VIDA BITES Classic NY: Gray's Papaya
Updated: Jul 28, 2021
It is the month of June, and New York City is officially back! Restrictions have been lifted, vaccines have been dispensed, and masks are slowly disappearing. All the defectors--who made a grand exodus due to the pandemic--are running back to the city with their tails between their legs. These weren't real New Yorker's by the way; these were the naysayers and transplants who abandoned this great city once the going got tough, such as James Altucher. He was the "putz" (named appropriately by Seinfeld), who wrote the viral op-ed, "NYC is dead Forever. Here's why." Altucher was weak. Jerry Seinfeld proved that in the rebuttal he wrote for the New York Times. New York State's positivity rate for Covid-19 has hit an all-time low; this is evident as I walk down Central Park West. There is a resurgence of energy in the air, and our pride is palpable.
Hundreds of people are shedding their second skin of cabin fever, that had us going hay-wire for human touch, intellectual conversation, and good eats. We want culture, we want excitement, we want food. Yes, food! Comfort food; reliable food; no frills, budget-friendly food. We want Gray's Papaya!
I've been going to Gray's Papaya on Broadway and West 72nd Street, since I was a teenager. The famous hotdog stand--with a prime location on the corner of West 72nd--is hard to miss, with its vibrant, neon-yellow design, and red lettered, signage luring you to enter: "When you're hungry, or broke, or just in a Hurry!", "No Gimmicks! No Bull!" and "Let's be Frank, we want you to buy our Furters." Gray's is a classic New York haunt. Whether your a tourist, or a die-hard New Yorker, if your craving a hotdog, Gray's Papaya will not disappoint. The all-beef hotdogs are grilled, unlike the many street vendors that boil their hotdogs in murky, questionable water. (I've been a witness to vendors handling their hotdogs sans disposable gloves one to many times. Gray's doesn't play that.) The heavenly combination of an all-beef encased hotdog, and a tropical drink actually works, leaving you yearning for more.
My turn on line is up, and I order the recession special; two hotdogs and a tropical drink. I order mine with sauerkraut and mustard. I get my "dogs," my papaya drink, and dig in. The all-beef encased hotdog is juicy, and bursts in my mouth. The salty, acidic flavor of the sauerkraut, coupled with the pungent, bitter flavor of the mustard, is euphoric. My taste buds are doing somersaults of gratitude. This is classic New York.
Let me be clear, Gray's Papaya is not to be confused with Papaya King. The two share a rivalry comparable to the Hatfield's and McCoys, minus the ammunition. In the early 70's, Nicholas Gray had a franchise with Papaya King for two years. According to his wife, Rachael Gray, (in an interview with the West Side Rag in May of 2020) she recounted that Papaya King did not want to renew her husbands contract. In 1973 Nicholas Gray decided to go solo, and became Gray's Papaya. Today Mr. Gray is 84 years old. His younger wife took over the bulk of the business four years ago. Gray's Papaya and Papaya King both use Sabrett's hotdogs, which are distributed by Marathon Enterprises. The difference between the two hotdog stands would be the toppings, the price point, and your personal preference.
I prefer Gray's out of pure nostalgia. Their flagship store on West 72nd Street is tied to so many personal memories. No matter how much NYC has evolved over the years, Gray's Papaya will always be a constant staple of this great city I call home.