UPPER WEST SIDE, NYC | There are very few things left in this fine city as iconic a food destination as your papaya-related hot dog spots—two of the most venerable being the Upper East Side's Papaya King, and the Upper West Side's Gray's Papaya.
Any native New Yorker knows that the two are not interchangeable, so you must, of course, have a preference.
I grew up (and went to school) on the UWS, so I was partial to Gray's, and their long-standing "recession special" of two hot dogs with a medium drink. (Back then, the late 80s, I think it may have been only $1.50.)
But I have spent the second half of my life on the Upper East Side, so I have gorged myself on Papaya King's fine, snappy, spicy frankfurters.
Finding myself on 72nd and Broadway yesterday after a client meeting, I decided to revisit the venerable spot for the traditional recession special.
The hot dogs are still snappy and flavorful, with decent enough spice to still let the flavor come through from under my generous addition of spicy brown mustard and brightly sweet relish. I would have preferred the bun be a bit more toasted and less soft. And, most egregiously, the coconut champagne—my default beverage preference—was a disappointing pittance of what I remembered, and previously enjoyed it, to be, somehow soapier than some papaya drinks around the city can be, and fizzy not with refreshing carbonation but with the taste and feel of something that had started to "turn".
But Gray's Papaya is such an Upper West Side (and New York City) institution that my pithy criticism won't make a difference in a spot that runs 24/7 and feeds ever grateful quick bite-seekers of all ages and at all hours.
It remains as Gotham-relevant to so many people as it always has been. It has earned that distinction, and with that history, beyond the food, maintains its importance as one of the city's brightest (and most colorful) beacons to all-comers.
GRAY'S PAPAYA | 2090 Broadway (at 72nd St.), New York, NY 10023 | (212) 799-0243 | grayspapayanyc.com