A streetcorner eat-shop with an insistently happy, eye-aching red and yellow color scheme, Papaya King seems perpetually mobbed by hungry people pushing their way to the order counter, then to a space at the stand-up eating shelf at the window. The line that separates Third Avenue and 86th Street from the inside of Papaya King is only vaguely delineated, so even if you do eat inside, the dining experience is street food.
Oddly enough – for a place famous as a hot dog joint – Papaya King began as a health-oriented juice store! That was long ago when original proprietor Gus Poulos hired waitresses to do the hula on the sidewalk and lure people inside to taste the tropical beverages he served. The papaya juice is creamy and sweet, reminiscent of the beverage served at New York’s old Orange Julius stands. In fact, all kinds of fruit juices are available; and according to one of the several dozen signs plastered all over the walls, papaya juice is particularly helpful for aiding digestion.
Don’t worry, though: your stomach won’t suffer if you indulge in Papaya King’s real specialty, which is the hot dog. Have two or three or four, and unless you insist on getting them heaped with chili and onions and gobbling a pound of Cajun curly fries on the side, this is a meal that will make good friends with your digestive tract. The hot dogs are dense and meaty with a beguiling garlic taste and a casing that pops with juice when you bite into it. The buns that encase them, although nicely toasted, are so bland that we often discard one bun for each two wieners and eat double-meat dogs (with kraut and tropical relish, of course).