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Why the Best Thai Fried Chicken Comes with Bread

Javier Cabral

The flavour of this tiny Portland restaurant's glorious, rice flour-battered fried chicken is maximised with a thick, sweet, and salty coconut curry dipping sauce.

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Fried chicken, roti, and curry dip. Photo courtesy of Hat Yai

What happens when Portland's most popular tasting menu-based Thai restaurant opens a counter-service fried chicken joint?

Hat Yai.

It's named after a border city in southern Thailand that happens to be the birthplace of the unique variation of Thai-style fried chicken that chef Akkapong Earl Ninsom has nearly perfected at his hole-in-the wall restaurant in Portland's Killingsworth neighbourhood. What makes this fried chicken different than any other is the use of rice flour in the batter, a marinade containing a healthy amount of cumin, white pepper, coriander, and fresh garlic, and a smattering of fried shallots that seasons the oil as it is being fried. The flavour is maximised with a thick, sweet, and salty coconut curry dipping sauce.

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Beef cheek curry, hamachi, rice salad, and jasmine rice horchata with rum. Photo by Javier Cabral

You won't find a side of rice, though. Due to the city of Hat Yai's proximity to Malaysia, the carb of choice at the restaurant is their flaky, pan-fried, homemade, Malay-style roti. Chef Ninsom is originally from Bangkok, but learned to cook southern Thai food over a charcoal fire by his grandma during summer breaks as a kid. In 2000 after he graduated college, he arrived in Los Angeles and started washing dishes, wiping tables, mopping floors, and helping prep food at his uncle's Thai restaurant. That was when Ninsom became more obsessed with cooking and decided to pursue his passion.

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Soy cured short rib braised in coconut milk. Photo courtesy of Hat Yai

Hat Yai co-owner Alan Akwai describes the sweeter, more pungent flavours of southern Thai food as "big, rich, powerful flavours that can be very spicy"—perfect descriptors for my recent dinner of beef cheek curry, fried chicken, rice salad with shrimp powder, a hamachi special, Jasmine rice horchata with rum, and a bourbon tamarind smash.

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Rice salad with shrimp powder. Photo by Javier Cabral

"This style of fried chicken was underrepresented and nobody was doing it here. It is also a good way to introduce people to the flavours of Malaysian food," Akwai tells me. He says that he gets lot of Malaysian people who come in and say that it tastes a lot like home. The restaurant appears to be a hit with Portlanders as well, receiving its fair share of praise from all of the local publications. "The flavours speak for themselves," Awkwai says. "It's accessible. It's not challenging or cerebral food; it's soulful comfort food."

And if you still prefer rice to eat your curry with, Akwai says that's cool, too.

"We are a restaurant—we're not trying to teach people how to eat food. As long as you are enjoying the food, that means our mission [is] accomplished."