NONG POONSUKWATTANA focuses intently on the rock wall before her, clinging like a spider monkey with her white chalk-dusted fingers, feeling blindly for her next grasp. It's not a coincidence that Nong's—she of the Khao Man Gai chicken and rice empire—newest promo video shows her grappling as she inches ever higher. The metaphor-heavy message stands in well for Nong's well-documented scrabble to success.
Her first toehold came in 2009, with a food cart at SW 10th and Alder. Next was a second cart near Portland State University (411 SW College), followed by the arrival of her signature gingery, spicy, unimpeachable sauce in stores. And, as of early April, she's the proprietor of a restaurant as well.
Much has been made of her signature dish ("That's all we do," the website says), and there isn't any room for improvement. Anyone who cares about food in this town has likely eaten Nong's Khao Man Gai dozens of times: an $8 bundle of joy wrapped in butcher paper with chicken (white or dark meat, or a blend), rice, a few cucumbers, and soup. Extras include the mandatory chicken skins or the less-required chicken-fat poached livers, each $1.
Her newest space has about 40 seats and a bare-bones setup: wait in the line, order at the counter, sit at a metal table by massive windows, grab your own utensils, bus your own table. It suits. And the quality does nothing but improve with the fuller-sized kitchen area. Just like I expected, it's great to be able to eat Nong's for dinner while downing a beer—there are local IPAs, Sapporo, and domestic brands on hand. It's also nice to get this chicken on a plate—it's much easier to focus on the flavors when you're not juggling soup, food, and a beverage.
But the question becomes: Do we need more? The Southeast restaurant has the same offerings as its PSU cart location, and, as of now, not a whit more. Usually, the idea behind opening a restaurant based on a cart means the chef now has room to put more dishes on display. Not so here. The website says there are pork feet at the restaurant. They're not there. Nong promised in-house soft-serve ice cream in media previews. That's coming "soon," a woman at the counter told me. There used to be wings on the menu; why not at least bring those back?
Just like at PSU, you can get khao kha muu, pork and rice ($8), a long-simmered hog braised with Coca-Cola, coco powder, Thai and Chinese herbs, with pickles, mustard greens, and a beautiful medium-boiled egg. It's a worthy entry (order it spicy to really make it sing). But the vegetarian "chicken and rice" ($7) makes me weep for non-carnivores. It's sad, flavorless tofu tossed on rice and hit with Nong's Khao Man Gai Sauce. A few barely steamed and totally unseasoned broccoli come along for the ride. Only the ample application of spicy pickles from a side order ($3) saved it. Oh, and no soup for you, vegetarians.
Nong has clearly mastered the art of specialization. She set out to make top-notch chicken and rice, and that's been done. Should her next foothold be more locations churning out that same glorious khao man gai? Or should she reach for more, expanding her expertise to other Thai standards? Judging from the lines out the door on SE Ankeny, and wending down the sidewalks downtown, she may have the clear, if easy, answer.
Open daily 11 am-9 pm. Call ahead to skip the line.