It’s funny how comfort foods can vary from region to region. In Fort Smith, a city with a surprising array of eateries from down-home country to upscale Ecuadorian, what is most noticeable from a simple drive through town is the striking preponderance of Vietnamese restaurants.
More than 40 years ago Fort Smith (specifically, Fort Chaffee) was one of the nation’s top “Ellis Islands” for thousands of Vietnam War refugees seeking a new start in America. Many stayed in western Arkansas, fostering in locals a fervent love of Vietnamese cuisine.
Using family recipes, manager Eric Le’s family opened Fort Smith’s first Green Papaya in 2006. Now, any given mealtime you’ll find farmers, college students, families and business associates, all chomping on large portions of Green Papaya’s aromatic, chargrilled meats and homemade soup, rice and noodle dishes.
Last year, by popular demand, the Le family added to their business by opening a second location on the north side of town, conveniently down Grand Avenue from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, a straight shot off Interstate 540. Le said not only do both stay busy, but he gets “many, many” requests to open additional Green Papayas in Fayetteville and Van Buren. Besides the regulars, a steady flow of newcomers traveling down Interstate 40 visit because of the strong word of mouth and always-high ratings on restaurant apps like Yelp, Zomato and Urban Spoon.
So, what to order? I recommend starting with the most popular appetizers: the thin, crispy egg rolls (they’re divine — they sell about 1,000 of them a day, Le said), and especially the un-fried spring rolls. Vietnamese spring rolls are large, cold and handheld, wrapped in almost transparent, springy rice paper and stuffed full of cool rice noodles, lettuce, basil, cilantro and your choice of shrimp, pork, or shrimp and pork. Don’t miss the amazing peanut sauce that comes with them. Add a dab of Sriracha (the super-popular chili sauce is Vietnamese, Le noted) for spice. Like most Vietnamese foods, these announce their freshness in every bite. Plus, it’s cool to eat see-through food.
Pho (pronounced fuh) is the best-known Vietnamese dish: huge, steaming bowls of a complex broth with rice noodles and meats, plus a heaping plate of Thai basil, sprouts, sliced jalapeños and lime. Experiment to figure out how you like your pho. I recommend tearing up the basil and tossing it in the soup with all the rest, then adding the sweet Hoisin sauce and the spicy Sriracha. There is no graceful way I’ve found to eat pho, and the giant bowl is more than any reasonable human should be able to eat, but locals love it and often swear there’s no better comfort food to heal a cold or a bad day.
My personal favorite is Green Papaya’s vermicelli dishes, called bun (pronounced boon). It’s unlike any American food I know. Start with a huge bowl of cold noodles tossed with shredded lettuce and artfully topped with shredded carrots, julienned cucumbers, bean sprouts, lemongrass, peanuts, grilled meats (chargrilled beef, chicken, pork, or shrimp or various combinations) and often, a sliced egg roll. You pour the accompanying (optional, but it makes it even better) cup of fish sauce on the whole mess of it, adding any other sauces you like. Then you toss it all together with your chopsticks or fork and chow down. It’s kind of like an amazing- flavored cold salad with noodles and steaming hot meat. It tastes so light and fresh. I love it.
Le said some of the other most popular dishes, especially for people wanting something a tad more familiar, are the fried rice, the stir-fried noodle dishes and the garlic chicken — large chunks of garlic-grilled, golden brown, crispy chicken, with steamed vegetables and a scoop of fried rice.
So rarely does anyone leave Green Papaya with any room left, the restaurant doesn’t have signature desserts. For that, you’ll just have to explore one of Fort Smith’s 200 other eateries. Though, truth be told, by the time you get hungry again, you just might be craving Green Papaya, round two.
Photos by Jenny Boulden
4412 Grand Avenue
Hours of Operation
Open seven days a week:
10 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Photos by Jenny Boulden