What to Eat at Hat Yai, Langbaan’s Spin-Off Southern Thai Joint

Critic Karen Brooks gives (at least) one good reason southern Thai fried chicken is better than southern American fried chicken.

By Karen Brooks July 12, 2016 Published in the August 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Hat Yai’s Thai-spiced skirt steak skewer

Image: Karen Brooks

Langbaan, PoMo’s Restaurant of the Year 2014, isn’t just a great Thai food experience. The prix fixe exploration of regional Thai dishes, served only a handful of nights a week in the shadowy back room of PaaDee, has become an aspirational ideal—by late spring of this year, the reservation waiting list already stretched into fall.

Even so, the most startling thing about Hat Yai—Langbaan owner Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom’s new spin-off of little-known Southern Thai curries and chicken—is not that you can waltz in, day to night, six days a week. It’s the discovery that fine Southern Thai fried chicken is not all that different from Southern American fried chicken, but for the lovely, subtle savor of fried shallots and whole coriander seeds punching through the crackling crust. It can also be a lot more fun, presented on trays ($13–17) alongside an impressive trio of the Malaysian influences predominant in the restaurant’s namesake Thai metropolis: chile-vinegar sauce for chicken dipping; flaky, panfried roti bread; and a heady vat of red curry deep in chiles and coconut fat. My only complaints: the house pickles, an important component in this mix, are skimpy, one-note affairs, and the hard, clumped sticky rice is long past its bedtime.

The rest of the menu—a few skewers and a half-dozen regional specialties—is still shaking out, dialed in on one visit and discombobulated the next. So far, only one dish vies for supremacy with that chicken: a lusty skirt steak skewer positively teeming with the grassy funk and thrash of Thai spices. Asian beer is the thing here, and Hat Yai is well stocked. Still, I’m a fool for barman and co-owner Alan Akwai’s refreshing coconut mango horchata, available with or without booze.

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