Did you ever have a dream about a restaurant in which everything you ordered was delicious, dish after dish? You knew it was a dream because this almost never happens in real life: every dish good and priced so low that you can order more simply to discern whether you’ll like those, too, and not feel prodigal or flamboyant or broke. The dreamlike portions are large enough to yield leftovers. A sweet, self-righteous calm settles around you as you contemplate the fact that nothing on this menu entails creatures being killed. You order more to test whether you are awake or not, but your answer stays fuzzy because, yes, every successive dish is as tasty and picture-pretty as the rest. Suggesting a scene from “Strawberry Fields,” the servers not only bring you delights with blazing-sunshine smiles but also bow when you come and go.
This should feel awkward but does not, suggesting you’re in a dream after all — yet, just outside, the roar of traffic mixes with the howls of the unhinged. The shop next door sells serial-killer costumes and Frida Kahlo socks. Blink. You’re awake, and this is downtown Berkeley.
Green Papaya opened a month ago, becoming the city’s first vegetarian Thai restaurant. Occupying the space formerly occupied by Sushi A’float, it wears a fresh new design that reflects its allegiance to the plant realm, featuring avocado- and persimmon-colored walls, blonde faux-hardwood floor, and avocado dishes with bold, white leaf designs. This overhaul was the work of co-owner Sirada Tatrimontrichai, who grew up in Thailand and whose family also owns TukTuk and Your Place. Neither of those restaurants is meatless, but “we care about health,” said Tatrimontrichai, adding that while most Thai Buddhists are not vegetarians, many families — including her own — ritually forsake meat for one month every year.
Served in two neatly sliced logs, the fried-taro appetizer was a revelation, one of those rare, nearly incomparable concoctions. Taro, mixed with rice flour and tapioca flour and large red beans left whole, is wrapped snugly in a bean-curd sheet, then deep-fried. The result is a creamy-starchy cutlet-slab whose crisp, golden skin suggests a fried-chicken-potato-derma doughnut. Jolly beans pop out brightly from its whiteness like circus balloons. Soothingly bland, it lacks the sneaky bitter bite often associated with taro. Crushed peanuts polka-dot the palm-sugar dipping sauce, whose sweet astringency counters that microscopically tropical-tasting blandness: Its amber hue evokes the work of Caravaggio so startlingly as to be one step beyond what any diner paying $5.95 for a starter one block from McDonald’s has any right to expect. But this is the rule at Green Papaya, not the exception: Each dish goes one sly step beyond, packing a clever little secret, so you’re looking at the raisins or the rich, brown gravy or the carrot slices shaped like cherry blossoms, thinking Omigod, you don’t have to do this, but then it does.
So far, so good. Green pepper, onion, whole incendiary peppers, and two kinds of mushroom keep big fried-beancurd cubes company in cashew-nut tofu. (Vegetarian does not mean low-fat.) Sautéed the perfect number of seconds, its nuts resist the teeth just a teasing bit before exploding, balancing the chewy organic tofu in a dark, sweet sauce that flirts coquettishly with spiciness. This dish’s extra step? Zucchini partly peeled to effect pinstripes.
Traditionally made with a mortar and pestle, green-papaya salad is heaps of ivory-colored unripe fruit grated kite-string fine and semi-pickled with peanuts and green beans in garlic, lime juice, sugar, pounded tomatoes, and chili. Each refreshing mouthful yields two kinds of crunch, then spurts a tiny touch of fire. Like everything else on the menu, it’s a classic dish in Thailand; Tatrimontrichai said new original dishes will be added soon as ever-shifting specials.
For some, no Thai meal is complete without pad Thai. Although respectably tasty, it was a weak spot here, its rice noodles too thin and shockingly scanty — especially given the magnitude of dishes such as the pineapple curry, with its huge fruit chunks, towering broccoli trees, and ear-shaped wheat-gluten flaps swimming in a massive, molten-lava lake of thick, rich, coconutty sauce. The pumpkin curry also appears big enough to bathe in, stocked with basil, tofu, pinstripe-skinned zucchini, and domino-size kabocha chunks so sweet they taste candied but aren’t. On the menu, both curries get two-out-of-three hotness stars. Their heat is not the combative kind, but brightens the senses like a friendly shove.
Daikon, leached of its harsh, radishy tang, is mixed with taro, red beans, green onion, and bean sprouts to form patties that are sautéed in mushroom sauce for a smooth, mild texture and a taste somewhere on that dizzy delicious spectrum between Tater Tots and veal. Thinking no dish, no way, could top this, testing whether we were dreaming after all, we kept on ordering — and found peanut-sauce tofu to be even better, its huge, golden horde of high-protein chunks perched atop a two-tone green island. That is this dish’s secret: spinach layered over cabbage sautéed to the very edge of softness and ringed with broccoli florets, the whole precipice drenched in a thick, pale elixir that is velvety and crunchy and says: This is what peanuts were meant to make.
Pushing our luck, we tried larb tofu salad: minced tofu tossed with fresh mint leaves, lime dressing, toasted-rice powder, and red chili pepper. This ranks just one menu star and looks innocuous, yet from its coolness leaps a wall of flame as if to avenge every bottled-Thousand-Island/iceberg-and-tomato salad you ever ignored or mocked. Don’t order this if you believe salads should not attack.
Order the corn cakes with cucumber-lime sauce. Or the syrup-fried banana. Or the shiitake-and-bamboo-pulp soup. This is not a dream.