What happens when Papaya King goes?
An editor once told me that she avoids stories about beloved stores and restaurants that are biting the dust. I can understand why. You almost know what the writer is going to say, the maudlin quotes from customers, the clichés.
But there’s also a reason why such stories have appeal. They’re less about the demise and death of a favorite establishment than about memory, life and celebration. When a trusted restaurant goes under you remember all the great meals you had there and wonder what, if anything, will fill the void?
I’ve had a lot of experience lately with the phenomenon. I suspect it’s age-related. There’s a tendency to think of places as more permanent than people. But they’re more ephemeral. Few street level enterprises have a life span of eighty years. Only a handful of New York City’s thousands of restaurants existed before the 20th century.
Their extinction has become so predictable – hastened by Covid, online shopping and perhaps most lethal of all New York City’s exorbitant rents – that when I turn the corner to a dependable restaurant or store I half expect to discover that it’s gone out of business. My fears are more than occasionally realized.
Word of another irreplaceable culinary staple about to shutter its doors arrived recently. Patch, a hyper local news site, first reported that the future of Papaya King, a hot dog and juice stand that opened on the Upper East Side in the 1940’s, is in doubt. The one-story building at the corner of 86th Street and Third Avenue is set to be razed to make way for yet another apartment tower.
Papaya King isn’t just any hot dog stand. Lamentations in places like the New York Times have described it as popularizing the pairing of franks and tropical juices. That combo never struck me as wise. And until this week when I paid what I suspect may be a final ceremonial visit to the sidewalk stand I stuck to the more conventional combination of a couple of hot dogs and a Coke.
But what distinguished Papaya King transcended food, though the food was pretty great. Based on a purported special recipe Papaya King boasted that its franks tasted better than filet mignon. I prefer to avoid that debate. Comparing hot dogs to steak is like comparing apples to oranges. Both have their place. They’re both great.
Having said that, Papaya King’s franks did feel a cut above the competition. They were a bit spicier, a bit juicier. Indeed, they were so delicious that to add any topping whatsoever seemed a desecration. I did anyway. Mustard and sauerkraut. Light. Very light. Occasionally smothered onions. But they more than held their own without any condiments.
Another aspect of Papaya King’s allure is its discomfort. The place is cramped, not wide enough for two customers to pass each other. And there are no tables. You have to eat at the counter, standing up, getting jostled, with other patrons reaching across you to get to the mustard and ketchup.
But punishment seemed a concession you were willing to make for a first class hot dog. Also, Papaya King’s picture windows looked out on the human comedy. 86th street isn’t one of Manhattan’s more scenic boulevards. But it is a crossroads, with dozens if not hundreds of New Yorkers passing by the stand’s windows during the course of two franks and a drink.
I’ve occasionally ordered the meal to go and eaten them at home. But it’s not the same thing. They seem to lose some of their flavor, some of their spice. What makes them great is the combination of food and entertainment at an affordable price.
This week, against my better judgment, I requested a small papaya juice along with my franks. I was worried I was making a mistake. But Papaya King is famous for its tropical juices – papaya, mango and pina colada. And for the sake of journalistic closure I felt obligated to try the juice at least once.
It was fine, though I still believe that nothing goes better with fast food than a Coke. You need something fizzy and industrial strength to wash your meal down. Fresh fruit juice, at least to me, feels like a stand-alone treat. The creamy texture and delicate taste also clashes with the hot dog’s everyman allure.
That’s another thing about Papaya King. Society is becoming increasingly polarized between rich and poor, Blue states and Red. But the hot dog stand played host to New Yorkers of every income bracket from Park Avenue swells to deliverymen.
New stores and restaurants open as fast as the old ones close. Some may even be better. But they can never fully replace the old guard. Because what perished with them wasn’t just their food, merchandize or style, but also a small part of yourself.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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