"Hole in the wall" is a sort of dining Holy Grail; the object of a fervent quest for hidden culinary riches dressed up like a Hee Haw extra. Like Rousseau's noble savage, the true hole in the wall glimmers with irresistible romance and beats with the myth of primeval superiority hidden under a heap of rusticity. The more offbeat and obscure, the more transcendent the experience. The more coarse and makeshift its environs, the more exalted its status. The true hole in the wall gleefully negotiates the razor's edge separating the kitsch from the crude, the silly from the offensive.
Flamin' Papaya is a true hole in the wall, with authenticating seals and papers and everything. It's sparse. It's surrealistically odd and misshapen. It's damned impossible to find. Yet it isn't urban. It's tucked in the suburb of Garland, home to the Raytheon Co.'s Imagery and Geospatial Systems offshoot and a smudge of Lake Ray Hubbard shoreline. Flamin' Papaya isn't disheveled. It's tiny, bright and clean, with lipstick-red chairs, yellow walls and deep blue wainscoting.
But it is a hole. No doubt about that. Flamin' Papaya is concealed in the bowels of Laos Mai Market, an Asian culinary speakeasy with a grocery front. The bird's nest resting in the Laos Mai Market's sign is more prominent than the banner announcing the restaurant within. The path to that dining room is lined with crates of persimmons, cheesy imported toys, tins of fried white scale fish in soybean sauce, beef jerky in clear to-go tubs, tall cans of spicy anchovies and acres of Thai video tapes that look as though they were packaged in a utility closet with cartons of Avery labels and a low-res ink jet.
No doubt the food comes right off those shelves. Cost spreading and economies of scale are beautiful things, even for a wall hole. But that doesn't affect the affability of this Thai-Laotian-inspired cuisine. The Flamin' platter is a delicious assortment of appetizers served in a divided plastic plate. One slot holds a cluster of moist Buffalo wings (made Thai-like, presumably through the application of a dipping sauce of soy, fish sauce, chilies and scallions), fried so that the skin is delicately crisp. Fried quail embraced similar textures, though this cooking method seemed to fatigue its flavors. Interlaced in another divot were strips of marinated brisket that were robust and juicy, but tough. Instead of making the sauce the centerpiece, the core position was occupied by an engaging salad consisting of shredded cabbage and ripe tomatoes dunked in a vibrant dressing--Thai picnic cole slaw.
Then there was the larb. The most interesting thing about larb, the lettuce wrap from Southeastern Thailand, isn't necessarily the flavors, though they pack a mighty punch. It's the name; it rolls off the tongue in such an unculinary fashion, this piece of word stubble. You almost anticipate a terrible taste. In reality the dish is a tide of flavors. Meticulous grains of ground beef, well-soaked in a stock ripe with lime juice and fish sauce, are piled near folds of lettuce. The meat is tucked into the leaves, and for textural distinction crunchy sticky rice is offered, which adds a hint of sweetness to the salty citrus surge. This is a wrap that makes mincemeat out of quasi-Chinese restaurants' versions.
Chicken vegetable soup has the ring of diner fodder expelled from a grocery-shelf can, but it isn't. A clear broth sown with glass noodles, carrot, mushroom and Napa green onion along with some cilantro confetti, the soup was packed with rich, clean and refreshing flavors. Chicken was moist and ample, too.
It wasn't so in the chicken panang, a very tame version of this coconut milk and curry slurry with bamboo shoots, baby corn and zucchini plus a skimpy scattering of chicken shards. More ample poultry was found in the chicken ka-pow, a dish that blew Thai basil breath into scraps of broccoli, carrot, mushroom and bell pepper.
Pad Thai was an incongruence of flavor and texture. The flavor part was down pat, with clean displays of egg, bean sprouts, scallion and chopped peanuts uncluttered by the pea-soup fog of sweetness that seems to infect far too many versions of this dish. But the shrimp was tough and the noodles sticky, making it resemble a massive, impossibly complex hairball.
But these are minor miscues, ones that melt in the agreeable menu pricing. Flamin' Papaya is one of the most distinctive dining experiences you're likely to uncover in Dallas--or anywhere for that matter. And our server informed us if this little backroom mess hall generates enough excitement, they plan to expand it into the grocery aisles, maybe near the clear bags of dried fish. They should consider stringing some Christmas lights around that bird's nest, too. This flamin' hole needs a homing beacon.
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