Restaurant review: Papaya Street Grill

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From the March 15, 2012 edition

I’m tempted to blurt out that Papaya Street Grill makes the best fast food in town. But saying so would unfairly denigrate this deceptively terrific place with a “fast-food” label it doesn’t deserve, so I’ll put it this way: At the casual, counter-ordering Papaya Street Grill, your food comes out, uh, quickly, nothing costs more than $9 and the grub is often do-a-double-take great.

Open for about three months, I only recently discovered PSG because its thumbnail description — “Southeast Asian Chipotle-style restaurant in the Sawmill/161 area” — hardly inspired me. But positive reports kept trickling in, so I wisely took the plunge.

Here’s what I quickly learned about PSG: It’s run by some of the most friendly, knowledgeable and capable people I’ve ever encountered in an operation of its scale, and it has an actual chef (late of the fine Thai Taste) who cooks fully realized, top-shelf menu items — so those Chipotle comparisons are overstated.

Inside, PSG easily outshines your basic faceless fast-fooder, too. Mostly this is due to that earnestly accommodating staff, who efficiently talk you through PSG’s Pacific Island-centric offerings and the way this clever restaurant runs. But there’s also PSG’s clean look, with walls that sport red and green tropical hues above a mosaic effect, plus a TV showing previews of the food you’ll soon be enjoying.

About that food — sure, much is made here of notorious Chipotle-esque “pick either rice (brown or white) or noodles (egg or rice) or the salad (romaine) and personally customize it” process. And, yeah, a heavy emphasis is placed on flavoring your selection with one of PSG’s nine signature sauces (all interesting). Yet while this leads to fine (and healthy) meals, I’m going to suggest you consider ordering pre-designed items, such as the following excellent dishes — which bounce around Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Filipino and North American favorites.

Papaya Salad ($6): A refreshing hybrid of the styles favored in Vietnam (with mint and cilantro) and Thailand (with tomatoes). Instead of funky with fish sauce, it’s sprinkled with dried shrimp bits and dressed in a light vinaigrette that doesn’t drown out the veggies.

Pad Thai ($9): Lively and terrific, made with unusually thin noodles, it exhibits uncommon balance and nuance plus a welcome absence of cloying sweetness.

Hawaiian Seoul ($7): A killer yin-and-yang sandwich that’s a sort of bulgogi banh mi loaded with warm, juicy, teriyaki-ish and garlicky beef curls, cold and sour kimchee, veggie garnishes and what tasted like gojuchang mayo

Ring of Fire Burger ($6.45): Another home run. An extremely grease-restrained double burger with authentic backyard-style chargrilled flavors ignited by bold Asian accents (“papaya relish,” “volcanic sweet chili sauce” and jalapenos) and containing a lotta veggie crunch, it easily overcomes its pedestrian bun.

French Baguette Sandwich ($7): A really fresh and addictive banh mi (I liked it made with pork) with a rich and clean-tasting homemade pate, all the requisite add-ons and a crisp, toasted roll

Green Curry ($9): This was advertised as PSG’s “most intense” curry, and I believe it. While its jolts of fish sauce, chili heat and Thai basil were slightly softened by coconut milk and nicely in balance, it’s not for novices — but everyone else should love it.

Sweetened Roti Flatbrad with Ube Ice Cream ($6): Wow, what a knockout dessert! The “roti” eats a bit like warm, flaky, dense and buttery pastry a la barely sweet baklava; the shockingly purple ice cream is made with a taro-ish tuber; eating the two together is like stumbling upon a rare little treasure.