Ever since our beloved Mekong Thai on Montgomery Road closed a couple years back, we've been seeking a Thai restaurant worthy of the moniker, "best in the city." There are several contenders: our previous "best" had long been Lemon Grass in Hyde Park, which has enjoyed at least two decades of success and continues to be among our favorites. There's Mango Tree in Mariemont; Lins Pad Thai in Westwood; Teak Thai in Mt. Adams; Green Papaya in Hyde Park; Bangkok Kitchen in Kenwood and many, many more.
The latest Thai restaurant to throw its proverbial hat into the ring is a second Green Papaya now open in Mariemont, located at the corner of Plainville Road and Murray Ave. The building once housed the Greek restaurant, Demetrios IV.
The interior has been tastefully redecorated, its dining room refreshed with new furniture the restaurant hopes satisfies the tastes of its slightly upper-middle class Mariemont clientele. A sushi bar faces incoming diners, with tables and booths off to the right. We were seated and presented with the obligatory sushi ordering sheet and pencil as well as fetchingly colorful cloth-bound dinner menus. I wonder how long it will take for them to become defiled with various curry stains. Of course, if menus are promptly taken away prior to any food arriving, it's a moot point.
The menu should be familiar to any Thai restaurant aficionado: its structured in the same "greatest hits" category breakdown we've seen at virtually every one in Cincinnati. Beyond the appetizers, soups and salads, there is the "Curry Offerings" section, with a choice of eight types of curry; a Noodle and Fried Rice section, featuring popular classics like Pad Thai, Pad See You and Bangkok fried rice; and healthy, seafood and chef-recommended sections. Still, there were at least a few menu items I hadn't noticed before and was eager to try. All entrees are served with a choice of a protein: tofu, chicken, pork, beef, or various seafood.
We started off with a couple of Taro-flavored bubble tea drinks ($3.50). I was never a fan of bubble tea, but a recent visit to Hawaii introduced me to the purplish taro root products, including the pasty island staple called, "poi," as well as frozen taro smoothie drinks, which are similar to ice-blended bubble tea variants. Green Papaya's version was very reminiscent of the Hawaiian drink we'd enjoyed: it was ice cold and creamy with the consistency of a thin milk shake, sweet and refreshing and chock full of those strangely pleasing tapioca "pearls" sucked through an oversized straw. Tasty in the Spring, the drink will prove even more delightful once another sweaty Cincinnati summer season hits with full force.
My girlfriend chose the pasta basil entree ($11.95): spinach noodles stir-fried with steamed tofu, eggs, broccoli, bell peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, onion and basil. I chose their Northern Thai version of Khao Soi ($12.95), a spicy, soupy, coconut milk-infused dish with chicken, broccoli, spinach, onion and boiled egg noodles soaking in curry broth and then served with a side of crispy fried egg noodles.
Three spice levels are available at Green Papaya: mild, medium and hot. After two visits, we've come to learn that their spice levels overall lean toward the extreme side, so if you're going for hot, expect lip swelling scorchiness. I made this mistake with my Khao Soi which, while delicious, was unremittingly spicy, a tantalizing cauldron of rich, savory hellfire mitigated not one whit by the coconut milk. The crunchy noodle topping was a nice touch; their consistency and flavor reminded me of the crunchy chow mein noodles I had enjoyed as a kid.
My girlfriend's pasta basil dish was pleasantly devoid of the oiliness common at some Thai restaurants, exhibiting a hearty grilled flavor from the stir-fried vegetables, finished with the sweet pepperiness of basil leaves.
Green Papaya hasn't yet earned our title as best Thai in the city, but it's easily among our favorites in town. Until our next bubble tea.