Hot Dog Ménage à Trois: a Battle of the Dishes Three-Way Sausage Fest!

Victoria Bekiempis
Papaya King goes dogging.

Sometime in the late 1930s, a fruit-loving Greek busted ass on a pair of roller skates. The young Yorkville businessman, you see, was trying to impress a neighborhood chick, but wound up mangling his ankle instead, continuing the tradition of grisly things happening to people when they try to wow potential mates. Lucky for Gus Poulos, who also happened to run a popular tropical juice bar in the area, the injury took on a very rom-com quality. The girl, Birdie, supposedly nursed him back to health with sausages and other delicacies from the area's German eateries, and he knew instantly what was missing both from his business and his life: hot dogs, and a wife. So Poulos added franks to the menu, creating the legendary Papaya King, and later hooked up with Birdie.

But what's a happy marriage without betrayal, divorce, and deception? For Poulos, the odd-but-stable union of sweet juice and savory, intestine-wrapped meat slurry first went bad in 1973, when a former company partner opened Gray's Papaya -- which sells the exact same thing as the original Papaya King. Fast-forward a few decades, and yet another knockoff surfaces mere blocks from the original Gray's: Papaya Dog.

If the spin-offs didn't already strike you as absurdist enough, recall that all three hot dog haunts serve up the same exact wieners, which, according to The New York Times, come from the Sabrett plant in New Jersey.

So we at Fork in the Road decided to see whether any of these restaurants' offerings taste any different from one another -- and whether there's any measurable distinction in quality. Behold this week's Battle of the Dishes -- an epic three-way sausage fest.

Papaya King (179 East 86th Street, 212-369-0648)
In this Upper East Side fixture, there's little elbow room to scarf down your dogs, which the usually pleasant staff serves up hot and quick. Here, the $2.10 classic -- with sauerkraut and New York onions -- has the characteristic rich meatiness that makes this frank and its competitors so memorable: a salty, beefy vibe that's unpretentiously toothsome. The spicy, brown mustard tickles the palate, and the ghost-colored, pickled cabbage stands out, balancing sourness and delicacy. But the links must have languished too long on the heating surface, almost burning the mouth with the first bite. Also, the buns have a bit too much crunch to them -- feeling crouton-like along the edges -- hinting at overcooking.

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