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Hot Dog Of The Week: New York City's Papaya Dog
"If you're like me, you've always wondered what tropical fruit drinks have to do with hot dogs. But the strange combination surprisingly works."
New York City just might be the hot dog capital of the world. Ever since Feltman's started selling frankfurters on rolls on Coney Island in 1871, the hot dog has been part of the city's culture. Recently New York has become home to all sorts of variations including Kobe Beef dogs, Colombian hot hogs, and even lard-butter basted hot dogs covered in pork braised beans. It's hard to pin down one style as the classic, quintessential New York City hot dog, but The Papaya Dog comes close.
The standard Papaya style hot dog is a Sabrett's natural casing all-beef frankfurter, grilled and served on a toasted bun with sauerkraut, mustard, and that mysterious yet delicious red onion sauce. Washed down with a "heathful" tropical fruit drink under the glaring pink and yellow signs among a variety of eclectic New Yorkers, there's really nowhere else in the world to recreate this experience.
These days you can get chili and cheese or slaw on your dogs at many Papaya stands but it's the red onion sauce that really makes the New York City dog unique. A concoction of onions, tomato paste, and vinegar, red hot dog onion sauce was invented by Alan S Geisler, who just happened to be a close friend of Gregory Papalexis, who was in turn friends with Gus Poulos, the founder of Papaya King.
If you're like me, you've always wondered what tropical fruit drinks have to do with hot dogs. But the strange combination surprisingly works, and I suspect the success is partly driven by New Yorkers eager to get some vitamins into their diet of quick and cheap street food.
Gus Poulos came over from Greece as a teenager, and after a few years working in the city took a vacation to Miami where he sampled all sort of tropical drinks. He was amazed by the availability of fresh tropical fruit, at that time a scarce luxury in New York City. In 1932 he opened Hawaiian Tropical Drinks on 86th Street and 3rd Avenue. A few years later, at the request of his customers, they added hot dogs to the menu.
Over the years, Papaya King opened more locations. In 1973, the employees at one branch purchased the store and renamed it Gray's Papaya creating the turf war that seems to be the mark of any serious regional food item. But the Gray's Recession Special especially stood out--it offered two dogs and a fruit drink for under $2. Since then other "papaya stands" have emerged, including Papaya Dog and Mike's Papaya. Everyone's got their opinion on which is best, though most hot dog aficionados stick with the original.
If you don't need a coconut champagne to go with your hot dog, you can find a similar meal at almost any New York City hot dog stand, many of which sells Sabrett's dogs cooked in a hot water bath rather than grilled, and served with the same red onion sauce, which some vendors actually make by hand. In the ever-changing landscape that is New York City, it's incredible and comforting that every few blocks there is a brightly lit tropical oasis, open almost any time of day or night, ready to serve you one of the best hot dogs in the world.
539 8th Avenue, New York NY 10018 (map)
Hawk Krall is a Philadelphia-based illustrator who has a serious thing for hot dogs. Dig his dog drawings? Many of the illustrations he has created for Hot Dog of the Week are available for sale: hawkkrall.net/prints/.