Hot Dog Ménage à Trois: a Battle of the Dishes Three-Way Sausage Fest!
Papaya King goes dogging.
Sometime in the late 1930s, a fruit-loving Greek busted ass on a pair of roller skates. The young Yorkville businessman, you see, was trying to impress a neighborhood chick, but wound up mangling his ankle instead, continuing the tradition of grisly things happening to people when they try to wow potential mates. Lucky for Gus Poulos, who also happened to run a popular tropical juice bar in the area, the injury took on a very rom-com quality. The girl, Birdie, supposedly nursed him back to health with sausages and other delicacies from the area's German eateries, and he knew instantly what was missing both from his business and his life: hot dogs, and a wife. So Poulos added franks to the menu, creating the legendary Papaya King, and later hooked up with Birdie.
But what's a happy marriage without betrayal, divorce, and deception? For Poulos, the odd-but-stable union of sweet juice and savory, intestine-wrapped meat slurry first went bad in 1973, when a former company partner opened Gray's Papaya -- which sells the exact same thing as the original Papaya King. Fast-forward a few decades, and yet another knockoff surfaces mere blocks from the original Gray's: Papaya Dog.
If the spin-offs didn't already strike you as absurdist enough, recall that all three hot dog haunts serve up the same exact wieners, which, according to The New York Times, come from the Sabrett plant in New Jersey.
So we at Fork in the Road decided to see whether any of these restaurants' offerings taste any different from one another -- and whether there's any measurable distinction in quality. Behold this week's Battle of the Dishes -- an epic three-way sausage fest.
Papaya King (179 East 86th Street, 212-369-0648) In this Upper East Side fixture, there's little elbow room to scarf down your dogs, which the usually pleasant staff serves up hot and quick. Here, the $2.10 classic -- with sauerkraut and New York onions -- has the characteristic rich meatiness that makes this frank and its competitors so memorable: a salty, beefy vibe that's unpretentiously toothsome. The spicy, brown mustard tickles the palate, and the ghost-colored, pickled cabbage stands out, balancing sourness and delicacy. But the links must have languished too long on the heating surface, almost burning the mouth with the first bite. Also, the buns have a bit too much crunch to them -- feeling crouton-like along the edges -- hinting at overcooking.
The Gray's Papaya tuber.
Gray's Papaya (402 Sixth Avenue, 212-260-3532) Very much the same weenie comes for 60 cents less than its originator -- $1.50 -- at this 24/7 fave of Village-trolling post-party drunks. But the "spicy" mustard lacks oomph, not to mention heat, and winds up forming an unremarkable, layered pool with the corn-syrupy, sweet Heinz ketchup. Sauerkraut and spoonfuls of stewed onions play a minor role in this snack. Subtly soggy, they don't add much textural nuance, let alone flavor. Gray's knows its buns, though, and hits the mark with bread prep: They warm the wheaty covering to toasted blissfulness.
Papaya Dog does its version of Sabrett's.
Papaya Dog (333 Sixth Avenue, 212-627-9748) Somewhat of the newcomer in the city's hot dog death match, Papaya poses itself as a direct competitor of Gray's, also charging $1.50 for its pick. While the sausage has the same quotidian taste of its competitors', the lopped-on condiments seem particularly canned, bordering between flavorless and tin-like. And again, you have to deal with monotonous mustard. Dog's offering tanks, though, in terms of the bun, which turns super-soggy almost instantly and sticks to the roof of your mouth like a refrigerated, pre-packed PB&J. Hey, at least the water-logged cylinder of white bread brings some distinction to the dish: Neither King nor Gray's features such a gag-inducing texture combo.
Next: The verdict.
The verdict? Sure, the King's condiments and fixings stand out, but Gray's deserves the title of top dog, mainly because it gets right two crucial components of New York's most famous street food: temperature and mouthfeel (which Dog just bombs). You can inhale this bad boy without singeing your soft palate -- key to any food meant to be eaten on the go -- and the toppings tend to stay put because the bread is rigid enough to hold the sandwich together, but soft enough to chew with ease. Sorry, Gus!
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