Some days are a real struggle to get that next blurb of hot dog lore, and I'm sure there's been a night or two I've fallen asleep with a condition called, "mustard on the brain". However, there are moments when a bit of Hot Dog Heaven just drops into my lap quite by accident. And such was the case this past weekend when we were covering an event at a popular restaurant in New York's East Village, and afterward, heading to yet another establishment to gather a photo or two for inclusion in my upcoming book.
We had departed our first engagement and were casually making our way through St. Mark's Place in the East Village. For those who may not know, St. Mark's Place is a mere three block stretch that runs from Third Avenue to Tompkins Square Park, and is actually an extension of 8th Street that was named for the historic St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery two blocks to the north. It is a stretch where one leaves the touristy confines of typical trappings, and immediately, steps within an area rife with New York's punk rock past.
It is a cultural crossroads, rich in both history and rebellion, with a list of historic figures that have tread its pavement that can attest to the trendy (or anti-trendy) counter-culture that once permeated the environs here. Familiar names like Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Shulamith Firestone, Benny Fein, Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Abbie Hoffman, Deee-Lite, Ann Magnuson, Keith Haring, Klaus Nomi, John Sex, Kenny Scharf, David Wojnarowicz, Wendy Wild, The Fleshtones, Anarchist Switchboard, Jimi Hendrix, the Velvet Underground, the Fugs, the New York Dolls, John Lennon, Lou Reed, Joey Ramone, Cyndi Lauper and the Yippies have all traversed and often, lingered upon this three-block stretch. Incidents such as the Astor Place Riot and Fein/Sirocco Shootout occurred here. The "Shag" haircut was created here. Even the cover of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti album (the tements located at 96 and 98 St. Mark's Place) was photographed here. My point is, this neighborhood could consume at least a chapter or three in the annals of New York City history.
In May of 2013, a newcomer arrived at St. Mark's Place - Papaya King - and as had many others before, deciding to call the fabled turf, "home".
One of the greatest features offered by this store is an outdoor patio area located at the storefront that is often referred to as “the stoop”. Though there is ample room inside to sit, the stoop is a place where customers and locals alike, tend to gather and eat, talk or merely watch the world go by. I feel strongly that this may be a reason for the store's success and acceptance into the neighborhood.
It was this location into which we stumbled, quite by accident. Our attention was immediately drawn to the flamboyant decor and flashy neon signs that touted quotes by famous personalities in regard to the establishment's legendary franks. Truthfully, I found it hard to ignore and felt drawn to enter, particularly with my next National Hot Dog Month piece nipping at my heels.
The itemized menu of topped hot dogs was significant and there were more than a few specialty dogs with interesting names such as the Homerun, the Musher and the Beefinator. There was also a large array of tropical drinks and smoothies which was where it all began...
Papaya King was founded in 1932 by Gus Poulos, a 25-year old Greek who emigrated from Athens nine years earlier. Poulos's store opened on the corner of 86th Street and 3rd Avenue and the concept was simple - serving drinks made from fresh tropical fruits. He soon expanded his menu to include frankfurters and knew he struck upon something special. So popular was Poulos's restaurant, that in 1935, he opened a second store in Brooklyn, and two years later, yet another near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After seventy-odd years in business, the Polouses decided to sell the family business, and with renewed vigor, new ownership guided the famous eatery into the new millennia.
History aside, although I really wanted to try a smoothie, my mission today was purely "hot dog" oriented. I heard a lot about the legendary Papaya King franks. Personalities like Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart and Julia Child raved about them. Zagat remarked they were as, "vital to New York City as the subway." That's a mighty big endorsement and one I needed to test the merit of.
In moments, the dogs arrived and we took a seat beside walls covered with colorful signs displaying hysterical quotes and risque euphemisms along the lines of "Condiments left on your fingers should be licked off. You'll save a napkin." and "If you go next door they can pierce your weiner. We don't recommend it though. Wouldn't want your mouth-watering juices escaping."
Perhaps, some may find this brand of humor offensive, but truth be told, this isn't McDonaldland, folks. I definitely got the humor behind the decor and must say, I enjoyed it immensely. In fact, I found the looseness of such a fast-food establishment (if that can even be applied here), refreshing.
I looked at the dogs and visually, found nothing to separate these before me from a myriad of others. These grilled franks were not over-sized nor were they fancily decorated nor did they display any outward sign that they could be so drastically different than a parade of others. But I am here to tell you, they are.
Moist. Steamy. Delicious. Bursting with flavor. I don't know. I'm a writer and a culinary wordsmith, and I find difficulty putting into words just why I found these frankfurters so damn good. But they are exactly that. And I admit - albeit, with a tad of shame - I was not ready for the experience.
Fast food, gimmicks, marketing, slogans; I don't care, call it or pin it on anything you'd like. The hype in regard to these franks are spot on. Want a great dog? Go see the King.