Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, April 10, 2003
Papaya Garden
Larb gai $6.95
Lemon grass quail $9.95
Lao beef jerky $7.95
Mango and sweet rice $4.95
Lao Pow

You’ll be knocked out by Papaya Garden’s fresh, spicy Asian cuisine.


Papaya Garden Thai and Lao Cuisine

1201 W Airport Fwy, Ste 100, Euless. 817-684-9378. Mon-Fri 11am-3pm; 5pm-10pm. Sat 11am-3pm; 5-10pm. All major credit cards accepted.

ometimes a voyage of discovery need not require a plane ticket and a passport, only a willing mind. A recent dinner visit to Papaya Garden was a road trip for the spirit — it rekindled my love of unique seasonings, flavors, and textures.

My heart was won with pliant balls of sticky rice, equally pliant sticks of beef, soup the color of red zinger tea, quails flavored with lemon grass, and the most perfect dessert I’ve eaten in ages. Papaya Garden is a place to rejoice in the act of eating and the sensory pleasure of taste.

The menu at Papaya Garden includes classic Thai and classic Lao dishes as well as a blend of those cultures represented by Issan cuisine from the Thailand-Laos border region. The three pillars of Issan are marinated grilled chicken, green papaya salad, and sticky rice.

A guest and I tried Thai, Lao, and the Issan dishes. Everything was startlingly fresh and spicy.

At dinner I ordered larb gai, a typical Lao salad (also called laap) of coarsely ground chicken flavored with red onions, lime juice, and jalapeño, served with a fat wedge of lettuce. Each element shone with brightness. Later, as a leftover, the dish became muddied so that the chicken tasted like lime, and the jalapeño like onion.

My favorite Lao dish was beef jerky, which came with green papaya salad and sticky rice. Cigarette-sized sticks of cured beef tasted as if they had been softened in watered-down vinegar, then fried — incredible. In the salad, which, I’ll admit, is an acquired taste, unripe papaya had been shredded and pounded to release its juice. Lime juice, fish sauce, chilies, and tomatoes were then added to it. The salad had the stringy appearance of spaghetti squash, but the consistency and some of the taste of jicama, with the added sweet/sour/earthy flavor of fish sauce.

One of the details that made the meal excellent was the sticky rice. I was so inspired by these perfectly cooked, translucent nuggets of rice-joy that when next I wear the chef’s hat at home, my new challenge will be to master the art of sticky rice. This version was steamed (not boiled) in a tightly woven grass basket, so that, unlike Saran Wrap, the rice stuck to itself, not to your fingers. This is an important detail — sticky rice should be eaten with the fingers. It can be rolled into a ball and dipped into condiments or eaten straight.

Another typical Issan dish is quails in lemon grass. For my meal, three whole quails had been lightly salted, then deep fried. They had a slight citrusy flavor, likely from the lemon grass, but were remarkable because they had been perfectly fried. The meat was juicy, and the frying process had made the thin bones absolutely edible.

My guest and I also tried the Laotian version of the soup the Vietnamese call pho. Imagine pho with a richer, deeper brown fish sauce, and you’ve nailed it. Like the Vietnamese version, this was served with bean sprouts, lime wedges, cilantro, and romaine lettuce leaves. We ordered it with duck and were thrilled with the fat, rich slices of duck breast that studded the broth.

The soup of the day was po tak, an inspired dish that baffled the taste buds. It hinted at a fish stock but was clear and red like red zinger tea. Strands of a red beet-like vegetable may have given the dish its color. (Or was it the chilies? Or the curry?) No matter. This is not a soup to dissect; it’s a soup to enjoy. Our clay pot had shrimp, mussels, and calamari. You can only imagine how happy my tongue was.

My last memory of Papaya Garden will be of sweet, sticky rice with mango. The yin of the sticky rice, topped with sweet coconut milk and sesame seeds, was balanced by the yang of the spicy, fresh mango. Together, the flavors rivaled the best death-by-chocolate or crème brûlée dessert I’ve ever eaten. (Note: This is a special dish, only available when mangos are fresh and ripe.)

In all, a worthy end to a wow of a Lao meal.

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