined space of a food cart. A few months later, Nong's Khao Man Gai was up and running. “I was happy there. I came from nothing. For me to have that, I was happy. That was a dream.” But the dream got even bigger, and in 2011, the operation moved to a brick-and-mortar location. In 2018, she opened her second location.
There's very little difference between preparing khao man gai in restaurant kitchens and preparing it in home kitchens. You begin by gently simmering a whole chicken in salted water along with garlic and ginger. While the chicken rests, you cook the rice in the chicken broth you've just created. As it steams, you stir together the sauce. Finally, you shred the dark meat and slice the breasts and serve it all with a small bowl of broth for sipping and cilantro and cucumber for a fresh, simple, beautiful finish.