Whenever I eat good Thai food, I think of that junior high biology class diagram of the tongue. It charted the flavor receptors of the tongue and it usually required a lab activity involving a sugar packet, a lemon, and a saltshaker. As a result, students learned that sweet, salty, bitter, and sour can be localized to specific regions of the tongue. Schoolteachers call it the “tongue map,” but local Thai chefs call it a canvas for adventurous palates.
“We make each plate fresh, just for you,” says Thim Potchanant, who along with her husband Joe owns Thai Papaya Cuisine in Evansville. “We add spice or sweet if you want it or we make not spicy if you don’t like that. We make everything custom; we control the spices so that when you take the first bite, you taste all of the flavors.”
Chiradaj “Joe” and Kantima “Thim” Potchanant first opened their Thai Cuisine restaurant, Thai Papaya, in July 2008 when they signed a five-year lease at Virginia Street’s Melmar Plaza on Evansville’s East Side.
“When the lease ended, we had to decide if we wanted to go somewhere else or sign for another five years,” says Joe. “We had problems with parking and knew we were growing so we moved locations and built a new building.”
Those who weren’t regular customers might have missed the news of Thai Papaya’s new location at 1434 Tutor Lane, behind Gordon Food Service (GFS) Marketplace off Burkhardt Road. The 5,000-square-foot structure seats a maximum 200 people, including the outdoor Bangkok Grill patio area, which provides approximately 112 more seats than the Virginia Street location.
In a new brick building built by Sheffer Construction and Development, LLC, Thai Papaya’s exterior design incorporates a mixture of Thai and Western architecture. The gable (triangular) roof mirrors Thailand’s traditional roof seen on many Thai temples. It is decorated with a bargeboard, or panlom, the long, thin plank that covers the edge of the roof at the triangular ends. Its practical function is to keep wind from displacing the roof tiles, but it also has pleasing aesthetics.
At the restaurant’s previous location, stipulations in the lease prevented the couple from decorating, painting, or creating the Thai ambiance they had envisioned when entering the restaurant business.
Joe came to the U.S. in 1975 from Bangkok, Thailand, to attend Lockyear Business College, formerly located in Downtown Evansville on N.W. Fifth St. After being introduced to Thim by his sister in 1986, the two exchanged letters for almost a year. In 1988, Joe sent her a round-trip plane ticket where he gave her a choice that changed her life.
“I said if you like it here, I want you to stay. If you don’t like it here, you can go back home,” remembers Joe. “And, 25 years later, she’s been with me ever since.”
Joe and Thim have a 21-year-old son, Nicholas, who is a junior at the University of Southern Indiana studying business and economics. Joe says Nicholas, who manages the restaurant when his parents are absent, will eventually take over the family business.
“He learned the cooking from my wife and he learned the front (dining room) from me,” says Joe. Nicholas manages the Thai Papaya Facebook and Twitter pages, the restaurant’s website, and designed a Thai Papaya mobile app. Once downloaded, customers can view all 50 menu items and quickly place an order for pickup, generating an estimated pickup time.
Evansville resident, Josephine Choo-Wells, 42, is originally from Singapore and is a regular patron of Thai Papaya, visiting about once every other week. She has recommended it to all of her friends, even those who have never tried Thai food.
“I recommend the Pad Thai for beginners and the Panang Curry for curry lovers. I personally love the Som Tum Thai (Premium Thai Papaya Salad),” says Choo-Wells.
The Potchanants provide similar recommendations to customers who aren’t quite sure what to order. The Panang Curry is Joe’s favorite, although he says the Pad Thai is always a restaurant favorite, and the Som Tum Thai is Thim’s first choice. She says the lemon zest, garlic, red chili, salty fish sauce, and sweet honey combine wonderfully in the flavor-filled salad dish. The homemade coconut ice cream is a must have for dessert; it is topped over sweet jasmine sticky rice, providing a sweet surprise with the first bite.
Thim, who can be found cooking in the kitchen most days, says she trains the servers to be attentive when asking about heat levels. “Most people think, ‘Oh, Thai food … I don’t like spicy,’ but it’s not always true,” says Thim, who weaves richness, elegance, and balance into every hand-crafted dish. “We offer everything: soup, salad, appetizer, main course, and dessert. We are just like a family restaurant with lots of choices.”
Thai Papaya offers a private room for business meetings, prom night dinners, birthday parties, or any special occasion. The private room seats 30 to 40 guests and is available upon reservation.
Location: 1434 Tutor Lane Phone: 812-477-THAI (8434)
Dining and Bar Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., Sun. Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Daily Lunch Specials: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner Specials: 5 p.m.-close
Adult Beverages: Yes Prices: Lunch: $10-$12; Dinner $12-$15
Reservations: Recommended for party room
Payment: All major credit cards accepted.