Green Papaya

By on 11 March, 2014 in Food, Jesseca Cornelson, Restaurant Reviews with 0 Comments

It seems like people either love or hate Green Papaya (409 Coliseum Blvd), and I can kind of see why. My first experience with Green Papaya was during my first year in Montgomery. I was living near the fairgrounds, and almost nightly I’d lie in bed in my lonely new town shaking the Urban Spoon app in an effort to convince myself I had not made a grave mistake by moving to Montgomery. Green Papaya kept showing up to rave reviews and was just minutes from my house.

After checking their schedule online, I convinced a colleague to join me. Despite the fact that it was a Friday night at seven, the doors were locked and the lights were off. However, peering inside, I saw a small but nicely decorated waiting area and empty tables with table cloths further in. Had they suddenly gone out of business? Was it a mom and pop shop? Were mom or pop experiencing some kind of emergency? There was no sign on the door offering an explanation. It was one of many surreal experiences of my first year in Montgomery.

I probably never would have gone back had a date not suggested for dinner. His favorite restaurant, he purred. He goes at least once a week, he crooned. At his suggestion, I had the Pad Thai. It was Pad Thai, not particularly distinguished from any other Pad Thai I’ve had. The date wasn’t a nightmare, but it didn’t warrant repeating, and perhaps that too shaded my impression of the restaurant. I hadn’t thought much of it since.

However, recently colleagues in my new department suggested a group dinner. The organizer declared Green Papaya “her favorite” in a list of choices that included El Rey and Sinclair’s, both restaurants I’m partial to. So, Green Papaya it was. Because I am kind of an idiot when it comes to managing time-space, I thought the dinner started half an hour later than it really did, so my plan to have everyone snap photos of their dinners was bust. Heck, I even forgot to take a picture of my own dinner.

2014-01-23 Chicken Satay 2014-01-23 Thai Spaghetti 2014-01-23 Yum Nua

This time, however, I had much better luck with my dinner choice. Having studied the menu in advance, I knew I wanted item #2 under the salad portion of the menu: Yum Nua, described as, “sliced charbroiled beef seasoned with tomatoes, white onions, scallions and cilantro in a spicy lime juice dressing served on a bed of lettuce.” The description is pretty accurate. It basically looks like a pile of yummy beef with tomatoes, onions, scallions, and cilantro on a couple of leaves of lettuce — a bed of lettuce, right? I was expecting more lettuce (it was listed under salads), but I was very pleased with the dish anyway. It also comes with a side of rice.

 

Sans pictures, I knew I needed to return for photos. This time I dragged along a friend who lives rather close to Green Papaya but who had somehow never gone. He fancies himself a picky eater, but he’s been willing to try new things and often actually likes them, so I think this picky eater business is some kind of defense mechanism — not to psychoanalyze the food choices of my friends or anything.

We ordered Chicken Satay and beers while we looked the menu over: Sam Adams Lager — rich, balanced & complex — or so the label told me. I suggested Pad Thai as a good starting place. Picky eaters often like noodles, and Pad Thai has to be like the number one most common Thai dish enjoyed by North Americans. I have no research to back up this notion, but it just has to be true. I knew I’d be having the Yum Nua again. As we looked through the menu, I tried to explain the dishes I might have a vague understanding of.

I generally adore Thai curries whether Panang or Masamam or the ones named after colors (yellow, green, and red), but their creamy bases might be off putting for a first timer. There are a number of choices of stir fries, which to my mind sound pretty un-intimidating. We didn’t really get into the noodle soups — delicious as they are, they can sometimes be difficult to eat for the uninitiated. My first attempt at pho was pretty much a bloodbath, even though it was delicious. And I just plain skipped over the noodle dishes on the menu. Despite my oversight, my friend decided on Thai Spaghetti.

Decisions made, we dug into the chicken satay. It was well seasoned, and the peanut sauce is one of the better ones I’ve tried. I’m also a fan of the cooling but sweet cucumber and onion sauce — though “salad” and “relish” are more fitting terms than “sauce.” My only complaints: The chicken was a little tough, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but it made it difficult to eat off the wooden skewers, and there were no knives among the silverware to help. I ended up using my spoon to cut the chicken because I’m resourceful that way. There were also no salt or pepper shakers on the tables. I didn’t notice because I didn’t need any, but it seems like an unusual choice to not have them on the table. My favorite Thai restaurant in Cincinnati fills the pepper shakers with a finely ground pinkish red pepper that has just a little extra kick.

Our main courses were great: tasty and expansive. We both left about two-thirds of our dinners in to-go boxes with a skewer of chicken satay each. Each dish is easily three meals if you’re not hogging out. The Yum Nua was as I remembered it: fragrantly spiced in a thin but complex juice dressing and not at all greasy. This time I asked for hot (the choices are mild, hot, and Thai hot, if I recall correctly), and Green Papaya delivered.

I was very impressed with the Thai Spaghetti. The noodles had a beautiful brown sheen from the light sweet chili sauce and were tossed with red and green bell peppers, carrots, and Thai basil. They were also spicy and abundant.

From the number of other customers happily dabbing at noses, I take it Green Papaya regularly trades in delightfully spicy dishes, though they can be ordered mild as well. It’s the kind of place that has taken me four tries to fully appreciate. I can see how disruptions to the regular hours and the lack of knives, chopsticks, and salt and pepper shakers might be annoying. But the food is worth it, and these kind of quirks add character.

Skip the Pad Thai. Pad Thai is Pad Thai. It’s fine, but I’ve never had remarkable Pad Thai. Take a chance. Try something new. If your dish surprises you, go with it. Be open to the experience. A Taoist approach to dining can be just as enlightening to a Taoist approach to life.

Jesseca Cornelson is an Assistant Professor of English at Alabama State University and is a resident of Cloverdale. She grew up in Mobile and did her graduate studies in the Yankee North, earning degrees at The Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati. She blogged about her visits to Montgomery to do research at her now-defunct blog, Difficult History, and was a Platte Clove Artist-in-Residence, sponsored by the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development.

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