It's not easy being green
There's latent lust in Dallas for exotica. You can smell it. No, not the over-processed, ultra-premium Velveeta kind that results in slick forays such as Samba Room or the South American gauchos at Fogo de Chao and Texas de Brazil.
Dallas yearns for the real deal, where the dining room is so squeezed and poorly laid-out, you brush different patches of flesh every time you move. Where the decor is so cheap and minimalist, you would swear it was assembled with priceless artifacts. Where the servers don't prattle but smile, nod, hum, and then disappear behind a swinging door, never to reappear. Where the food is messily heaped on huge plates, forcing your elbows to spend most of dinner marinating in saucers of peanut sauce.
Green Papaya, a new Vietnamese restaurant on Oak Lawn Avenue in a former Java Jones location, is like that. The dining room is tight: a raw knot of noisy congestion throbbing to the chirpy staccato pulses of techno music. The walls are washed in peach pastels pestered with sea sponges. Plugged inside the back wall is a fishless aquarium.
Servers swiftly negotiate the maze of blond wood tables and chairs crowded over Green Papaya's concrete floor. But where they are going in such a flurry is a mystery. We sat several minutes before one of them stopped by to take our order, and that was before we had menus. Yet this is the sort of cart-before-the-horse manner that gives exotica its charm. It took our meal a while to arrive. Still, it made it to our table before the flatware bound along with chopsticks in cloth napkins.
Once finished with our meal, we flagged down a server to tell him we were ready for dessert. He smiled, waved vigorously, and yelled his acknowledgement. We never saw him again.
But we did manage to prod another server into delivering menus to our table for a quick perusal of desserts. "We're out of everything except the tropical fruit cake," he said. Despite this heads-up, he asked us what we wanted when he returned several minutes later. The tropical fruit cake, a white cake with the kind of frosting that makes wedding confections such swell places to construct miniature gazebos over plastic Lilliputian brides and grooms, was topped with strawberries, kiwi, and mandarin orange slimed in sweet glaze. It wasn't bad: The cake was moist and refreshing.
The rest of the menu is executed with the same level of charm as the service. Green Papaya serves its dishes on huge white plates, a pair of which can easily consume most of the space on the table. You may want to bring a couple of cup holders to clamp onto the edge of your table for drinks.
Also, make liberal use of chopsticks. They take up far less space than the flatware, and much of the menu seems crafted with klutzy Americans in mind. Steamed rice, for example, comes stuck together in convenient bite-size wads. No need to flick individual grains from the bowl's edge to your mouth. Thin rice noodles are equally convenient. My serving with the bahn hoi chao tom (charbroiled shrimp over sugar cane) was assembled from five firmly fused noodle knots that made chopstick feeding a breeze.
The shrimp, actually a paste made from pulverized shrimp, coconut, garlic, and onion molded around the sugar cane, was smoky, moist, firm, savory, and slightly sweet. It was so good, I went ahead and ate the sugar cane, although I'm not sure that you're supposed to do this.
I read in a culinary book somewhere that Vietnamese cooking uses almost no oil. I don't think the Green Papaya folks have read this book. Much of the food looked like animals extracted from a tanker spill. A whole platter of them appeared on the Green Papaya sampler: shimmering shrimp tempura; leaky shrimp toast with luster; glossy egg rolls. The only thing on the plate that seemed to escape the slick was the shrimp spring rolls: rice wraps stuffed with lettuce, cilantro, and vermicelli. They were fine, maybe a little bland with flavorless shrimp. But this was common throughout the menu: tasteless shrimp with a hint of soapiness.
Chicken worked out a little better. Though goi tom ga, a salad with charcoal-broiled chicken and boiled shrimp, still didn't offer any improvement in the sea life, at least the moist, savory chicken and the surrounding elements, scattered on large lettuce leaves, were lively and invigorating.
Ga nuong xa, charbroiled chicken in lemongrass, was delicious with plump, moist breast meat with distinct savory flavors, though hints of lemongrass were hard to detect. A side of zucchini, carrot, green beans, and onions was just about perfect: tender and crisp with bright color and good flavor.
But then our table was hit with more refugees from the oil-tanker disaster. Com chien dac biet -- fried rice with egg, peas, carrots, bean sprouts, roasted corn, and onion tossed with shrimp and chicken -- was almost too slippery to maneuver with chopsticks. Yet it managed to break from the thick sheen with rich, smoky flavors.
Perhaps the best thing I tried on Green Papaya's menu was the pho, traditional Vietnamese soup with thick rice noodles that comes in a bowl as big as a hot tub. Only the noodles weren't thick. They appeared to be the same thin threads welded together in clumps next to my shrimp and sugar cane, yet these were supple and separate. The menu offered a choice of chicken, beef, or meatballs. I opted for the beef, which arrived as chewy gray sheets splashed with bright pink that indicated the meat was most likely not cooked to the consistency of a leather undergarment. And it wasn't.
The soup came with a plate of fresh bean sprouts and Asian mint for tossing into the broth, and, by all means, toss. These sides add fresh crispness and breathiness to the broth, which pricks with pepper spark and fumigates with hints of cinnamon sweetness.
This is just another thread in Green Papaya's exotica. When you put it all together, the place nearly achieves a certain exasperatingly raw exotic beatitude. A little more attention to the shrimp, rice, noodles, and lubricants would just about pull it all together. That, and maybe some fish for the aquarium.
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