Derelict Dining: Papaya Quest

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(Originally posted on the “A New York Thing” Glob.  R.I.P.)

New York is a city of wonder and opportunity, a rising monument to the dream of our great nation.  To see it emerge in the distance elicits a shiver at the gleam, the mystery of what is contained in the alleys and avenues deep below the spires of an empire.  But it is also a city of divisions.  A short bridge ride brings one from the luxury of Columbus Circle into the hallowed grounds of Queensbridge.  Divided by a river and three socio-economic classes, the neighborhoods exist in stark contrast.

Even with rampant social stratification and disenfranchisement, there are still great equalizers, shared elements deeply embedded into the DNA of the metropolis. The hot dog sits peak atop these unifiers.  Rich or poor, Jewish or Muslim, Black or Dominican, all enjoy this gastronomique guilty pleasure.  Venture with me, lost soul, idealistic dreamer, white-collar criminal, into the world of papaya juice and hot dogs.  
1Papaya Dog:

Sometimes, in the darkest moments of my life, I choose to push myself further into the abyss.  You see, it is complete darkness, black, that is the absorption of all light.  So when I am forced to take the L train back to Kings County at 4am next to many a collared shirt-wearing merrymaker, I choose to compound the darkness in my suffering by stepping into Papaya Dog on the corner of 1st Avenue and 14th Street.  

Beyond being geographically accommodating, placed directly on the demarcation line of downtown, Papaya Dog is the most economically gracious of the Papaya Dog purveyors.  For a mere 4 dollars you are treated to 2 hot dogs and a fruit juice.  The hot dogs at Papaya Dog are good, filling and salty – all that you would want in a dog, really.  Yet, they lack a certain snap to them.  The Papaya juice is passable, but you can most certainly tell it is made from a powder.  The beverage was pleasing but also caused some sort of existential/real crisis for aNYthing’s own Torey Kish, launching him into a haze for the following half hour.  It is the decor of Papaya Dog that makes it so bleak. Standing up and eating at the windowed counter, under the bright fluorescents, one watches the world go by. Young professionals commuting home/drunk, a street book seller vending, MTA buses (that I am too scared to get on because they lack the rails of direction that ease my mind on the subway) passing by.  I eat here once every month and a half.  

Note: All of the employees at Papaya Dog are from Assiut, Egypt, where in the year 2000 the Virgin Mary appeared. They are very nice.  

Taste: Mangas

Cost: Mangas

Ease of Use: 3.5/5 Mangas

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Papaya King:

In the 1930’s, Gus Poulos founded Papaya King with the raison d’etre of providing cheap and healthy beverages to the masses.  It was a noble cause and no one batted an eyelash when these health drinks were paired with hot dogs, which no matter how delicious, are very close to the height of un-health.  Mind you, at the time you could still smoke everywhere and probably get a doctor to give you cocaine.  Papaya King was the original Juice Press, which I hope in 50 years is understood as similarly unhealthy (you won’t get diabetes but wheatgrass probably makes you prone to shingles, or something of a similar ilk).  

If you were unaware that “Papaya King” was the original proprietor of papaya juice and dogs before entering the store, which does have a dazzling neon-sign, you will when you are bombarded by thousands of “Papaya King Facts” placarded all around the shop. For example: “Papaya promotes heart health and male fertility” – debateable.  “Lenny Bruce lived on this street, and married a stripper!” That’s a cute story but so did Wiz Khalifa and I’ve already seen everyone I know naked on “the Internet”.  

The current iteration of Papaya King is very much attempting to channel the ethos of the original juice-hot dog combo.  Yet, their pursuit of capitalist grandeur and fame have diverted them from their cause.  It is 7 dollars for two hot dogs and a juice.  There is the option of multiple “toppings”, but that is putting lipstick on a pig in every sense, even if these are kosher dogs.  With this said, the hot dogs at Papaya King are quite good.  They aren’t 3 dollars better than competitors, but the skin does have an excellent snap to it.  Even so, the papaya juice was too sugary.  Further, for this price, I might as well go to Crif Dog down the street and watch people wait for hours to get into a bar that they think is cool because you go through a phone booth to get in.  Here’s a neat trick for you entrepreneurs out there: just put a pay phone next to the door of your bar and don’t let anyone in, people will pay anything to sit there.

Taste: Mangas

Cost: 1.5/5 Mangas

Ease of Use: 2.5/5 Mangas

Gray’s Papaya:

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The Gray’s Papaya on the corner of Sixth Ave and 8th St has closed, and true to my theory, is being replaced by a “Liquiteria” gourmet juice shop (fact check).  This is a tragedy, as the Village Voice once called Gray’s Papaya “The Finest Culinary Addition to Downtown” – a true Jacobin in the bourgeois brunch fiefdom of the West Village.  On the night of our hot dog evaluation  there was no time for mourning this loss.  Torey and I ventured uptown to 72nd st, Gray’s Papaya’s last location.  

“When you’re hungry, or broke, or just in a hurry!” says the sign greeting you after seventy blocks of bicycle riding.  Gray’s was founded in the 70s by Paul Gray, originally a partner in Papaya King.  This breakaway colony has maintained a much more authentic feel than its originator.  Prices have gone up, but 5 dollars for two dogs and a juice in their “Recession Special” remains a deal.  The papaya juice itself is perfect, refreshing, with a delicious milkiness and no horrible after-taste to it.  The dogs are delectable and snappy; I easily finished two of them and did not feel outwardly horrible about myself for eating five hot dogs in one hour.  They blend the notes of intense salt synonymous with a superior dog with a subtle sweetness of the buns.  The quotation placards at Gray’s are far less facetious and money grubby in their feel than at Papaya King.  “Gray’s Papaya grills a meaty beef hot dog that is a steal” – Mimi Sheraton, who according to google image search DOES NOT LOOK LIKE SOMEONE WHO ENJOYS HOT DOGS.  “Famous Hot Doggery” – Anonymous, because when we are talking great hot dogs, who needs to cite sources?  “Can slam dunk a basketball, definitely not allergic to horses.” – Anonymous, discussing Gabriel Luis Manga.   

Gray’s Papaya is the pinnacle of papaya juice-hot dog storefronts.  They combine taste, cost, and even though they are all the way uptown, the fact that they are located in Jerry Seinfeld/Kramer’s fictional neighborhood bumps them up by two ease of use points.  

Taste: Mangas

Cost: 4/5 Mangas

Ease of Use: Mangas.  

Just remember: no one looks good eating a hot dog, no one looks bad eating a hot dog.  

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Derelict Dining: B&H Diner

 HELLA_BLINTZED

(Originally posted on the “A New York Thing” Glob.  R.I.P.)

In the early 1960’s my father, a Colombian immigrant and South Bronx resident, was denied entry to Cooper Union.  He promptly took the 6 train downtown, marched into the Dean’s office, and told him to go fuck himself.  This was hasty and uncouth, but also provided his first experience in the East Village, where he would then make his residence. To some, Downtown has become a sort of museum to an “edgy” past, a rock and roll theme park where rich kids get to dress up in 4,000 leather jackets.  Despite this, my father was ecstatic to hear that I would be returning from abroad to his old stomping grounds earlier this year.  “Gabo!, You gotta go to the B&H Diner and have a blintz” he told me before making fun of me mercilessly for what I pay in rent compared to his former $80 a month eleven window penthouse on 2nd Ave and 6th.

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B&H is an institution, and not a secret one.  It’s charms and cramped quarters are consistently filled with revelers and wanderers, locals and tourists.  Yet, its allure goes far beyond the fact that it is an affordable “old school” diner at the corner of 2nd Avenue and St Marks floating in an endless sea of skull engraved bongs for sale.  It means so much more, which we will now discuss.

Definitions:

Our society functions on the basis of certain truths and constants, collectively defined and agreed upon.  Pudding is delicious, the Middle East is in turmoil, the Knicks suck, green means go.  B&H is not bound by such strict norms.  True artists, they are.  In bright yellow letters they proclaim loudly, “Vegetarian”.  However, vegetarian is just a “word”, an idea, an ethos.  Why let the fact that you have said you are vegetarian stop you from eating meat?  Would you stop listening to rap music just because you are “against” “murder”?  I haven’t.   B&H lives this way, and I applaud them.  

It is true that most items on the menu are in fact vegetarian. But the sincere delicacy of B&H, one passed down to me not by my father but from the spirits that enter into my life (i.e. semi-lucid older folks I meet on the street), is the white fish, which according to society, is a meat.  

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White fish bears many similarities to tuna, which is a magical canned food.  B&H does a fantastic tuna melt on top of their homemade challah bread.  However, white fish is tuna’s better looking/smarter canned sister.  The pescatarian Rashida Jones to tuna’s Kadada.  Smoky, delicate, a palate amusing flavor with a taste that doesn’t overpower.  
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Borscht:

On this night, young Torey Kish and I chose to pair my white fish sandwich with a full sampler platter of the finer things in life: Borscht and Kasha with Gravy.  Summer has Kool-Aid, and winter has borscht, and I draw this similarity primarily based on them sharing the exact same electric red colour.  I’ll leave you to your thoughts of a huge carafe of Borscht busting through the Berlin wall to end Communism/usher in an era of political instability in Ukraine.  The Kasha was warm and filling, but not outstanding- it needed more salt.  

Ease of use:

Food at B&H is served almost instantly upon ordering.  Sandwiches are prepared in 30 seconds.  Soups are ladled out at shock-worker speeds.  The staff are friendly, yet not particularly keen on explaining dishes to you.  For example, I was banned from eating Kasha Varnishkas when I asked what it was. “Maybe next time”, they chuckled at me.  It turns out they are just bow-tie pasta.  

Destiny:

Destiny is about more than just Kelly Rowland, Beyonce, and the five or so women that Beyonce had killed in the early 2000’s.  It is about life coalescing disparate patterns, events, and people into unlikely scenarios.  I spent the majority of my early 20’s living in Cairo, Egypt (revolution, coup, pyramid themed fast food, etc).  Thus, I was taken aback when I entered into a Kosher diner specializing in Jewish eastern European food, only to be greeted by two chefs hailing from the land of the Nile: Mikey (Mahmoud) and Fawzy.  Few things in this world make white people feel weirder than hearing a fellow white person speak Arabic in a Kosher diner, but I embraced destiny, and Mikey now affectionately calls me a nickname that would take a very long time to explain here.  My point is that there is a Jewish diner run by Muslims, which would make for a probably mediocre/possibly racist sitcom about post 9/11 New York.  
HELLA_BLINTZED

Blintzes:

Somewhere, probably in the Palladium dorm at NYU, there is a 19 year old thinking themselves very funny for having a Saturday tradition called “Blunts and Blintzes”, where, as one might imagine, they and friends get very stoned and eat blintzes.  I haven’t smoked weed since high school, but I do enjoy a blintz, which is really just a yiddish chimichanga.  I’m allergic to most fruits, so choosing the blueberry blintz at B&H was not only a foray into alliteration themed desserts but a possible deathly mistake.  Luckily, I am alive, and the blintz was a decadent and fulfilling end to a great meal.  

My meals at B&H are rarely transcendent, but it is a consistent and tasty option when you want a fairly straightforward a satiating meal.  If it were a rap album, it would be Ludacris’ “The Red Light District”.  

Taste: 3.5/5 Mangas

Cost: 3.5/5 Mangas

Ease of use: 4.5/5 Mangas

Derelict Dining: Pak Punjab Deli

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(Originally posted on the “A New York Thing” Glob.  R.I.P.)

There are things you should know about me.  One is that I am not rich, and my money is mostly spent on libations and rent, leaving money for food scarce and held tightly.  Another is that I live my life according to the “Manga Scale”.  A sort of triangle diagram involving taste, cost, and ease of use.  The ideal meal, or anything in life really, should find the perfect equilibrium amongst these fluctuating and elusive traits.  

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The past 6 months of my life have been spent scurrying around New York in a series of very fortunate sublets.  One of those happened to be a subterranean abode on the corner of Second Avenue and Third Street in the East Village.  This happens to be across the street from a Manga Scale landmark, the Pak Punjab Deli.  

The East Village of New York is filled with countless comfortable and delicious locales of taste and fine dining.  The Pak Punjab is a conspicuous outcast amongst these neighbors.  They are the goth kid wearing a Bauhaus shirt in the corner of a school dance while Veselka and that Belgian french fry place slow dance to Savage Garden.  While they aren’t featured on websites such as MenuPages, they are on Yelp, which their Cashier “Talat H.” seems to think is Tinder.  Not enough can be said about how much Talat H. thinks Yelp will get him laid.  Maybe it has.  

COMBO

The Pak Punjab isn’t a destination, but rather a great place to eat for a very small amount of money when in the neighborhood and in need of sustenance.  In this case the impetus was that I would be attending a slide show about “Drag Queens of New York in the 1980’s and Early 90’s” down the street that night.  I entered the deli with aNYthing’s own Torey Kish (this is the most you will ever see that name on the internet) and the smell of cury and gasoline (Pak Punjab is mostly frequented by taxi drivers) instantly brought me back to fond memories of a winter spent in the neighborhood.  Many an intensely spicy Samosa were consumed on the way home from a night of amusement at Black Market or Le Johnson’s.  Delectable “Chicken Rolls” eaten in the shame of the dark while enjoying all that the apartment owner’s cable had to offer.  

On this night I opted for a more substantial meal, Curry Chicken.  It was an excellent choice, producing the same endorphins as finding a movie that you actually want to watch on netflix.  Unlike most chicken curries, this one was devoid of an oppressive amount of sauce.  Rather, the curry mostly covered the surface of the chicken, coating it, as if it were buffalo chicken wings.  These tender subtle nuggets were laid over an intimidating amount of brown basmati rice.  I find Basmati rice to often work in extremes, either overly watery or horrifically dry.  Pak’s rice, surprisingly, is perfect.  The proper amount of oils and flavors lingering on the complex and refined palate that you, reader, and I both possess.  Torey chose to have the lamb on top of this same rice, which looked good, though given the lamb is served as bone-on chunks, it is a meal I can only recommend to advanced derelicts.  For 6.50 each, our hunger for food and fiscal responsibility was satiated.  
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There are other hackney sub-continental favorites with similar prices and portions, such as the strangely placed “Lahore” on Crosby street (there’s nothing like eating a samosa and feeling really horrible/great about yourself while models walk by you on the way to castings).  But Pak Punjab far surpasses Lahore in the name of flavor while serving Dinkins-era portions.  The only negative to the Pak is that it smells very heavily of those same spices that make it so delicious.  This means that sitting down and eating at their most generous counter station, consisting of two chairs, might mean walking around the rest of your night with this scent on you and no kisses, let alone sex.  Luckily, there are plentiful stoops to be had on third street to plop down and plunder your curry.  Just make sure not to sit on that chair outside the hell’s angels clubhouse that they are ADAMANT is only for their members.  

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I hope you all get to enjoy Pak Punjab one day.  May you “find yourself” through this gastronomique journey of thrift and mouth feels the same way white people “find themselves” in the vast expanses of India (Yes, I am aware that Pak Punjab is Pakistani food: Americans, don’t go to Pakistan to find yourself).  

Pak Punjab:

Taste 3.75/5 Mangas

Cost ⅘ Mangas

Ease of Use: ⅗ Mangas