“Who’s next!” growls the counterman at Papaya King in a gruff tone through a thick New York accent. It isn’t a question. He is telling whomever is next in line to place their order, stop wasting time and to hurry up about it. This is New York after all, and they have already taken too long.
If you visit Papaya King, which I heartily recommend you do, follow these directions and you will save time and a possible tongue lashing: Ignore the infinite variations listed on the lengthy menu or the effigies of “special” hot dogs on display by the counter, don’t even waste your time reading or looking at them. Just step right up and order the original combo – two hot dogs with either sauerkraut or NY onions and a tropical drink. I recommend getting one with kraut, one with onions and a Papaya drink. For the princely sum of $5 you will have purchased a piece of New York history and had a cheap and delicious meal, to boot.
Like so many other tales of the attainment of the American dream, the story of Papaya King starts off in Ellis Island. In 1923 Gus Poulos, a young immigrant fresh off the boat from Athens, Greece arrived on these shores. He soon found work in a deli, which he ended up buying a few years later. The story might have ended there but for a 1932 trip to Miami, where he discovered the joys of tropical fruit drinks. He promptly decided to sell off his deli and start New York’s first juice bar. The location, on the corner of 86th Street and 3rd Ave in Manhattan, remains the flagship store in what was eventually named Papaya King. Hot dogs were added to the menu in 1939, and Poulos opened several more locations throughout the boroughs in the post war years.
The Papaya King hot dog is an all beef affair in a natural casing which is griddled and served on a toasted white bun. The dog is made by Sabrett’s but the recipe is unique and proprietary. Sauerkraut is a perfectly permissible topping, but the red onion sauce – a tangy tomato based concoction laced with vinegar, now ubiquitous on hot dogs in the city – was actually created for Papaya King. Appointed with a layer of the onions and washed down with the papaya drink, a hot dog from the Papaya King hits all of the right flavor notes – the dog is heavy on the garlic and pleasingly salty, the casing provides a wonderful snap and subsequent explosion of juice and undeniably beefy flavor when bitten. The sweetness from the onions helps to balance out the garlic, and the vinegar in the sauce cuts the fat.
Like the fortunes of the city itself, the Papaya King has ebbed and flowed, expanding and then constricting in the ensuing decades. Soon imitators emerged selling similar hot dogs and tropical drinks, but Papaya King will always be the originator and creator of the form. Today, aside from the flagship on 86th street there are outposts at LaGuardia airport and another in Los Angeles. And while there are several other Papaya-style hot dog stands in NYC, you should really make your papaya hot dog experience at the Papaya King. Just don’t take too long to order.
179 E 86th St, New York, NY 10128