Portland's Nong Poonsukwattana found her first food cart in 2009 off an anonymous Craigslist ad. She had to drive way out into the Oregon boonies to make the purchase, and when she got there, the seller made her bid for it against another interested buyer (Nong won out, but ended up paying $400 more than the asking price). After she transported the rickety wooden cart back to Portland, she discovered that the inside was filled with moldy kettle corn.
"The popcorn was like ten years old," laughs Nong, a native of Thailand. "That was my first experience as an entrepreneur."
Six years later, the charismatic chef has expanded to two food carts, a food truck, and a restaurant, and has become a bit of a local celebrity. She's been featured on the Food Network and delivered a TED talk, and her eateries have appeared in numerous best-of lists. Today, Nong's Khao Man Gai—the name of her burgeoning food empire—is undeniably a Portland staple, something that the constant line outside her tiny Alder street food cart attests to.
But it is hard to believe that all of that buzz comes from just one dish: chicken and rice.
"Chicken and rice is the same as pizza," explains Nong. "Anyone can make pizza, but for the good pizza, there's a line." The whole recipe for the dish is listed on Nong's website.
With her navy cotton dress, skinny black khakis, full-sleeve Japanese tattoo, and dyed blonde hair underneath a beat-up camo baseball cap (complete with an anarchist symbol penciled under the brim), Nong fits perfectly into the Portland scene. It's only her accent that gives her away.
"In the beginning, I said, 'OK, I am going to make chicken and rice, but I am going to try to make the best chicken and rice I can make. So that's what I do," says Nong.
When she set out to start a food cart in 2009, Nong decided to focus on a single dish, as most food carts back home did. It was an easy choice. In Thailand, chicken and rice is a staple, a default dish that people turn to when they can't decide what else to eat. It was a plus that, among the spectrum of Thai specialities, chicken and rice is one of the least foreign to a Western palate.
"There are four components of chicken and rice," Nong explains in her characteristic Thai drawl, "Chicken, rice, sauce, and soup. You have to find the best ingredients to make those four things."
She did just that. For weeks, Nong searched grocery stores obsessively.
"I bought every chicken available in Oregon," she remembers. Nong would take the birds back to her apartment and taste-test each one with the focus of a master sommelier. She did the same with each component of the recipe, down to the soy sauce.
Nong sought nothing short of perfection. "This is my work. This represents me, who I am," she says.
Following her then-husband, Nong came to Portland in 2003. She was 23 and it was her first time leaving Thailand. "At some level, I was naive," she admits.
Her only sister had given her $300 as a going-away gift. "I said, 'Shit, I am going to America. I am rich!'" says Nong.
During a layover in the Taiwan airport, she splurged and ended up spending $230 on a bottle of Chanel perfume, not realizing that the remaining $70 wouldn't get her very far in the New World. "I never even used it," she adds with a full-toothed grin.
For the next four years, Nong worked day and night, seven days a week as a waitress at various Thai restaurants around Portland, all the time working on her English. In 2008, she landed a job as a line cook at Pok Pok, Andy Ricker's revered Thai restaurant. The next year, after saving up enough money, she decided to go out on her own.
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While it was scary taking the plunge into entrepreneurship in a foreign country, Nong was not inexperienced in adversity. Nong's father was an alcoholic, and her mother—a chef at an expat-catered grocery store in Bangkok—acted as the primary caregiver to the family. Growing up, Nong worked hard in school, hoping to repay her mother's hard work. "It was my dream to support my family," she says.
After college, Nong scored a job as a flight attendant for JAL, Japan's largest airline, but failed the three-month-long training. "I was devastated. I had this dream that I was going to move out and help my mom because I hated my dad. I was devastated. I lost my confidence for three years."
She eventually found a job as a manager at an expat-owned restaurant, but with no experience in managing, that didn't work out so well, either. When her husband brought up the prospect of moving to America, where he had citizenship, she jumped at the opportunity.
Not long after settling down in her new home, Nong found out that her husband was unfaithful. Risking deportation, she divorced him. After some lengthy bureaucratic wrangling, Nong was allowed to stay in Oregon and ultimately was granted citizenship herself. Ever since, she has focused on her food.
Nong's celebrated dish is served Thai street-style, wrapped in wax paper, with the tender white chicken laid over jasmine rice with cilantro, sliced cucumbers, a cup of diced chilies, a cup of soup, and a cup of Nong's gingery sauce on the side. She also sells the sauce at local grocers, which Nong bottles in the cart after-hours at night. On the side of the bottle is a portrait photo of Nong next to an old one of her mother.
"My mother is the same as me," explains Nong. "When she came to Bangkok, she had nothing but a little money and a mosquito net," Nong recites it like a fable. A little money and a mosquito net.
Nong's mother has not been able to come to Portland and Nong has only been home three times. Her father recently had a stroke and her mother has had to stay home and take care of him.
"She hasn't seen what I've become," says Nong, who sends some money back to Thailand. "I hope that she is proud of me."
In many ways, Nong is the epitome of the American dream: the underprivileged immigrant who pulled herself up by her bootstraps and realized a vision.
"In my first two years of the food cart, people said that I'd reached the American dream," says Nong. "But I didn't know what that was so I Googled it: What is the American dream?"
She pauses to take a bite of Smørbrød du Jour, and compliments of the chef. "My translation of the American dream is that you get to do what you love. That is the American dream for me."