Sacramento eaters are used to getting their southeast Asian dining fix in the southern reaches of the city, but new Lao-Thai restaurant Green Papaya is so far south you might be forgiven for suspecting it’s actually in Elk Grove.
That’s perhaps not surprising when you learn that Green Papaya is not only the brick-and-mortar operation of a popular food truck but also an outpost of a prior Stockton restaurant.
Owned by Mony and John Vangsoulatda, as are both restaurants, the truck was featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives in 2016. A clip of the segment runs on a loop by the cash register, and the food truck is still going strong around Sacramento. If you crave its casual Lao food but don’t have the patience to chase down a truck, this new sit-down establishment is for you, so long as you’re willing to drive to the southern city limits.
Lao cuisine may be less familiar to some diners than Vietnamese, which has taken strong root in Sacramento’s cheap-eats restaurant scene, and Thai, which went mainstream decades ago. Laos — in both the style and flavors of its food and in its geography — lies between Vietnam and Thailand, landlocked in southeast Asia.
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For a long time, West Sacramento’s Vientiane was one of the very few Lao options. Green Papaya, while far from perfect, is a welcome addition. Its menu is somewhat limited, so the brick-and-mortar place still has a bit of that slapdash food-truck feel. I’d love to see them offer more menu items as they settle in.
Meanwhile, though, I’m happy enough to take a dish of the spicy Lao sausage, rich with lemongrass and chewy chunks of pork, a standout dish from the menu, any day. It’s one of several rice plates, which come with a choice of sticky or steamed rice. I’d go with the former; on my visits, the steamed rice tasted dried out.
Other rice plates include laap, a salad of ground of finely chopped meat more often known in the U.S. as larb, in either chicken or beef. The chicken was bright with lime leaf and well seasoned with lemongrass, its acidity balanced by the distinctive toasty flavor of rice powder. Nuea namtok — grilled, sliced beef salad — shared a similar flavor profile, with the addition of shallots.
Pork belly, chewy riblets marinated with oyster sauce, and crunchy-skinned chicken wings with a similar salty-sweet marinade were all also available as rice plates.
These options, and the sausage, plus the restaurant’s namesake green papaya salad, slippery rice noodles and cabbage, all came on a generous but inexpensive papaya platter, available for dine-in only. It served two with leftovers and would likely do for three or more with other options alongside.
About that green papaya salad: It comes in two varieties, the funky and spicy Lao style or light and bright Thai. Both were hot; you can choose your spice level, but when we requested mild for the Lao style it was too piquant for the friend dining with me. I enjoyed it a lot, though, with the crisp shreds of papaya contrasting with the pungent fermented flavor of the distinctive thicker, brown fish sauce. The Thai style is more familiar for many Western diners and was also well-balanced and enjoyable.
Some of the Thai-style dishes at Green Papaya, however, are weaker than their Lao counterparts. I liked the simple pad see ew, which wasn’t too sweet, but couldn’t say the same for the drunken noodle. Its tender ribbons of rice noodle were drowned in sauce that had little spice and a lot of sugar, almost reminiscent of ketchup.
Red curry, one of the rice plates, was pleasant enough but not terribly distinctive. The menu also offers basil chicken, yellow curry and pad Thai. There’s a choice of chicken, beef or shrimp with these dishes. Although the white-meat chicken was reasonably tender, the beef was chewy.
The chicken in the curries and noodles was nowhere near as good as that found in a chicken soup with housemade, udon-thick tapioca-rice flour noodles. This soup, called kao piak sen, had juicy chunks of shredded chicken in a flavorful broth with the pop of fried garlic. Simple and satisfying, it was a winner for any chilly, rainy day.
By contrast, an appetizer of rice-wrapper spring rolls, filled with tender shrimp and a generous, aromatic helping of green herbs, was ultra-fresh and would make a refreshing summer lunch.
On one of my visits, the restaurant was out of a dish I especially wanted to try, nam kao: a salad of crispy deep-fried rice combined with cured pork and pork skin, ginger, and peanuts. We called ahead the next time and were rewarded with a riot of textural and flavor contrasts: shreds of biting ginger, crisp lettuce, the tooth-sticking crunch of the fried rice, gelatinous pork, roasted dry chiles, the pop of peanuts. It proved worth going back for.
Drinks are a weak point at this restaurant, so far. The only options are Thai iced tea and coffee, the latter tooth-achingly sweet, and standard fountain drinks. The limited choice of beverages is one way that Green Papaya bears the hallmarks of its food-truck origin. Another is the extremely basic menu above the cash register where you order. If you’re not familiar with its offerings, or you don’t consult the paper menu, it’s hard to know what to expect from the bluntly named dishes.
Thankfully, the server at the register on my visits was helpful, though the restaurant felt a little understaffed and the dining room lonely, even though food comes out fast.
My overall impression was that the Sacramento branch of Green Papaya hasn’t quite settled into being a non-mobile restaurant yet. Its Lao fare is more interesting so far than its Thai cooking, but I left wanting more. I’d love to see this young restaurant expand its menu, elevate the service a little and continue pushing to bring a wider range of the complex, lively flavors of Laos to the southern edge of Sacramento.
8785 Center Parkway, Sacramento. 916-667-3703
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Beverage options: Thai iced coffee and tea and sodas only.
Vegetarian friendly: It’s not obviously vegetarian friendly, as most menu options feature meat, but vegetarians can request tofu and ask that fish sauce be omitted.
Gluten-free options: According to the server, the menu’s only gluten-free option is the pad Thai, though it’s not marked as such on the menu.
Noise levels: Moderate.
Ambiance: Very casual but with some attractive touches (dark wood tables and interesting, modern-looking embroidered wall hangings, for instance) elevate the atmosphere.
Green Papaya took a long way round to its south Sac brick-and-mortar restaurant, from a food truck and a prior Stockton location, but the results are a solid place for trying the less-often-tasted specialties of Laos, plus some familiar Thai basics.
Go for the Laotian food here, especially sausage zesty with lemongrass and lime leaves, the kao piak sen soup with pillowy housemade rice-flour noodles and the namesake papaya salad. Thai dishes, like the overly sweet drunken noodles, can taste a bit like an afterthought.
Counter service is fairly basic, but food comes out fast and the register attendant is helpful with questions about the menu. Getting utensils and napkins can feel a little haphazard (sometimes servers bring them, sometimes you have to grab disposable chopsticks) and could be smoothed out.
The food is inexpensive, with nearly all dishes under $10 and served in generous portions. The $24 “papaya platter” can serve two or three.