Change is, it's just not always good. That's why it's daunting. When Sab-E-Lee, one of San Diego's most revered Thai eateries, left its cramped original digs at the northeast corner of Linda Vista Road and Ulric Street there was a tangible sense of concern among its devotees. How would it fare in a larger space and, perhaps most of all, what would—could—replace it? The answer to the latter question is that the Sab-E-Lee's owners did another restaurant in the same space: Thai Papaya (2405 Ulric St.) in Linda Vista. The more important answer is: It's good. Very good.
Where Sab-E-Lee is more of an all-around Thai restaurant, Thai Papaya is focused on the regional foods of Northern and Northeastern Thailand. Befitting the restaurant's name, one of its specialties is som tam, green papaya salad. In fact, it offers more than a dozen versions of the dish. At its base the som tam is built around shredded unripe papaya and a spicy dressing featuring Thai Bird chiles, lime, dried shrimp and fish sauce. In addition to the classic Thai dish and its Lao version (using fermented, extra-funky Lao-style fish sauce), there are takes featuring pickled crab, blue crab, snail meat, pork sausage and more. My favorite, though, was som tam khai kem with salted egg. Spicy, sour, sweet, salty, pungent with just a touch of bitterness, the som tams show what Issan cuisine is all about.
In addition to the dozen som tams there are at least seven versions of larb, a salad of minced meat, lime, fish sauce and fresh herbs. Squid, duck, shrimp, chicken, catfish and beef are available. But none are better than the simple pork version.
Thai Papaya also features the noodle dishes—particularly noodle soups—for which the northern reaches of Thailand is known. Try the beef stew noodles featuring a subtle, sweetly spiced beef blood broth, surprisingly tender offal (liver, tripe and tendon) and egg noodles. But the best of the noodle dishes is khao soi, the signature Northern Thai dish, featuring egg noodles in a coconut curry soup. The noodles themselves appear both in boiled as well as deep-fried form, a rich curry and a chicken drumstick brimming with dark meat flavor. It is a complex dish with layered flavor and diverse textures. Thai Papaya doesn't offer khao soi all the time, but when it's available, order it.
You can get the rainbow curries—red, yellow and green (and panang)—at Thai Papaya, but why? You can get them anywhere. The things to get at Thai Papaya are the ones you don't see anywhere else. From obscure som tams to different larbs to dishes like Spicy Thousand Year Eggs (preserved eggs and pork) and various takes on offal, if you haven't heard of the dish it's probably the one you should try at Thai Papaya.
Adventurous, with uncompromising flavors, Thai Papaya chooses not to speak down to its customers. And that's what's exciting about it. The odd thing about the transition from Sab-E-Lee to Thai Papaya is that while the menu changed and the concept, too, the spirit really did not.