We'll get this out of the way first: Yes, technically chef Earl Ninsom's special Burger Week creation at PaaDee isn't a burger. The meat is not ground. But if you're going to split hairs and let that keep you from eating one of the best combinations to ever be put between two buns, well, good. That just means there's more for us — because he's only making 20 a night.
Ninsom is the powerhouse behind several of Portland's top Thai restaurants. In addition to PaaDee there's Mee-Sen, Tarad Thai, and the ultra-buzzy, James Beard-nominated Langbaan. And when asked to put his Southeast Asian spin on the all-American burger, he gamely complied, and proceeded to blow our minds with a crispy fried chicken creation that's bathed in Thai flavors from start to finish.
It begins, as most good Thai food does, in a mortar and pestle. There he pounds stalks of lemongrass into angel-hair-thin strands to build the base for his marinade. He combines it with torn kaffir lime leaves, shallots, even more lemongrass (this time sliced), red curry paste, fish sauce, sugar, and rice flour. He coats the boneless, skinless chicken breasts and thighs in the mixture and lets them soak for at least 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, he fries up tempura-battered sweet potato slices to serve on the side, and makes the components. He infuses rich coconut cream with galangal and kaffir lime leaves; enhances a brick-red curry paste with coconut milk, kaffir lime, fish sauce, sugar and tamarind; and pickles a mixture of shredded cucumber, daikon, carrot and red peppers in lime juice. "The chicken is spicy and rich, so you need the pickled vegetables to cut the richness," says Ninsom.
The chicken takes a trip to the fryer, where the marinade crisps up into a crackling coating, and Ninsom puts the hearty Grand Central Bakery bolo roll on the grill to toast it. When it's ready, he spreads the bun with curry sauce and places tender butter lettuce on top. He chops the fried chicken into strips to make it easier to eat, and arranges it on the lettuce, then piles on pickled vegetables and a handful of fresh herbs, including cilantro and Thai basil. At last, he gives everything a generous drizzle of the infused coconut cream. The end result, available as a dinner special this week only, is rich, flavor-packed, drippy, juicy and belly-filling. In short, it's everything a good burger should be, no matter what you want to call it.