A Better Papaya Salad at Sao Mai


[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

We talk pho and banh mi plenty, but there's one dish perhaps more ordered at Vietnamese restaurants than either of them, and that's papaya salad. And they do a great one ($8.50) at Sao Mai, a Vietnamese restaurant in the East Village that has the basics down.

The shreds of papaya are especially crisp here, moistened but not weighed down by a lime dressing refreshingly light on the sugar. Notice the thin, even julienne, the kind that yields a delicate crunch but can only be made fresh before the salad turns limp; it's a telltale sign that your salad hasn't been sitting around for too long before it meets your table.

The salad is adorned with some slices of jalapenos, which don't add much, but the fat leaves of holy basil sure do. They're less sweet and more complex than the Italian variety, enough to keep this well-made salad interesting from start to finish.