Little Pig owners Mike and Piyathida MacDonald work in the kitchen on Oct. 12. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Perhaps predicting the future isn’t my strongest suit. I’ve been wrong before about the longterm prospects of a few restaurants I’ve adored: Drifters Wife, Pearl Kennebunk Beach and (the most painful of the bunch) Velveteen Habit in Cape Neddick, a restaurant that shut down three weeks after I raved about it. To be fair, though, almost nobody plays Amazing Kreskin with Maine restaurants and gets away with it. Especially not in these days of on-again-off-again pandemic precautions and labor instability.

Sometimes, though, I encounter cooking that announces itself in all-caps, the kind of food that stakes a claim for itself in the local food scene urgently and unapologetically. The chefs and owners of these places seem exempt from the normal rules; they don’t need to tinker with their recipes or flavors, and they certainly don’t need a grace period to reach a stable equilibrium. Their restaurant names and addresses might change, but once they arrive on the scene, they’re here for good.

Maybe I didn’t see it before in Little Pig co-chef Michael MacDonnell, but I certainly do now. During his two-year stint as the executive chef of West End fine-dining legend Tempo Dulu, he tugged at the restaurant’s strictly Indonesian menu, forcibly dragging it in the direction of broader Southeast Asian representation by adding Thai ingredients and recipes to what was then a nosebleed-pricey menu. Only after his tenure began did the food and sophisticated, modernist dining space finally match up with one another.

These days, he doesn’t even need a dining room to wow diners.

Or, I should say, they don’t. Michael MacDonnell isn’t alone at takeout-only Little Pig. In the kitchen beside him is chef Piyathida MacDonnell, who – I discovered as I spoke with the couple – has actually been her husband’s back-of-house colleague for years.

“Several years back, she was the breakfast chef with me at the Camden Harbor Inn (Nathalie’s), and then also at Tempo Dulu,” Michael MacDonnell said. “Piyathida always gave the dishes some truth. I’m a good cook, but when she started developing recipes with me, the food went a lot farther and got a lot better. She’s the heart.”


The patio at Little Pig, which has no indoor dining. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Without the distractions of finicky plating and white tablecloths (or tables, really), Piyathida and Michael MacDonnell are free to prepare whatever they like at their tiny West End shopfront. At least for now, that’s how they prefer it. The flexibility allows them to play with local ingredients in a Southeast Asian context – hence the restaurant’s “Thai-ish” tagline.

With corn in season in New England, they’ve put Kao Poad Song Kruang on the menu ($5), bathing halved cobs of grilled corn in soy, vinegar and crispy garlic sambal to create a hand-held dish worthy of a street festival. When an especially bountiful haul of bluefin tuna came through Portland seafood purveyors, the duo introduced a laab (herby Thai meat salad) of crudo-quality raw tuna folded together with green onions, powdered chiles, shallot and fat-absorbing toasted rice powder to bind it together ($18). My only small quibble with the dish was that the lean tuna probably requires a little less of the nutty, perfectly roasted rice powder.

But if that slight imbalance is the worst of the issues in Little Pig’s kitchen – and it is – we’re witnessing the debut of another top-tier Portland restaurant.

Little Pig’s Grilled Lao Sausage. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Need more proof? Look no further than the grilled Lao sausage ($12), three chubby, house-made links of ground pork, green onion and a sticky-rice binder. Slide the sausages off their skewer, and clear, shimmering juices transport whiffs of lime leaf and galangal directly to your brain. Dunk one into spicy and savory jao sauce ($1 extra), and you won’t be able to stop eating until you’ve gnawed down to the skewers.

Piyathida MacDonnell explains the dish like this, “We have (satay-like) moo ping on the menu, which uses the pork shoulder/butt, so I have to cut off some of the fatty parts that can get tough. We came up with the Lao sausage to use all the leftover meat.” Who doesn’t love seismic flavors combined with classic Yankee frugality?

Little Pig’s Grapow Gai Kai Dow rivals versions of the dish from anywhere, including Bangkok. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Another thumping uproar of a dish, Grapow Gai Kai Dow ($16) balances minced, stir-fried chicken, garlic and vinegary chile sauce with intensely aromatic, clove-scented Thai holy basil (krapow, or tulsi in Indian cuisine). Topped with a fried egg and served with steamed jasmine rice, Little Pig’s version of this ubiquitous Thai street-food dish is extraordinary – the equal to any version I’ve eaten in Woodside, Queens (a culinary center for New York’s Thai diaspora), or Bangkok, where for nearly two weeks, I devoured krapow every morning for breakfast.


You don’t need to eat Little Pig’s version for breakfast any more than you need to wait for lunchtime to order a crisp-crusted, Choo Chee banh mi ($17). I was skeptical about this Vietnamese-Thai mashup, never having embraced the Modern American cuisine trope of “stick anything in a baguette with some pickled carrots and call it a banh mi.” But once again, Little Pig gets the balance right.

The Choo Chee Banh Mi is a true collaboration between the couple. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The base of this particular sandwich is traditional: pickled daikon, jalapeño, cucumber. The filling, on the other hand, is not: hake fillets deep-fried in a crunchy batter and dunked into a thick, coral-shaded “choo chee” sauce named for the sizzling sounds made when coconut milk and curry seasonings sizzle together in a hot pan.

“Michael wanted to serve a fish sandwich because it’s Maine, and I wanted a big, condensed coconut milk curry flavor in a dish, so that’s how it married together. We made it and just said ‘Wow,’” Piyathida MacDonnell said.

“Exactly. We didn’t expect it at all, because that doesn’t happen very often where it’s exactly the type of food we want to serve, and it comes out right the first time around. Basically never,” Michael MacDonnell added. “It took us by surprise.”

No tinkering, no grace period, just some of the very best Thai food in New England.

RATING: ****
WHERE: 722B Congress St., Portland. 207-536-0099.
SERVING: Noon to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday
PRICE RANGE: $5-$18 for all dishes
NOISE LEVEL: Garden party
VEGETARIAN: Few dishes
BAR: None
BOTTOM LINE: Before you read another word, you should know that Little Pig, a fast-casual Thai spot in the West End has no indoor dining. Owners and co-chefs Michael MacDonnell (Tempo Dulu, Nathalie’s) and Piyathida MacDonnell (Tempo Dulu, Terlingua) more than make up for the lack of seating with their fantastic “Thai-ish” menu. Outside, on the tree-covered patio, there are café tables to park yourself while you devour superlative Lao sausage and fiery jao sauce, fried hake banh mi sandwiches slathered with choo chee curry, and basil-flecked Thai-style street corn. Once winter hits, you’ll want to consider this stellar newcomer as takeout-only. It shouldn’t matter. Cooking this confident, spicing with such self-assured swagger, is a rarity. Don’t let the lack of a chair put you off.


Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at:
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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