Friday, June 7, 2013

Old Yet New in New York: Papaya King Crowns the East Village

By Mitch Broder

They snap downtown just the way they snap uptown.

That’s all that matters. Papaya King East Village is a success.

Yes, the hot dogs that gave a second career to tropical fruit drinks have ventured from East 86th Street to St. Mark’s Place. Thus, Papaya King has a second location for the first time in decades. And the dogs traveled well. Here, too, they’re one of the best bites of New York.

The new store is three times as big as the old, and it has a concrete porch. It takes some time to acclimate to all that luxury.  But the hot dogs are the same, which is to say perfectly tasty and snappy, as are the buns, which is to say perfectly fluffy and crunchy.

As is the papaya drink, which is to say perfectly creamy and frothy. It’s unlike any other fruit drink you know. It’s mysterious. And best left that way.

Papaya King, born on that uptown corner in 1932, has had other branches, but they disappeared despite the perfection. The original location was bought by a group of investors three years ago. The new store is their first attempt to build on history.

“It’s a good match for the brand,” says Blake Gower, the group’s head of development. “It’s a quintessential New York experience on a quintessential New York street.” He’s especially proud of the porch: “It’s one of the key design elements. It kind of makes this place feel like it’s always been here.”

Blake wanted to have a place that looked new to people who like new things and old to people who like old things, and he got as close as you could expect. The classic neon sign, for instance, is new and yet manages to say Old New York in the middle of the city’s body-piercing corridor.

Inside, the walls preserve a Papaya King tradition: little signs designed to enlighten you about frankfurters and fruit. But here they’re tailored to the neighborhood, as in: “Right across the street from where you’re standing was the legendary Five Spot Jazz Club. All the greats played there. Bet they wished for franks after shows.”

Blake dug even further back to come up with the bamboo counter and the thatched grill awning laden with artificial fruit. They recall Papaya King’s origin as a stand called Hawaiian Tropical Drinks, where just fruit juice was sold, sometimes by a man crowned by a pith helmet.

The porch has wooden chairs that make you feel like you’re at the old homestead, until you notice the view of the St. Mark’s Hotel, the St. Marks Ale House, and Karaoke St. Marks (and you get a snootful of smoldering sandalwood from the nearby incense stand).

It’s a unique blend. But it could be what the neighborhood needs, since Papaya King could be what every neighborhood needs. Among nearby competitors is Japadog. But Japadog has hot dogs with bonito flakes. Papaya King has two hot dogs and a fruit drink for five bucks.

It has toppings, too, though not bonito flakes. But try a couple of these dogs straight.

As the longtime slogan promises: “Our Franks are Tastier than Filet Mignon.”

Eat royally at Papaya King, at 3 St. Mark’s Place, between Cooper Square and Astor Place, in New York City.


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