I'D ALREADY downed a cup of gelato and two sizable tacos when I found myself near Hat Yai on NE Killingsworth for the first time.
I figured since I was in the neighborhood, and there was no line, I'd grab a couple of orders to go, try a bit of each and save the rest for later. But the road to good intentions is apparently littered with fried chicken and spicy shrimp rice salad. I tapped into the boxes on the drive home and didn't stop.
In many ways, Hat Yai—named after the town in Southern Thailand famous for its deep-fried birds—channels the best of owner Earl Ninsom's other two restaurants. The depth of flavor in almost every dish recalls the haute prix fixe of Langbaan (which is forever booked up), but the cost and casual atmosphere are a lot like PaaDee.
This also leads to some contradictions. Orders are taken at the counter, with little space inside for a line to form. That's fine in July, but come November, that's going to be rough (the format also makes it hard to order a second ginger cider). Also, food arrives in fits and starts, so for those not committed to eating family style—which is really the way to go here anyway—it means one diner could be finished before the other gets a plate.
With that in mind, go with a few friends and share a variety, because almost everything on the menu is solid. The chicken is the star: Mary's free-range chickens are lightly breaded in rice flour and crisped to perfection, permeated with a sweet spiciness that's made even better with a good pour of the chili sauce served on the side. It's amply topped with fried shallots, and it's worth getting every time.
For the best deal, get it as part of the curry and roti set ($13). A large steel tray arrives with a fat thigh and drumstick, a bowl of curry, and a single roti, a griddle-fried flatbread that originated in India and spread across Southern Asia like glutinous wildfire. Here the roti is less delicate and doughier than better versions in town, but it's tasty nonetheless. The curry is a rich, creamy blend that on one visit actually seemed to stretch like melted cheese when we dipped our roti in it. It's done like in Malaysia, right across the border from Hat Yai: slightly sweet, with a subtle fire on the backend. Get it as a combo or as a side; however, the small portion of the beef cheek and chicken versions doesn't rise to the $11 price tag. The vegan curry also needs work—$9 brings a tepid broth with two cherry tomatoes and a few pieces of cauliflower.
Spice fans are covered: The Southern Thai ground pork ($12) comes coated in turmeric and chilies, with a heady kick of kaffir and lemongrass. It's a true tingler that mercifully comes with sticky rice on the side for tongue relief. Also, go easy when mixing in the Thai peppers served with the khao yum rice salad—a complex blend of shrimp powder, toasted coconut, and herbs ($9)—or you'll hear about it from your stomach later. Add a few splashes of hot sauce to elevate the wonderful muu hong ($13), a faithful re-creation of a Thai street food favorite of braised pork belly and shoulder over rice with a fried egg.
Cocktails are too sweet, mixed by the cashiers, and not worth the $9, which is disappointing considering Ninsom opened Hat Yai in partnership with former St. Jack bartender Alan Akwai. BUT you can (and should) order your food and then eat it next door at the Prospect Bottleshop, which has a great selection of wine and beer and is totally down with outside food.
Portland is positively awash in excellent fried chicken and Thai food—and even in fried Thai chicken. Despite this, at just over a month in, Hat Yai is already establishing itself near the top of that crowded class.
1605 NE Killingsworth
Sun, Tues-Thurs 11:30 am-9 pm; Fri-Sat 11:30 am-10 pm. No reservations. Good for kids, vegans, and all humans.