Chicago may be America’s hot dog capital, but leave it to New York to own the hot dog in the most unique way imaginable. Manhattan certainly holds its own when it comes to high concentration per capita of dawg dives, but what really interests me is New York’s history of washing their franks down with papaya juice. Yes, papayas and hot dogs are a thing—at least in Manhattan.
Well, the last time I was in town, I was determined to follow through on something I’d wanted to do for years: have a papaya showdown. So I dragged the Tailor and my two best native New Yorker friends with me for brunch dawgs in the dead of winter. (I have very patient friends.) We could have made a whole day of it, as there are many sausage-and-juice purveyors in the city, but I was mostly interested in comparing the two biggest and oldest rivals. (Besides, I wasn’t sure I could actually consume two hot dogs in succession, let alone a whole city’s worth.)
The first stop was Gray’s Papaya—this is the place most people think of when they think papayas (do people think papayas?). Open 24 hours a day at its original location at 72nd and Broadway, its cameo appearances in several films has made it something of a household name. The franks have a solidly dirty-water quality to them—order the “Recession Special” and add a swig of papaya juice to round out the experience. I have to say, though, that the kitsch factor here was surprisingly low. The crepe-paper fruit hanging from the ceiling was a nice touch, but that’s about where the fun stuff ended. Gray’s has been in that location for over forty years, but everything there was a low-rent version of slick and modern.
Papaya King, on the other hand, delivered on every front. The kitsch, the colors, the history, the design, even the food. Papaya juice, it turns out, is entirely too sweet for my taste, but the dogs were downright good. And best of all, Papaya King is the original, the real deal, the very first hot doggery to come up with the fruit-n-franks idea. The King has held court on the corner of E. 86th Street and Third Avenue since 1932, and the absolutely gorgeous neon pays homage to the original decor.
Papaya King has already won one hot dog war, when Nathan’s Famous opened a franchise next door in 1976, then capitulated when it lost the resulting price war. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s no surprise it came out on top this day, too. I am still no closer to understanding why someone would want papaya juice with their hotdog, but I’ll raise a bright yellow paper cup of the stuff to the King.