December 1, 2021

Crispy Gài Dishes Out Thai Fried Chicken and Tropical Vibes

Originally published in Maine magazine, November 2021.

I am sitting at the side bar of Crispy Gài, the new Thai restaurant from chefs Cyle Reynolds and Jordan Rubin, and space is growing tight. I’m surrounded by several small plates and a woven basket containing sticky rice. The server brings another round of dishes, and my companion and I are momentarily stumped about where to put them. I combine a few items, and offer up the empty plates, making room for more pastel-colored melamine dishes on the skinny bar top.

I pull a clump of rice free and use it to swipe up some the thick, salty glaze pooled under a wok-fried morning glory, a minerally green wilted by the wok’s intense heat. A forkful of the waterfall salad, made with cilantro, mint, shallots, and seared flank steak, contains a hidden slice of bird’s-eye chile, the heat from which soon makes a single tear run down my cheek. The sticky rice, a type of rice that clings together when steamed, comes in handy to cool my palate after the spicy salad. Later, Reynolds will inform me the same dish in Thailand would be prepared with at least three times the spice.

Our overflowing table at Crispy Gài in Portland echoes a memorable experience Reynolds relates from his time in Bangkok. Reynolds, who lived in the Thai capital for two years, took a group of visiting friends to his favorite street food market and ordered dishes from every vendor. General manager Sasha Brouillard, who was one of those friends, recalls the pleasure of drinking light lager with ice to counter the heat as they dipped sticky rice into the variety of tangy, salty, and sweet sauces on the many dishes crowding the table.

Reynolds says his time in Thailand, which began as a vacation but turned into a two-year stay after he skipped his return flight, was one of the most influential times in his cooking career. He worked in a high-end restaurant but frequented street food stalls with the Thai cooks after their shifts, enjoying noodles, fried chicken, and spicy salads. “The flavors were all very punchy, bright, and loud,” Reynolds says. “I love that kind of food.”

Back in Maine in early 2020, Reynolds’s plan to open a restaurant in Castine stalled due to the pandemic. Then Reynolds and Rubin, who also owns the sushi bar and cart Mr. Tuna, had a lightbulb moment over another shared meal. Reynolds served Hainanese fried chicken, a Chinese dish popular in Thailand, and Rubin declared it the best fried chicken he’d ever had. A few hours later they had sketched out the concept for Crispy Gài (gài means “chicken” in Thai).

The star of the menu at Crispy Gài is indeed the Thai-style fried chicken. The chicken is marinated in a flavor-packed paste that includes cilantro, fish sauce, and white pepper. Then it’s dipped in a thin batter and fried twice. The second fry crisps up the coating so it delivers a delightful crunch on first bite. Chicken wings are adorned with either fried shallots, red curry paste and lime leaves, or Sichuan peppers, which add a mouth-numbing tingle.

Reynolds fills out the rest of the menu with popular Thai street food staples like green papaya salad, grilled pork skewers, and fried rice. Pad krapow gài, a dish of stir-fried chicken and long beans, is coated in a rich glaze of oyster sauce, soy sauce, palm sugar, and wilted holy basil, which adds a sweet, peppery flavor. Another stand-out is savory raw scallops that come in a shallow pool of chilled coconut-curry broth topped with fried shallots, Thai basil, and lime zest.

Behind the bar, Arvid Brown, who spent two years in rural Thailand teaching English, shakes up cocktails befitting a tropical clime, with bright flavors, tall fluted glasses, and garnishes that touch your nose when you take a sip. My favorite is the Mai Pen Rye, whose name references its mai tai origins but also means “no worries” in Thai. Tinted blue from curaçao, the drink is sweet and tart with nutty and smoky undertones from cashew orgeat and a spritz of scotch.

Brown’s bar program is infused with tropical elements, using pineapple skins, lemongrass, and chile peppers in cocktails, just as Rubin and Reynolds have filled their restaurant with nods to Thailand. Lush palm wallpaper evokes steamy nights, and neon accents lend a big-city glow to the dining room. Repurposed Thai fishing traps hang as basket lights above diners crunching through baskets of fried chicken. The lively ambiance, flavorful cuisine, and inventive drinks combine to create a delicious homage to Thai street food at Crispy Gài.

Crispy Gài | 90 Exchange St., Portland | 207.536.1017

Shine Bright

As soon as Crispy Gài opened, diners began posting selfies taken in its bathroom to social media—dark shots reflected in a large mirror with a hot pink glow emanating from the background. Drawing inspiration from neon signs in Bangkok, Reynolds commissioned artist David “Neon Dave” Johansen to light the bathroom with a single tube of neon edging the ceiling. The walls are covered in a shiny black tile that sends the electric light careening around the small room. While Reynolds says it wasn’t his intention to provide a place for selfies, “it doesn’t hurt to have a photogenic bathroom.”