Yummmm, papaya! June is National Papaya Month…which is strange for the United States to have, considering that papaya trees need such a tropical environment to grow that they’re not native within the U.S.! They’ve been found naturally in Mexico, Latin America and South America, and their fruits have become big staples in indigenous cultures’ diets, medicines, and everyday lives. As a food source, papayas are eaten raw or cooked, ripe or unripe, in a variety of cuisines and dishes. It’s also been used as a treatment for malaria, a meat tenderizer, to remedy digestive problems, and as a folk contraceptive. That’s a lot of hats for this one little fruit!
One of the most popular papaya dishes, whether in Mexico, Argentina, or even across the ocean in Thailand, is green papaya salad. Green papaya is unripened papaya fruit and has a much milder scent and taste than the orange, ripened papaya. It’s then shredded, seasoned, and served cold–the exotic version of a cucumber salad! And hands down, the most popular green papaya salad in New York is served by Land Thai Kitchen on the Upper West Side. Here, they mix the authenticity of Thai flavors with the sensibilities of their very American clientele, erring on the sweet side for hot dishes and on the spicy side for cold appetizers. The cold papaya salad is definitely spicy, which is dressed with a hot chili pepper and lime dressing and served with cherry tomatoes. You can even find whole chiles and chunks of lime right in the salad! There are a ton of bright, fresh flavors in this dish, and in a surprising turn, almost no one–not professional reviews, not Yelpers–have anything bad to say about this salad. I haven’t even seen that kind of support behind a dish with chocolate ice cream sandwiches and hot dogs wrapped in bacon! If you’ve got an adventurous spirit and a tongue that can handle some heat, definitely head to the Land Thai Kitchen and see for yourself if the green papaya salad is as good as everyone says.
Land Thai Kitchen
450 Amsterdam Ave (between 81st St & 82nd St)
“Festive red and gold walls, dark wood tables and teak lanterns provide the atmosphere behind one of the Upper West Side’s most competent Thai menus. We liked the green papaya salad, which gets a few kicks from fresh hot peppers, cherry tomatoes and lime wedges. Our vegetarian friends enjoyed the meat-free dumplings, stuffed with a nutty mixture of tofu, spinach, corn, shiitake mushrooms and crushed peanuts.”–Time Out New York
“As with most Thai restaurants geared toward American tastes, his dishes tend to the overly sweet. But green papaya salad and pad Thai are closer to savory and the green curry also demonstrates a balance of sweet, spicy, and salty.”–New York Magazine
“The narrow dining room, packed with tables, is warmly lighted by wispy chandeliers and a line of sconces along one wall, their light diffused by the taut swatch of mesh fabric covering them. Starters can be rewarding if you choose well; the spring rolls, classic satay and green papaya salad are good bets.”–The New York Times
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“The papaya salad is amazing. Be warned, if you ask for spicy, you will get crying-and-sniffling-but-in-a-good-way spicy. Delicious. For my entree, I’ve had the green curry and the wok beef dish, and both were very good. $9 for an awesome app and entree — you can’t go wrong.”–Amanda L.
“Started with the green papaya salad, which was deliciously spicy and had all kinds of fun, unexpected ingredients like cashews, tomatoes, and chunks of lime!”–Gabriella K.
But if we’re gonna be a little serious here, as a New Yorker, you don’t automatically think “Thai salad” when you hear that it’s National Papaya Month. Instead, you head to your nearest hot dog stand. 😉 That’s because any self-respecting Manhattanite knows about the Gray’s Papaya chain, an iconic set of fast food restaurants all over the island since 1973. Originally, Gray’s Papaya was a competing offshoot of Papaya King, the other papaya-named hot dog chain in New York City, which has been in operation since 1932. There are any number of imitators of these two hot dog behemoths in the city, but make no mistake: they don’t make hot dogs and papaya drinks like these two. While most tourists think that the Papaya hot dog locations are only known for the “recession special,” savvy New Yorkers have long been in the know about the sweet papaya juice drink that gives Papaya King and Gray’s Papaya their names. Not too pulpy and not too sweet, the papaya juice is an exotic kick that you wouldn’t expect to be sold alongside sauerkrauted hot dogs, but they inexplicably work perfect together. My favorite location is the one on 72nd and Broadway, right across the street from the 2 and 3 train station, because you can easily buy your hot dogs and papaya juice–which, all together, will cost less than Land Thai’s green papaya salad–and head either east into Central Park or west towards the Hudson River, for equally idyllic spots to enjoy a delicious weekday lunch 🙂
2090 Broadway (between 72nd St & 73rd St)
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“2 hot dogs and a papaya shake for 3.50?!?! do you know how fucking expensive new york is and then this ray of light just shines through????? don’t ask me why the papaya shake goes well with those hot dogs. it all just works together. i’ll be back, damnit.”–Angela I.
“I remember when I 1st moved to NYC eating in Grays. Its one of those things that you’ll just have to do. Eat a hotdog for a quick fix but, really, the memorable part is the papaya shake. I just cant explain to you how good it is. Granted, the taste doesn’t resemble what papayas really taste like (but I’m sure they’ve added it in there somehow, blind faith is at play) it really is a great pairing for the hotdog. RARE TO FIND places that can satisfy you for less than 4 bills are a welcome site.”–John T.
Make sure you check out the updated NYC Food Holidays Map to find this most recent holiday!