Thai Papaya is easily my favorite Thai restaurant in Hampton Roads, so far. I’ve tried a bunch, and found most to be lackluster – either dumbing down the menu to attract the Chinese take-out crowd or just missing the mark entirely. Thai Papaya’s menu is standard Thai fare, but it hits all the right notes and never fails to satisfy my craving for basil-infused stir fries, incendiary lime-spiked beef salad and mind-bendingly hot curries. They aren’t trying to push any envelopes (except when it comes to heat), but they’ve mastered the standards, and there’s something to be said for that.
Thai Papaya is in a strip-mall.
OK, I’m going to stop right there, because you know what? Virtually every restaurant in Hampton Roads is in a strip mall, next to a strip mall or across the street from a strip mall. So, from here on out, I’m only going to tell you if a restaurant isn’t in a strip mall. Deal? Deal.
Now that we have that squared away, let me tell you I have a pretty simple litmus test for Asian restaurants, and that is that if the menu is in perfect English, you’ve probably stumbled across a straight-up poseur wannabe Asian joint, and you should just keep on walking. Panda Express, Pei Wei, P.F. Chang’s? Yeah, I’m looking at you guys.
In fact, I’d say the more bungled the menu is, the greater the likelihood is you’ve found the real deal. And Thai Papaya doesn’t disappoint. In true English-as-a-second-language form, Thai Papaya’s menu evidences serious problems with pluralizing things, as they happily advertise “cilantros,” “garlics,” “napa cabbages,” “celeries” (for which you have to commend them for changing the “y” to “ie”), “fresh gingers,” and the ubiquitous “shrimps.” You can also order “cripy fried Tilapia,” stir-fried meat “on the top of Romaine,” and “sautee beefs.” They somewhat helpfully warn you that “we use minced chicken for order chicken.”
What seals the deal, however, are the inkjet-printed brain teasers taped to the walls near the cash register. One sets out their confounding warranty: “Return food items will only be accepted day of purchased. No refund all food items.” As far as I can tell, this means if you bring back something you bought that day, you’ll get a partial refund for the non-food portions. Perchance they’ll give you a nickel for your unused fork? Surely causing all Department of Labor employees to cringe, the jar by the cash register pointedly advises: “Waitress works for tips.” My personal favorite reads, “Control inventory cost. Read menu carefully. Once food is cook, you have to pay for.”
If the folks who work there weren’t so darned nice, I’d be inclined to take offense at these sorts of notes. But I get the sense they may have had more than a few negative experiences with customers who really don’t get the whole Thai food thing. This conclusion primarily comes from this sign: “Warning. All curry is made with spices and they are still hot even when you ask for no heat.” Ordering curry with “no heat?” It’s like ordering espresso with no caffeine, a burger with no bun, or a virgin margarita.
Oh wait … people do that.
It is, however, the whole heat thing that forms my main criticism of Thai Papaya, and I’m somewhat ashamed to even own up to it. See, Thai food is supposed to be hot. As in lips-burning, tongue-numb, whateveryoudodon’ttouchyourface, I’m-going-to-lick-this-here-smoldering-charcoal-just-to-cool-off stupidly hot. But most American palates just don’t do that kind of hot. In fact, most North American types get heartburn just thinking about eating something that hot.
I like to think of myself as a bit more accustomed to spicy foods than the Average American. I cook with habanero and bird chili peppers and know my way around most hot-sauce stores. But, man, my last bout with Thai Papaya’s panang curry at “medium” heat had my face glistening at the second bite. By the forth, the back of my scalp was sweating. When I finally threw in the towel, I looked like I’d just run five-miles at top speed. My lips were numb, my shirt was soaked and I was frantically looking for more rice to ease the pain.
And this has kind of been my experience with Thai Papaya. Ordering a dish “mild” yields a ho-hum pedestrian walk-in-the-park experience while “medium” is like tying yourself to a Formula One car and trying to body surf behind it. I can’t even imagine what “hot” gets you, other than a week’s worth of serious gastrointestinal issues.
But hot as it may be, it tastes great. And by “great,” I mean “[expletive deleted] awesome.”
If you’re unfamiliar, Thai curries are spice-infused bowls of coconut milk with your choice of chicken, beef, pork, tofu or shrimp. Thai Papaya’s panang curry has a rich, layered flavor and a deep orange-red color punctuated with green lime leaves. It’s one of those things where you’ll be thinking “just one more bite,” no matter how much pain you’re in. The yum nua – beef salad – is a dish often overlooked by western diners. To cut right to the chase, this dish is one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. It’s thinly sliced beef tossed with red onions, cilantro and cucumber in a spicy, tangy lime dressing on top of a bed of lettuce of some sort (generally Romaine). It’s probably one of the most perfect combinations of sweet, salty, sour and spicy ever invented – you know, the kind where you end up tipping up the plate to drink the dressing and wondering if you should put in another order to go.
The standard dishes don’t fail, either. Pick the aptly-named “garlic” entrée, and you’ll be treated to a black-pepper infused affair in an aromatic, but light, brown sauce (I’d recommend the pork). Krapow gets you can’t-go-wrong fried basil leaves and Pad Khing Sod is an awesomely indulgent over-the-top ginger-and-more-ginger affair.
Their tangy papaya salad shows up startlingly hot (go with “mild” on this one), but the julienned green papaya still has all the tart, tangy crunch that makes this dish my go-to appetizer. Oddly, it’s presented more as an entrée, with its own side of rice – something I’ve never seen before. Since it’s sold as an entrée salad instead of the typical appetizer, it clocks in at $5.95, which is a buck more than any other appetizer … but so worth it. If you order only one thing off Thai Papaya’s menu, the papaya salad should be it. Shove the rice off to the side as a hedge against any overspiced entrée you may have ordered.
Where Thai Papaya drops the ball is with their Pad Thai, the standard American-palate dish. When done right, the flat rice-noodle dish has a complex, yet light set of nutty flavors brightened by lime juice and cilantro while anchored by an understated, smoldering heat. Scattered bean sprouts should give it an even lighter feel and satisfying crunch. This is the dish most Americans order at Thai joints – it’s the cheeseburger on the menu, if you will. Yet, Thai Papaya’s version shows up as a dense, dead and dull ball of knotted noodles. Since I rarely order the dish, it isn’t much of a setback for me personally, but it is a serious notch out of their otherwise great arsenal.
Should you go, make sure you ask for some prik nam pla (sounds like it’s spelled), which is one of the world’s greatest condiments. “Prik” means “spicy” and “nam pla” is “fish sauce.” And don’t go getting all “ewww, fish sauce” on me, because the stuff is off-the-charts fantastic and doesn’t taste a thing like fish. It is also off-the-charts obscenely hot, so try a couple drops on some plain rice first. And when I say “drops,” I mean drops like what you’d get out of an eyedropper. If you need more, then add appropriately. On the other hand, grab your redneck cousin and tell him, “If you can’t eat a teaspoon of this, then you’re a San Francisco libruhl what voted for Barbara Pelosi and uses arugula foy grass as a chiken mcnugget dipping sauce.” (hint: take a camera and have an escape route planned)
The restaurant itself is nicely decorated with typical Thai wall hangings (see if you can spot the small shrine) and the typical efficiency-gone-wrong aesthetic (drink refrigerator in the middle of the dining room, pay-at-the-cash-register-which-is-in-plain-view, etc.) minus the psychedelic blue/green neon accents. You get mahogany chairs and plastic wrapped tables set next to one wall’s worth of bowling-alley snack bar booths for a total of 18 tables or so. Weekday lunchtime is particularly buzzy, when the restaurant is packed with military folk (no strangers to Asian cuisine) from nearby Langley Air Force Base.
Bottom line is whether you’re a Thai aficionado or a complete newbie, Thai Papaya is worth a stop … or twenty.
Address: 2708-C North Armistead Ave., Hampton
Phone: (757) 788-8345
Note on hours: Closes at 8:30 p.m.
UPDATE: It looks like Thai Papaya is opening up another restaurant a couple doors down from the Michael’s on Chatham Drive in Newport News.
Don’t trust me? Here’s what the folks at Urbanspoon have to say: