Some of the most successful street vendors in Southeast Asia have made their name from a single dish. The same is true in Queens – just ask anyone who has walked along Roosevelt Avenue late on a summer evening in search of the “Arepa Lady.”
Surprisingly, it’s also true inside Bricktown Bagels, in Long Island City. By day the shop churns out bagels for morning commuters – from the subway station just up the street, it’s one stop to Manhattan – plus soups, salads, sandwiches and wraps, to stay or to go. But when the ovens cool down in late afternoon, Bricktown becomes the base of operations for Khao Man Gai NY, where the chef Emorn Henshaw and her husband Eric serve the namesake Thai chicken-and-rice combo (pronounced Cow mon Guy). Long ago, we relished khao man gai at a sidewalk table in the Sukhumvit district of Bangkok; now, years later, we relish it again, closer to home.
As with Hainanese chicken rice, its Chinese forebear, khao man gai seems at first glance to be simplicity itself. Poach a chicken with ginger and garlic. Use the broth as the foundation for a light soup to refresh the palate between bites and the fat skimmings from the broth – in translation, khao man gai is “chicken fat rice” – to cook jasmine rice. Slice some cucumber as an additional palate freshener. Serve with tangy sauce on the side.
Emorn’s khao man gai has a faint fragrance reminiscent of her childhood in Roi Et, a town in the Isan territory of northeastern Thailand, closer to Laos than to Bangkok. An herb called bai toey grew in her family’s backyard, and on special occasions it would lend aroma, and color, to homemade glutinous rice desserts. Nowadays its bright green leaves, which we know as pandan, add perfume to Emorn’s rice.
The future chef met her future husband in 2009, when they were both vacationing on the southern Thai island of Ko Samui. After two years of a long-distance relationship, during which Eric shuttled between the United States and Thailand, the couple moved to New York in 2011. But it took two more years of fine-tuning before Emorn’s khao man gai made its first public appearance in the U.S. (The dish’s simplicity is deceptive.) In concert with tender, boneless, white-meat chicken and fluffy, fragrant rice is a complex dipping sauce – pungent, sweet, and spicy all at once – that combines garlic, ginger, fermented soybeans, simple syrup, vinegar and Thai chiles. For us, this dipping sauce inevitably becomes a pour-over-the-rice sauce, and we always make sure to get an extra container on the side.
At first glance, khao man gai seems to be simplicity itself.
At Emorn and Eric’s early outdoor appearances – first at the Hester Street Fair, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and then at LIC Flea & Food, in Queens – khao man gai was the only dish on the menu. That single dish was enough to win citywide fame: In the autumn of 2013, Khao Man Gai NY took home a Vendy Award as the year’s best new market vendor.
Selling only at weekend outdoor markets, however, is not the most sustainable business model. Shortly after their recognition at the Vendys, the couple opened a stall in the food court of Long Island City’s Falchi Building, serving lunch to office workers on weekdays. And in the spring of 2017, Khao Man Gai NY added dinnertime hours at Bricktown Bagels, six days a week. (Other startups have worked evening shifts at the bagel shop, too. One, Mu Ramen, now has its own restaurant close by.)
The resources of a full kitchen have enabled Khao Man Gai NY to offer an expanded menu of noodles, salads and snacks. Well and good, since the bagel shop’s baked goods – and the point-of-purchase counter display that’s stocked with all manner of consumer-packaged gratification – are off-limits in the evenings. In all honesty, though, a candy bar is the last thing on our minds when we can instead order two skewers of look chin tod, featuring fish tofu, wonton-wrapped deep-fried quail eggs, and crabmeat wrapped in tofu skin. A sticky pool of hot-and-sweet sauce at the bottom of the serving caddy is the clincher.
Yet khao man gai remains the featured attraction. Emorn continually tweaks the recipe for the sauce, and now she serves her chicken either with or without the silky skin, at the customer’s discretion. (We say “with.”) While we wait for our order at one of the wood-topped tables in the dining area, we wonder what the morning crowd knows of khao man gai. For many of them, the shop might be nothing more than a place to wake up and smell the coffee, perhaps to wolf down a bagel with a shmear. For us it’s a place to lean in close and smell the rice.