Gray's Papaya, the open-all-night hot dog joint with a line that snakes in one door and out the other, has sold a "Recession Special" for as long as anyone can remember. The Recession Special consists of two hot dogs, canonically topped with sweet red onion relish, and a tropical juice of choice, the standard choice being, despite the establishment's name, pineapple juice and not papaya. Here's how to make your own Recession Special at home.
As far back as I can remember, Gray's Papaya has had a Recession Special. I can attest that the "recession" part of the special goes back at least to the nineties recession, though I suspect it kicked off during the seventies—Gray's Papaya opened in 1973. In a typically New York twist of fate, Gray's Papaya is actually a spin-off of the original tropical-juice-and-cheap-hot-dog concept, which was pioneered by Papaya King. (The whole saga is hilariously chronicled by Street Meat Nation.) Gray's Papaya, notwithstanding, has achieved the distinction of being considered the "original and best" among the average New Yorker, in large part due to their strategically located branches, most of which are closed now. Back in the day, there was a branch right by NYU, obviously attracting hungry and/or drunk college students like moths to a flame.
Gray's Papaya sweet, red onion hot dog relish
The secret sauce of the Recession Special is, literally, the secret sauce. A special investigation turned up the surprising fact that the sweet red onion relish that characterized the Gray's Papaya dog is actually the very same Sabrett's relish that all the city hot dog carts sell. There's nothing special about it, except that it comes standard on the two extra-long dogs that you can get for $6.95 in 2020 dollars, juice included. And that, of course, makes it mandatory for our re-creation.
To make the sauce, you brown up some chopped sweet onions; by the "red" in the name is adjectival to the sauce, not the onions themselves—you want sweet Vidalia onions here. Let the onions soften and just begin to brown, but you want them to still has a little kick to them, like so:
Then you deglaze with some vinegar and add tomato paste, spices, some cornstarch to thicken it up, a bit of water, and, not to be missed, a touch of hot sauce and sweetener. For the full downmarket flavor, you'd use corn syrup as the sweetener, but you can also upscale and use honey. Also, fry up the onions in margarine for buttery (but not) mouthfeel. In the recipe below, I call for a combo of margarine and neutral-flavored oil because I find margarine alone burns too easily.
Recession Special finishing touches
Other than the relish, it's all a matter of mimicking the hot dog grill setup that they have at Gray's Papaya, which is one of those stainless steel deals with grooves in it for the hot dogs. I've settled on boiling the hot dogs (street cart style) and then putting them in a hot oven for just a few minutes. For bonus points, see if you can track down some extra-long dogs, and, of course, squishy store-bought buns, split at the sides.
As for the tropical drink, I spent an overlong time hunting for the Gray's Papaya smoothie formula only to turn up the memory that it's just pineapple juice, not a smoothie. Now my family considers pineapple juice a mandatory accompaniment to hot dog night, so, mission accomplished.
Gray's Papaya Recession Special (meat)
- 4 extra-long beef hot dogs
- 4 plain hot dog buns, split on the side
- 4 cups pineapple juice
- 2 Vidalia (sweet) onions - chopped
- 1 Tbsp margarine - I used Earth Balance buttery sticks
- 1 Tbsp neutral-flavored oil
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tsp cornstarch
- ½ cup water
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- ¼ tsp paprika
- dash black pepper
- dash hot sauce
- 1 Tbsp corn syrup or honey
Make the relish:
- Chop the onion into medium-fine square pieces. Heat the margarine and oil together in a skillet over medium heat.
- When the skillet is hot, add the onion and fry until softened and beginning to brown, about 5-6 minutes.
- Pour the vinegar into the pan and scrape the bits off the bottom using a silicone spatula. Bring to a boil, about 30 seconds.
- Add the tomato paste to the onions and stir to combine.
- Sprinkle the cornstarch over the tomato-onion mixture and stir.
- Pour the water over the onions. Stir in the salt, garlic powder, paprika, and black pepper. Return to a boil and cook for several minutes, until thickened.
- Stir in the corn syrup or honey. Turn off the heat. Can be served warm or cold.
Cook the hot dogs:
- Preheat the oven to 425°F / 215°C.
- Boil the hot dogs until warmed through, several minutes at a rolling boil.
- Place the cooked hot dogs on a lined sheet pan and toast in the oven for 5 minutes, until dry but not blistered.
Assemble the Recession Special:
- Add one hot dog to each sliced bun. Top with 2-3 tablespoons of sweet, red onion relish. Pour a tall glass of pineapple juice and serve two hot dogs and a beverage to each diner.