Feeling Sad About Green Papaya Deli, Mok Pa Paradise [Oakland]
Several weeks ago, eagerly anticipating having lunch the next day at Green Papaya Deli on the way home from an East Bay appointment, I learned from Yelp that they had closed. I was surprised how sad I felt— almost as if a friend had died, not just a restaurant had closed.
I could understand my sadness if GPD had been part of my regular routine but I only made it over there occasionally. Nor had I developed a relationship with the people there—the lady who did the cooking stayed in the kitchen. The only time I interacted with her was when I ordered some uncooked Lao sausage to take home. She went out the front door with a big pot and when she returned she smiled and showed me the pot full of fresh sausage. She didn't say anything. Perhaps her English wasn't very good. But she made the best Lao food I've ever had, and I am very grateful.
Her Mok Pa was far and away the best I've ever tasted, way better than even Vientian Café's version. While I'm not always confident of my ability to discern differences between dishes tasted at different times, I alternated enough between GPD and Vientian Café to be sure— the GPD Mok Pa was spicier and much more intensely flavored than Vientian's. The day of my appointment I stopped by Vientian Café on the way home for a consolation fix of Lao cuisine. The duck salad was great, but the Mok Pa just didn't satisfy like GPD's. On my last visit to GPD they were out of fish and I ordered Mok Ga, the chicken version— it was fantastic, maybe even better than the Mok Pa. So on my next visit to Vientian Café after another East Bay appointment I tried the Mok Ga, and was again disappointed. Perhaps VC's failure to cook the dish in a leaf is the missing ingredient—I'd always thought of the leaf as just a cooking vehicle but maybe it adds some critical flavor. It's hard to be disappointed in a dish as good as VC's Mok Pa but once you've tasted the ultimate it's hard to settle for less.
I don't mean to diss Vientian Café— it's now my favorite Lao restaurant, and they have some great dishes never found at GPD including Nam Khao. If I'd never tasted GPD's version I'd probably think VC's Mok Pa was wonderful. They also have the only Lao sausage I know of that is comparable to GPD's, and they have it frozen in bags so you can easily take it to cook at home. I did a couple of side-by-side comparisons of GPD and VC's sausages at home and slightly preferred GPD's, but they were very close and head-and-shoulders above any other Lao sausage I've tried.
For some reason GPD was often nearly empty while VC always has a good crowd, so I'm guessing economics was a factor in the closing. I hope the GPD lady is OK. All she gave me is one smile and some great food, but that was enough to make me forever grateful, and concerned for her well-being. If anyone knows if she's cooking somewhere else I'd love to hear about it. I'd go anywhere for another taste of her Mok Pa.
Maybe this will help console you - a video I took of Lily at Green Papaya Deli in Oakland about 4 years ago as she describes how she makes Mok Pa from her mother's Lao recipe using catfish and lemongrass with other flavors and steaming it in banana leaf for an hour:
now closed -
Green Papaya Deli
207 International Blvd
Oakland, CA 94606
My first visit to Green Papaya Deli was maybe 5 months or so after its opening in 2007. On my second and subsequent visits they recognized me and Lily and a man working there, possibly her son, were always gracious and hospitable.
The video clip was made with a little Flip camcorder when Lily wasn't busy and I hadn't posted a public link to it until now.
It's been a long time, but I seem to recall the man at the deli telling me about his trips (once a week to Stockton?) to get raw beef for the larb salad.