The Lost World: Papaya Vietnamese Contemporary Tapas Reviewed
On a Sunday night in late November, we weren’t the only table at Papaya Vietnamese Contemporary Tapas, but it was close.
My wife and I were there, drinking water because the place is BYO and we’d forgotten to pick up a bottle. There was the couple in the corner (smarter than us, drinking, all twinkling smiles and holding hands like they were auditioning for a jewelry store commercial,) and a family sprawling across two tables in the middle of the long, spare, narrow room—half-eaten plates of short ribs and papaya salad and special-of-the-night scallops scattered across the dark wood tables. Owner and chef Patrick Le was standing at the open kitchen’s pass, plating desserts. His mom, Thuy, shuttled back and forth between the kitchen and the big table where she sat (briefly) to talk with the family, who were obviously regulars and obviously having a great night.
Laura and I ate a vermicelli noodle bowl and short ribs with fish sauce and sesame oil and talked about places that Papaya reminded us of—other restaurants in other cities we’ve known where this style (high-end Vietnamese fusion small plates meant for sharing, for filling the table until there’s no room for elbows or cell phones) is more popular than it is here.
French-inflected, American-influenced, borderless and worldly and weird—that’s what Patrick Le does at Papaya. It’s a totally modern and deliberately careless acid-trip fusion of Vietnamese flavors. Everything from sliders to oysters to lobster tail to pork belly is fair game. His menu has a double-dozen stamps on its passport. It’s like Willy Wonka’s wallpaper—lick it and it tastes like a hundred different things at once. And Papaya is a restaurant that speaks to the strange geographical fictions that immigration, TV, the melting pot, and the brashness of youth creates—where pea tips with lump crab and garlic sauce is a perfectly reasonable thing to serve; where chicken wings brined in Chinese rice wine, fried, and then slicked down with sweetened fish sauce can share the table with ga roti (chicken sticky with five-spice honey, a side of garlic rice) without causing an international incident.
You don’t see this much in Philly. You almost never see it done so proudly, so happily, so un-self-consciously and so well. But there’s a reason Patrick Le can pull it off. And while I’d love to say it was training, brilliance, lack of guile or the simple arrogance of being young and in love with the power of the kitchen, it’s really none of those things.
It’s because before opening Papaya in July, Patrick Le had never cooked professionally in his life.
Oh, he’s done a little restaurant time—serving, running plates, bussing tables here and there (most notably at Po Le Cucina near Ambler)—but he’s not a cook. Never been a chef. He’s 25 years old and if you ask him, he’ll tell you about dropping out of college, watching a lot of cooking shows, cooking at home, and about his mom, Thuy.
He never learned how you’re not supposed to mix Italian and Spanish and Vietnamese plates on the same menu, so now he does calamari as a Vietnamese salad with bean sprouts, basil and lemon vinaigrette; a fusion paella with coconut curry and Vietnamese coriander. He never learned how to spot a bad idea, so now all ideas are good ones.
“It’s the 21st century,” he tells me when I ask him about the randomness of his menu, his inspirations. “Why can’t I just do whatever I want and have fun with it?”
That sound you just heard? It was the sound of ten thousand chefs all rolling their eyes at once.
But you gotta let that go. You gotta see Papaya for what it is—a strip mall Asian fusion restaurant in North Wales that Patrick and Thuy spent eight months searching for after they decided to go all in. She sold her nail salon in Warminster to help pay for it. He emptied his bank account. They work there together, Thuy on prep and the floor, Patrick running the line. And the incredible thing (the amazing, ridiculous, fairy-tale thing) is that sometimes Papaya works. A lot of the time, really. Because there’s a purity in coming to the kitchen with no baggage. A sense of highwire joy that plays out in the strangest of ways.
Like in banh mi sliders that are three bites of perfect—pâté, butter and sliced pork on brioche rolls with pickled cabbage and carrots and daikon, the whole thing the size of a hand grenade and almost good enough to make the trip to the ‘burbs worthwhile all on their own. Like that papaya salad, everything off the mandolin, razored into strips, touched with a bright and acidic vinegar dressing and studded with chunks of beef jerky. Like brussels sprouts charred on the grill, dressed in sweet chile sauce, and served with bits of pork belly fat, deep-fried like chicharróne, for a little crunch, a little smoothness as the fat melts over your tongue.
The menu is short. The list of specials is not. There are half-a-dozen every night, sometimes more. And they’re all over the place—a young chef’s fever dream of zero-history world cuisine. Monkfish and lobster tail in oyster sauce, topped with scallions. Spanish octopus off the grill, with a black olive aioli. Pork Wellington with hoisin. Duck confit over fruits and frisée. Grilled shrimp with lemon aioli, plated (balanced atop shot glasses, speared with a twist of bamboo) as though Patrick just got back from a 24-hour stage at Alinea. And from the dessert tray (yes, a dessert tray that gets walked around the room; yes, like the place turns into a mini Le Bec Fin when the final entrée plates are cleared), a hundred oddities—from financiers and cream puffs to deconstructed almond tarts, lemon-ricotta macarons and Vietnamese-coffee-infused tiramisu.
It’s not a perfect experience. How could it be? But it is a fun one. And sometimes, that’s enough. It’s crazy what Patrick and Thuy are attempting here. It’s joyous and risky and strange. It doesn’t always work (his plating, full of side-by-side presentations and so many spoon drags, looks like he learned it from a 6-month run of Gourmet magazines from 2003, and he often refines his specials across several nights, smoothing out the rough edges, learning as he goes), but it’s thrilling just to watch Patrick play, taking chances that cooks who know better wouldn’t even consider, throwing it all at the wall to see what sticks.
2 stars – Come if you’re in the neighborhood
Papaya Contemporary Vietnamese Tapas [Foobooz]