The Great Hot Dog Rivalry: East Side vs. West Side

Having survived closing out my first issue of one of the magazines I copy edit at my new job last week — and the longest issue of the year, mind you — I am happy to return to blogging more regularly. No, I did not work until the obscene hours my accountant husband has these past few months, but even just working an extra hour or so killed my spirit for wanting to look at words at home too much. Not even leisurely reading (gasp!). One night I came home, ordered Chinese food online (how lazy can you get?!?) and watched what felt like a half million YouTube videos of late ’90s and early ’00s music videos. I mean, you can’t watch just ONE Britney video. Trust me.

Sometimes, I really cannot explain or excuse my behavior.

Ahem. To the point of this post. On Sunday afternoon post-Mass, Sean suggested we grab a light lunch. “Where?” I asked. “I was thinking…hot dogs.” And then, because our hearts and minds are just so in sync, I just knew where we were going.

Papaya King.

Behold! The glowing yellow delights of Papaya King. (Photo not mine because I feel awkward taking pictures of food in public. I should get over this.)

Actually, I think that whole mind-/stomach-reading thing was less due to love and more due to common sense. I mean…where else are you going to get a hot dog in New York?

Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) know what’s up. They dig a NYC hot dog here and there.

Yes, you can buy one for dirt-cheap from one of those carts in Central Park or Time Square or wherever tourists are (this is what Tina Fey does on 30 Rock, so it’s OK, I promise!), but here’s a little tip: check out a neighborhood favorite! I first learned this when I came to visit the city during spring break my senior year of college while my then-boyfriend/now-husband was interning up here, and we went to check out Gray’s Papaya in the Upper West Side.

We’d heard about it on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations NYC episode, when he raved about “the recession special,” which boasted two hot dogs and a tropical drink for $4 or something equally ridiculous. I was also pumped because this is the brightly colored joint where Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks meet when their characters become friends (and are unknowingly in love with one another) in You’ve Got Mail. Oh, and Ted takes Robin there on How I Met Your Mother when she gets really hungry on New Year’s Eve. It’s a hopping place on TV.

Previously, I considered hot dogs a “specific occasion food,” as in, they were acceptable to eat at a professional baseball game or a backyard barbecue, but other than that, forget about it. Then I tried Gray’s hot dogs and they had this wonderful bite/crunch to them, plus I really dig the combination of the saltiness of the hot dog with the bitter/vinegary-ness of the traditional NYC toppings (sauerkraut, onions, and spicy brown mustard). However, once we moved up here and settled in the UES, getting over to Gray’s Papaya isn’t so easy. But good news! We have Papaya King:

There it is, right on 86th and 3rd, in all its colorful glory!

I’ve determined that I like this place more than Gray’s Papaya, so it’s all good. And I’m not just saying that to show my Upper East Side pride. The papaya drinks here actually taste like papaya, and not just thick sugar-water, so that’s a definite plus. Also, you can get a variety of hot dog toppings, like an onion-crunch dog or a chili-cheese dog. I still go with the classic toppings, but my favorite combo is “the 1932” (not so coincidentally, the year this fine dining establishment was founded), a balanced and nutritious meal consisting of one hot dog, a tropical drink, and an overflowing cup of curly fries for around $6. Like, I said you’ve got all the food groups covered.

It’s a teeny-tiny place with little counters by the windows where you have to stand to eat your food, just like we see Meg & Tom demonstrating in the You’ve Got Mail screencap above, or you can take it on the go and enjoy a meal in all of a New York minute. If you do choose to stay inside, I like to read the various news clippings on the wall. According to this collage of media, Julia Child proclaimed Papaya King to be her favorite NYC hot dog, and Chef Anthony Bourdain — a current UES resident, if I haven’t mentioned that half a dozen times already — said the Papaya King special (two hot dogs and a tropical drink, our pick this past Sunday) is the best meal you can get in the city for under $5. Uh, apparently, Bourdain is not very loyal with this hot dog stands. Which one do you really prefer, Tony?

Apparently, chef/author/TV host Anthony Bourdain has no discrimination when it comes to his NYC hot dogs. Here he is pictured in front of Papaya King (you can see where it says “King’s Special” on the sign behind him). I would love to run into Bourdain at Papaya King. Can the gods of the universe arrange this for me, please?

The restaurant itself boasts all kinds of ridiculousness, from “our frankfurters are tastier than filet mignon” and “papaya promotes heart health.” The last one might be true, except for when consumed with curly fries and hot dogs, of course. You can’t blame them for trying.

So how exactly did these two seemingly random foods, papaya juice and hot dogs, end up irrevocably paired together? As the story goes, the founder, Gus Poulos, fell in love with papaya while on a tropical vacation in Miami. So then he opened several successful tropical juice stands in the city. One day Gus fell on his roller blades and a young German-American woman (hopefully she wasn’t a Nazi spy…you know how Yorkville was back in the day) named “Birdie” helped him up and nurtured him by bringing him traditional German food, including…frankfurters! (This also explains the sauerkraut.)

Needless to say, “Birdie” and Gus were married, and he soon introduced the frankfurter to his juice stand. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a food legend was born.

Sorry to post a gazillion pictures of this guy, but “OH HEY! I totally stood in that same exact spot this past weekend and ate my hot dog.” Sadly, Bourdain was not there to stand and eat with me.

So maybe you’re a UWS resident with a fierce and undying loyalty to Gray’s Papaya.* Whatever your preference, I hope you relish (hardy har har) your classic New York meal! According to some statistic I saw while enjoying my hot dog, it takes about 5 bites for the average American to down a frank. So be careful: your meal could be over before you know it. Good thing the menu is cheap and the calorie counts aren’t displayed, right?

*…but we all know Papaya King is where it’s at.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Great Hot Dog Rivalry: East Side vs. West Side

  1. Sheila Kozmin

    Hey Rebecca, I wonder if Gus was really so ahead of his time in 1932, wearing roller blades and all when he fell down…. My hunch is that it might have been those snap-on metal roller skates from back in the day. But you never know; Gus was one helluva progressive guy for his time!
    Loved your piece.
    Sheila

  2. Being ancient, I remember the 86 st. Papaya King from the 1950s, when it was open air and had carved coconut masks hanging walls covered with artificial paper grass. Thanks for the nostalgia trip!

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