The offices, retailers and hotels on 96th Street house some serious lunchtime connoisseurs who like their lunch spots as close to their workspaces as possible to preserve energy and maximize break time. But if the food doesn’t dazzle, eventually their search circumferences will widen. For man cannot exist on Subway alone.
Workers at 96th Street and Michigan should rejoice at the newly opened Thai Papaya. It debuted Labor Day. One week later, it was apparent that area workers had already smelled fresh meat from miles away. On my visit, men in slacks and ties and women in sheaths were already filling the orange-plastered walls with conversation about Colts games and cubicle politics.
Thai Papaya’s reputation precedes it: Indy Ethnic Food posters claim it’s owned by the same family that helmed Thai House close to 86th Street and Michigan.
I’ve never been to Thai House.Thai Papaya is good.
And pretty cheap. The one-sided menu has maybe 20 offerings in all, most entrees posting at $6.50.
I started with an appetizer of tod mun pla ($5.95), whose quick preparation — deep-fried fish patties with red curry — screamed of street food. Indeed, they belong in the fast-and-easy egg and scallion pancakes genre found in cuisines from China to Italy. A slight sting of red curry and oiliness of fish characterizes this nationality’s take. I’m not sure the little orange discs were supposed to be quite so rubbery, but an optimist might say it added character to the tasty dish. A food critic might say they were overcooked.
The spring rolls that were to come with my meal(s) actually came out ahead of time. What can I say about layers of deep-fried dough wrapped around some anonymous, julienned innards? I didn’t care much for the too-sweet dipping sauce that came with it.
Entrees can be ordered mild, medium, hot or extra hot, and I ordered my Massaman curry and tom yum noodle soup to be hot. If I had known that my Thai iced tea ($2.50) would be heavily infused with carrot-colored milk, I might have gone all the way. But that was my own ignorance: The drink is, famously, black tea kissed with whole-fat milk, flavored with any number of sweeteners. And it does a good job of expelling the heat.
My tom yum noodle soup with shrimp ($7.50) came first. You know you’re in for some healthy comfort food when orange grease greets you from the inside of your soup bowl. It was steamed with all the heady, fresh flavors of Thailand: Clean cilantro gave way to pungent, spicy lemongrass; the shrimp was just fishy enough and, thankfully, not as cooked as the tod mun pla. Dark, treecap mushrooms floated around, fighting the spicy, fish-sauced broth with their earthiness.
I myself was fighting — myself — not to eat another wide spoonful of the soup when the Massaman (“Muslim”) chicken curry ($6.50) arrived. The chicken and potato-drowned curry was cradled in a translucent, flower-shaped bowl, next to a mound of white rice.
Massaman is an Indian-influenced curry, heavy with coconut milk. It’s a rich sauce pregnant with sweetness and spice like cloves (but not as spicy as I had expected). Consuming it has a warming effect. I’m not sure why it’s not touted more prominently as an aphrodisiac.
Maybe it’s just me.
3905 W. 96th St.
(Menu says closed Monday, but they were open when I went!)
Tuesday-Friday: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 5-9 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday: 12-9 p.m.
Food: four stars
Atmosphere: three stars
Service: five stars