The Upper East Side eatery Papaya King faces demolition, with the lot on which it sits slated for redevelopment. So customers are lining up at the narrow counter to order what could be their last flat-grilled dog with tropical juice from the beloved 90-year-old New York City institution.
“The fact that this tasted good 70 years ago when I was eleven says a great deal,” said Richard Barnett, 81, who snagged two dogs with sauerkraut and mustard. “It says that there is a certain kind of continuity… and that ordinary people can have good taste.”
Cultivating that discernment, though, was a hard-fought campaign for the original owners of Papaya King. In 1932, a Greek immigrant named Gus Poulos just wanted to sell his favorite fruit juices that he discovered on vacation in Florida. But in a neighborhood populated by lots of Germans and East Europeans, that notion didn’t take right away.
“People didn’t know what these juices were. So he had to spend a lot of time and money giving away these juices to the public,” said Poulos’ son, Peter Poulos, on the Grounded in Greek podcast last year.
They played Hawaiian music and had women in grass skirts handing out papaya chunks to entice people. But when that didn’t work, they gave in to the appetites of the neighborhood and threw in some frankfurters.
Carole Kulok, who’s now in her 80s, was among those the store won over. In her childhood, the dogs became a forbidden all-beef obsession.
“I came from a kosher home and I wasn’t allowed to eat this kind of thing,” Kulok said. “And I’d eat a hot dog in the telephone booth.” It was my sneak in early childhood.”
It’s Kulok’s favorite hot dog in the city, and that’s why she’d crammed herself into Papaya King on a hot summer day: to order two dogs with sauerkraut and mustard. One to be eaten on the spot, the second to go.
Kulok washed them down with a fresh juice to seal the classic combo, one that hot dog historian Bruce Kraig still finds odd.
“New York is the only place that does this, Kraig said. “That’s one of the historical importances of Papaya King.”
But, he added, the historical pairing of a hot dog topped with sauerkraut and chest-clearing mustard and a sweet, frothy papaya drink makes sense.
“There is a flavor profile in East European cuisine which is sweet and sour,” said Kraig. “New York is heavily Jewish. Although the guys that founded it are Greeks, the customers were mainly Jewish.”
That unique combo might always be around in New York, given all the other joints Papaya King has inspired over the years – Gray’s Papaya, Papaya Dog, Chelsea Papaya – but the originator might not be here much longer. The lot where Papaya King sits was sold last year to Extell Development, a company known for building luxury apartments.
Plans to demolish the building were filed at the end of June, though the demolition date is unknown. Neither Extell Development nor Papaya King’s new owner answered a request for comment.
But even in what might be the final weeks of Papaya King’s long reign, the joint was still attracting new and younger customers
“It reminds me a little bit of home,” said Alejandra Perozo, 21. “I am from Puerto Rico. There is a lot of fresh juice with hot dogs, and things you can just make easy in a cart.
“It’s really nice,” she added, “and just, like, comforting.”