A popular Vietnamese in the heart of Hackney, Green Papaya might look a little dishevelled but the food is crisp and clean.
Down one end of the lovely Mare Street, Green Papaya isn’t the type of place to draw you in simply with its looks, even if the door is peppered with positive reviews from the great and the good of the food world. Brick Lane take note: when praise is genuine, it doesn’t have to be written in lettering thirty feet high. Inside it’s no more salubrious, with a new lick of paint needed just about everywhere and rickety old chairs and tables that are lined parallel to a creaking little bar. Still, it’s certainly got charm – an East End greasy spoon for the cosmopolitan 21st century, perhaps.
Early evenings see small groups of dem Vietnamese yoot catching up (without actually eating anything), followed by an influx of Hackney’s trendiest residents, making their way from the Home Counties to their Vietnamese feed via a well-researched punt on a two bed just off Roman Road. It’s obviously got a good reputation around these parts, with business being pretty brisk throughout much of the week. And with good reason, too.
In contrast to the tired décor, the food at Green Papaya is full of beans, offering the kind of freshness that Vietnamese food demands; evidenced, just about, in the eponymous but classic green papaya salad (£3.50). The onset of oxidisation, and what looks like too liberal a glug of (perfectly sweet, sour and spicy) dressing, ensure it’s not quite as crisp and refined as the very finest versions, but it’s a good start nonetheless. Summer rolls with prawn (2 for £3.95) are fresh and clean, and served with an excellent sweet soy sauce. Pick of the starters, though, goes to the crispy squid (£5.25). The squid is perfectly bouncy, and the batter so light it’s practically tempura, but it’s the spicy purple basil dipping sauce that makes the dish, straddling sweet, spicy and sour really rather well.
Mains are a little heartier, with a mixed seafood hot pot (£8.80) offering a very generous selection of squid, mussels, clams, prawns and other bits and bobs less identifiable. Everything is pretty much spot on (even if the squid is this time ever so slightly overdone) and the rich broth benefits from sweet basil, gentle hits of chilli and the odd bit of pineapple that quell the piquant sting a little. Rice noodles with marinated lamb (£6.95) also impress, with okay slivers of lamb doused in more of that sweet soy sauce before being served alongside some perfectly passable rice with chilli, lemongrass and plenty of coriander.
A surprisingly decent Syrah at £14.50 kicks off a wine list that’s perfectly adequate for this kind of thing: there aren’t any extravagant options but there are plenty of low to mid priced bottles in keeping with the sort of money you’re spending on the food. Beers are bottled only, with Sol and Corona popular, but if you’re looking for a kick up the arse when you leave, the Vietnamese coffee offers the requisite boot, filled to the straps with typically chocolaty coffee and hideously sweet condensed milk.
The Last Word
If you don’t fancy queuing up on Kingsland Road then Green Papaya is a viable alternative with a reassuringly similar approach to décor and food that's nearly the match.