Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Project Papaya: The Definitive Guide to Manhattan's Papaya & Hot Dog Stands

Papaya Stands 101
For the uninitiated, a papaya stand is a small restaurant, usually without seating, that primarily serves thin Sabrett all beef hot dogs alongside various tropical fruit juices. Papaya, the flagship juice, is always available, although there are plenty of others worth trying, including banana daquiri, mango, and pina colada. All of the papayas covered were situated on street corners in Manhattan, including the busiest cross streets of the Upper West Side (72nd St), Upper East Side (86th St), Greenwich Village (W 4th St, 14th St on the East and West Sides), Midtown West (42nd St) and Chelsea (23rd St).

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The papaya stand is a contradiction wrapped in an enigma. Despite occupying some of the most prime Manhattan retail space, it serves up the cheapest, quickest meals in the city at about $3.50, give or take a dollar, for two hot dogs and a 12 oz cup of juice. While intuition may lead some to believe that they are getting low quality food, that’s really only the case at Papaya Dog, the largest chain. All of them claim to offer Sabrett hot dogs, but there is an undeniable difference in taste. In fact, they could all be telling the truth and serving different hot dogs as there is a Sabrett hot dog for every taste and budget. The papaya juices have an even wider spread due to their different additives and papaya concentration levels.

Ketchup, mustard, and sauerkraut are available at all papayas, while some offer chili and even more exotic dressings. Most papayas have branched out into similar fare, including knockwursts and sausages. Others have overreached, offering everything under the sun, including burgers, pizza, wings, knishes, coffee and breakfast pastries. I have never tried anything other than hot dogs and fruit juice and therefore cannot vouch for the taste or safety of these peripheral foods.

Papaya History
The story of the papaya stand goes back to 1931, when Greek immigrant Gus Poulos opened Hawaiian Tropical Fruits on 86th Street and 3rd Ave in a gamble that exotic fruit juices would set him apart from the competition. After falling in love with a German woman, he introduced frankfurters to his papaya stand in 1939. The combination was a sensation, leading to further store openings from Brooklyn to Baltimore. It was not until the early 1960’s that Gus’s stand was renamed Papaya King. The hot dog and papaya combination packs a one-two punch from a nutritional perspective as well, as papaya contains an enzyme called papain, which aids in protein digestion. In 1972, Papaya King partner Nicholas Gray set out on his own to create Gray’s Papaya. Then, somewhere along the way came Papaya Dog, Chelsea Papaya, and Mike’s Papaya. Many others have come and gone, the enumeration of which would be a whole other project in itself.
Sources: New York Times, Papaya King

Vilde Chaya’s Papayas - Methodology
In an ideal world, I would sample all the hot dogs, all the toppings, and all the juices at every papaya, revisiting each one to make sure I get a hot dog grilled to perfection at some point. In reality, there is a baker's dozen of these places, so I can only eat so much salted, processed beef over the course of three weeks before my risk of pancreatic cancer begins to increase exponentially. Furthermore, the lineup of drinks and dressings varies from place to place. Thus, I limited myself to a papaya juice and one or two hot dogs with ketchup and mustard at each establishment. While some people might think I’m insane for foregoing chili, or stark raving mad for passing on relish, my goal was to present an apples to apples comparison, so I distilled this ranking to the bare essence of what defines the papaya stand format. Any factor discussed in the reviews was fair game as far as rankings were concerned. While a toasted bun is sometimes mentioned, I view it more as a signal that they take pride in their work. As far as my enjoyment of the hot dog goes, it doesn't really move the needle. The quality of the juice had far greater variation than that of the hot dogs, making juice more decisive in the rankings despite the fact that I weighted juice and dogs equally. Finally, by hook or by crook, I snapped at least one photo of each stand, even when that meant using my Blackberry Curve's onboard camera. Without further ado, the rankings:

(1) Papaya King
86th St and 3rd Ave

The 86th St Papaya King is the one that started it all. One bite of their savory hot dog is all you’ll need to see how this place gave birth to an entire dining format. The dogs were spicy and smoky without being overpowering, perhaps a little better than Gray's. The bottom of the bun was toasted as well. The papaya juice was a little frothy on top but consistently smooth otherwise. It was delicious and rich, with the taste of real fruit and no added sweeteners. It's the most natural tasting, satisfying juice on the papaya circuit.

(2) Gray’s Papaya
8th St and 6th Ave

Gray’s Papaya at its best: the hot dog was smoky with perfect grill marks, yet it maintained its juicy texture. The dog had a satisfying snap to it and the bun was a little more toasted than any other that I had. The papaya juice was a well-balanced chaser, with just the right levels of sweetness and tartness. Gray’s Papaya’s juice can be distinguished by the fact that it is actually a juice, not some frothy creation occupying the nebulous territory between juice and smoothie. A panhandler systematically approached and harassed every patron in the store with nary a peep from the staff.

(3) Gray's Papaya
72nd St and Broadway

The dog struck a delicate balance of smoky, spicy, and juicy. The papaya juice was refreshing and sweet, but not too sweet. I’ve been here countless times and still haven’t read all the little signs around the store. It is one of the most crowded papayas due to its location at a major intersection across the street from an express subway stop. Having grown up within a few blocks of this Grays, I was excited to see it in the background of the classic films Die Hard With a Vengeance and The Warriors. For all you philistines, I’ve read that it was also featured in an episode of Sex and the City, but don’t ask me which one.

(4) Gray's Papaya
37th St and 8th Ave

The hot dog was not as well done as I’d have liked, but still had that smoky taste I’ve come to expect from Gray’s. The papaya juice was outstanding: bold, sweet, and cold enough to make it more refreshing without being a detriment given the cold January night. Nonetheless, I recommend the other locations on West 72nd St and West 8th St over this one.

(5) Papaya King
14th St and 7th Ave

Unfortunately, this Papaya King franchise will soon be closing down, leaving only the original location on 86th St and 3rd Ave. My hot dog was burned just right and it had a great spicy flavor. The juice was rather weak, with a subtle taste, or as a friend bluntly put it, “flavorless and artificial.” The fact that this place won’t be around much longer, by itself, warrants an urgent visit. This stand had my favorite staff (pictured). They were cool as shit, for lack of a better term. I’m not sure what their schedule is, but they were on duty at around 5:00 PM on a Saturday. I would pay to see the guy on the left do standup. I was thoroughly entertained and wish them the best of luck in their future career endeavors.

(6) Chelsea Papaya
23rd and 7th Avenue

The juice is sweet and pretty tasty despite being way too tart. The dog was very juicy and savory. The sounds of one of the Bantu languages permeate the establishment. They have offbeat menu signs inside that have a sort of graffiti motif. Along with Mike’s Papaya, Chelsea Papaya was the only independent papaya stand I could find. Both featured good hot dogs and disappointing papaya juice. They’re worth trying, if only to help out the little guy struggling against the corporate papaya titans.

(7) Mike’s Papaya
Corner of Reade and Church

My hot dogs at Mike’s Papaya were some of the juiciest I had in my entire adventure. That was despite the dogs being generously blackened to perfection. At 99 cents each, Mike’s Papaya is perhaps the best doggone deal in town. The papaya juice was unfortunately not up to that standard. In fact, it may have been the worst. It was so watered down that you could barely taste the papaya and there didn’t seem to be any added sugar to compensate for it. It’s a shame, because an above average papaya juice could have vaulted this place into the top spot. The festive ceiling décor (a la Gray’s), chessboard floor, above average cleanliness, and Tribeca loft voyeur opportunities make the ambiance second to none. The store’s signage is notable for its almost complete lack of ballyhoo. It’s charming when originals Papaya King and Gray’s Papaya do it, but competitors like Mike are right to take it easy on our eyes.

(8) Papaya Dog
Penn Station (LIRR concourse right near the exit to the A/C/E lines)

What sets this Papaya Dog apart from its sister stores is the availability of beer. Not only that, but it's cheap beer. A 20 oz draught beer will set you back $2.25, and for those long trips to Montauk, you can score a 32 oz for only $3. As far as the papaya stand fare is concerned, let's just say that you're better off thinking of this place as a bar and no more. The hot dog was dry to the point of being totally desiccated. The papaya juice was so thick that I had to exert my oral muscles in a way that is improper for a papaya stand. The papaya juice had a strange flavor that was a mixture of chemicals and candy.

(9) Papaya Dog

177th and Broadway

The Papaya Dog in Washington Heights is by far the northernmost papaya stand in the city, the only one remaining north of 86th st. When you walk in, a number of features make it suspect: tables, chairs, and an expansive menu that includes pizza, among other things. The hot dogs were almost tasteless and the papaya juice was thick and foamy, but tart, with a chemical aftertaste.

(10) Papaya Dog
42nd and 9th

The Papaya dog on 42nd is an oasis of relative cleanliness in the sea of filth that is West 42nd St (save for a homeless patron). The frothy papaya juice here was a little bit tastier than that of all the other Papaya Dogs, but that's kind of like winning the Special Olympics. It had a sweet, citrusy, tropical “je ne sais quois.” The hot dog was classic Papaya Dog bland.

(11) Papaya Dog
33rd and 5th (kitty corner from the Empire State Building)

At first glance, this papaya stand is the smallest one in town, with almost no counter space beyond the register. In fact, the pizza parlor two doors down is under the same ownership and it welcomes Papaya Dog patrons. The countless tourists who pass through the sliding accordion doors are served up the same tasteless, dried out fare that I’ve come to expect from Papaya Dog. The papaya juice had a chemical taste that finished like Smarties/Fizzers, a candy that I have not had since childhood. After tasting their papaya juice, I remembered why that was the case.

(12) Papaya Dog
West 4th St and 6th Ave

This was yet another dried out, bland hot dog. The papaya juice tasted like a watered down version of the Fizzers juice from the 33rd St location. It looked alright, had some visually appealing grill marks and a very clean floor given its busy location. Nonetheless, another dud, especially with the champion Gray's only 4 blocks up.

(13) Papaya Dog
14th St and 1st Ave

Last and least, this Papaya Dog was served at a tepid temperature with no grill marks to speak of. It could easily have been mistaken for a dirty water dog in both appearance and taste. The bun seemed toasted but upon closer inspection it appeared to be stale as each side was equally crispy with no evidence of the physical reactions that one might expect from the toasting process (such as darkening and warmth). At lunch time there were truants and vagrants surrounding the storefront, accompanied by a half dozen cops. The Balebusta hid inside the Duane Reade while she waited for me out of fear for her personal safety. The frothy papaya juice evoked memories of the childrens' amoxycillin that aspired to taste like bazooka joe bubble gum.

Well folks, thirteen papaya stands later, I’m happy to report that I’m still alive to write about it, with a ranking of the best papayas & hot dogs in NYC to show for it. In fact, I don’t recall getting so much as a stomach ache from any of these places, save for the East 14th St Papaya Dog. Special thanks to the Balebusta, her fiancé, and El Si Guy for joining me on segments of the grand papaya tour and providing their valued input. Thanks to WSG for informing me that papaya has an entirely different meaning in Cuban slang. If you know of any new papaya stand or one that I otherwise left out, please leave a comment and let me know! I intend to continuously update this page as Project Papaya is a living, breathing document.


  1. Try the papaya, they're full of papain, make you strong like Popeye! Popeye, papain, Popeye, papain! See? Same thing! Same... forget it.

  2. Dude you're re-dic! This entry is exhaustive as hell!! You should seriously see about submitting it to a publication (print or online) in town. Maybe give you even more street cred w/ the ladies?

  3. i really enjoy your website. thank you.