PLEASE BE patient when you visit the Papaya Cafe. It's such a teeny spot in the first place -- five tables arranged in front of a high counter in a storefront just west of Elmwood Avenue. And, on our visit at least, there was only one person to take care of us.
He dealt with takeout, too.
In fact, to tell the truth, there was a serious question in my mind as to whether I should even tell you about this place. The Companion was against it. "Where is everyone going to sit?" he wanted to know as he polished off his Tokyo Chicken and cast longing glances at my Pad Thai.
And the answer is -- I don't know. But the Papaya Cafe is worth knowing about because it offers some good Thai and Pan Asian food, the kind of food that isn't easily found in this neck of the woods. So (maybe) clip this review and stash it away for a while until the early crowds slim down.
In its own way, Papaya is an attractive restaurant. And sophisticated. They've sponged the walls golden in this very old storefront. What a job that must have been -- the ceilings must be 20 feet high, for heaven's sake. They've upholstered the seats in a muted jungly pattern and hung some minimal art on the walls. The stainless steel counter at the back of the room divides the dining area from the kitchen.
And the menu is, as noted above, more than interesting. Begin your meal as I did with Chicken Satay ($4.50), for instance, and share it with at least one other person. These are good-size pieces of white meat, marinated in coconut milk, then battered, impaled on a skewer and deep-fried.
Two dips are provided -- one the creamy classic peanut mixture, the other a startlingly fresh sweet and sour.
Or, if you wish, select Spring Rolls ($3.50). These are fresh spring rolls, not fried. And they are served at room temperature. Shrimp, chicken and vegetables are enclosed in rice paper (thin dough). Dip the rolls in duck sauce.
Another good way to begin your meal might be with soup. Tom Yum Shrimp ($2.75) is a classic, and it is invigoratingly spicy. (Even if you ask for it "medium" it comes out spicy -- not necessarily a bad thing, by the way.) The clear flavor of lemongrass shines through.
Pad Thai ($8.25), my entree, is another classic Thai dish. This turned out to be an eminently shareable portion of sauteed crisp rice noodles, huge hunks of chicken, shrimp, scallions and bean sprouts. Sprinkled with finely chopped peanuts, it had zesty flavor.
As did Tokyo Chicken ($8.25), in which the flavors of ginger and sesame mingled. Other possible dinner entrees include Lemon Grass Pork, Sesame Tofu ($7.50), Malay Sea Scallops and Bangkok Curry (chicken, green curry sauce, coconut milk, peas, zucchini and basil leaves; it's marked on the menu with one of those watch-out-this-might-be-too-spicy-for-you asterisks).
Desserts at the Papaya Cafe are, as you might expect, limited. You could indulge in a Godiva Brownie, I suppose -- they come from the shop around the corner. But on the other hand, chocolate is not exactly the right note with which to end an Asian meal. (You are hearing this from a charter member of Chocoholics Anonymous, please note.)
If you must end your dinner with a bang, you could indulge in Fried Banana, a slice of the fruit enclosed in a wonton wrapping, deep-fried and drizzled with a caramel sauce. Nice and sweet, we discovered.
But if I were still hungry, I'd opt for the Bangkok Curry. Now, there is a perfect Pacific Rim dessert.
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Eckl's (Oct. 17)
Eckl's, 4936 Ellicott Road, Orchard Park (662-2262). Renowned, well-established restaurant that specializes in roast beef and steak -- but there are other good things, too.
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Vineland Estates, 3620 Moyer Road, Vineland, Ont. (905-562-7088). Canada's own Napa Valley! This pleasant restaurant sits in the middle of the Vineland Estates vineyard. It serves elaborately constructed food made from unique ingredients. Reservations necessary.
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North Park Cafe, 1434 Hertel Ave. (836-6684). Informal restaurant specializes in homemade soups, salads, sandwiches and baked goods. The food is very fresh, quite original and carefully prepared.
* Indicates restaurant is so new that this is a provisional rating.
** Rating based on the Early Bird special.
** 1/2 *
177 Hodge Ave. (885-8219). Exactly 20 people can sit in this restaurant, which specializes in Pacific Rim food. Many of the dishes are of Thai inspiration and are freshly prepared to order. Takeout is available. No wine, beer or credit cards.
BEST DISH: Tokyo Chicken.
NEEDS WORK: Everything is of good quality.
PRICE RANGE: Generously sized dinner entrees range from $7.50 to $10.95.
HOURS: Lunch, Mon. through Sat. Dinner, Mon. through Sat. to 10 p.m., Sun. to 9:30 p.m.
HEALTH-CONSCIOUS CHOICES: Basically a healthy menu.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: One step; somewhat confining surroundings.
PARKING: On the street.
KID APPEAL: Only for the most sophisticated.
KEY: FAIR, GOOD, VERY GOOD, EXCELLENT, EXTRAORDINARY. Stars are awarded for the quality of the food only.