PHO GREEN PAPAYA lori lucas

In restaurants there is a great divide: the places where you eat once, twice, or maybe four times a year; and then the spots you visit like great friends, once, twice, or even three times a week. And unless you're living off a Nike salary or a trust fund, your frequented restaurants are always cheap, reliable, and offer substantial portions for the dough.

Pho Green Papaya is this kind of everyday place. The tiny, easily overlooked little spot is the sister restaurant of downtown's pricier, but equally delicious Green Papaya, only here almost all the dishes are $10 and under. In the couple weeks since a friend pointed Pho Green Papaya out to me, I've been back three times, and was thwarted once because it was after 9 pm and they were already closed. I can safely say I have not developed such a codependent relationship with a restaurant since I met La Bonita six years ago, and I still eat there like three times a week.

So what's so great about Pho Green Papaya? First, the food. At lunch you order at the counter from a menu of dozens of spicy delights. The squid salad is a masterpiece, with thin slices of marinated squid on top of a pile of greens, drizzled with a sake-sesame dressing. The squid is spicy, sweet, not too chewy, and the dressing complements the seafood taste perfectly. Another standout is the simple but stellar honey chicken: An attractive and subtly sweet grilled chicken breast comes with stir-fried vegetables and rice for only $6.50.

Even the menu's vegan selections are full of flavor. The Vietnamese jade noodles are one of my favorite dishes, with spinach noodles, tofu, veggies, and salty vegan oyster sauce, revved up with a healthy amount of dried red chili pepper. The lemongrass tofu is another dynamic flavor masterpiece, which includes fragrant lemongrass, turmeric, and chili pepper.

As the name of the restaurant denotes, pho is one of their specialties. On cooler summer evenings, there's nighttime table service on their adorable patio, perfect for their vegan pho veggie, loaded with rice noodles, cilantro, scallions, string beans, bell peppers, and exotic mushrooms. Or, if you want more flavor, there's the veggie pho with beef broth, or their smartly spiced beef or chicken pho. Their chicken variety is probably the best I've tasted, made hearty with tender chunks of white meat chicken, rather than the gristly pieces you'll find at other pho spots.

Other standout dishes include the Luc Lac, a dish brought over from their downtown location, which includes amazing, marshmallowy pieces of tenderloin bathed in cognac, garlic, pepper, and French butter. Then there are the sweetly marinated gulf prawns on the dinner menu, the deep-fried coconut prawn appetizer, or the crisp and spicy papaya salad; all spectacular.

Along with the great food, inviting atmosphere, and convenient location on SE MLK (across from the Sheridan Fruit Co.), the service at Pho Green Papaya is easygoing and friendly, providing yet another welcoming aspect to this neighborhood spot. Actually, as I type this review I'm polishing off some leftovers from my dinner at Pho Green Papaya last night, and while I wish I had a few more bites, I know in a day or two I'll be back, debating over what dish to try next.