Until recently, Portland would be forgiven for thinking Thai food came in only two forms: aggressive, Chiang Mai–style street flavors à la Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker, and Americanized pad Thai. That all changed when Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom opened Langbaan, this magazine’s 2014 Restaurant of the Year. The reservation-only, backroom prix fixe took inspiration from centuries-old recipes tailored to Thai royalty, reveling in the gobsmackingly new: dried snakehead, finger-lime “roe,” lotus seeds. Now the waiting list stretches for months.
If Langbaan is the master class, Hat Yai is a short, breezy elective. The long, counter-service bunker on NE Killingsworth is a study of its namesake city near the Malaysian border, where a large Muslim population and tropical climate make their own Southeast Asian gallimaufry.
A few smaller bites are worth exploring, like beef skewers coated in a thick sauce of chiles and kaffir lime, or cauliflower scrambled with egg and garlic. Sweet, bubbling panfried Malaysian roti is a delivery service for Hat Yai’s heady house curry, a rust-colored, 15-ingredient sludge thick with coconut fat and spiced with dried chile peppers, cinnamon, and cumin. But the thing to get here is the Hat Yai combo. A heap of chicken is dredged in rice flour and coated with fried shallots, white pepper, and whole toasted coriander that fuse to the crispy, browned skin.
Those revelatory dishes (and a jar of the Chi-Chi cocktail) make Hat Yai a mandatory destination on any eater’s tour of Portland. And if 37-year-old Ninsom, an increasingly influential voice in the city’s constellation of ethnic eats, keeps his momentum, we’ll be the best-educated food city east of Bangkok.