New York City restaurants making the move to Las Vegas is an old trick by now. You’d think it would make a Manhattan transplant like me feel at home but, frankly, I never went to Rao’s or the Carnegie Deli. But recently, two places that I dined at on a regular basis have opened local outposts: Papaya King and Virgil’s Real Barbecue.
Papaya King was one of the two hot dog titans of Manhattan, the other being Gray’s Papaya, both neon-glowing outposts offering food that was quick, cheap and tastier than it should have been. Gentrification turned hot dog joints into bank branches, chain drugstores and vacant storefronts, but Papaya King still holds down three spots in New York City and now one on Paradise Road.
And how do the franks hold up to cross-country migration? Just fine, thanks. Many hot dogs are simply condiment-holders, but Papaya King’s have a savory flavor, and the skins “snap” when you bite in. The menu has adapted over time with specialty dogs, such as the Upper East (pastrami, kraut, pickle chips) and the Bullseye (onion rings, cheddar cheese sauce, barbecue sauce). Both are welcome additions—pastrami on everything, sure—but I still prefer my old-school NY onions, a spicy concoction that’s half-condiment, half-chili. The papaya and fruit juices are a vitamin boon to busy city folk huffing down a tubesteak between clocking out at the office or studio and catching the Ramones or the Roots, and they’ll benefit a tourist on day three of a bender, too. Papaya King has accommodated the Sin City lifestyle by spiking their juice concoctions with booze, but the rum doesn’t add a whole lot—best to sip your mango/orange/papaya straight.
The original Virgil’s Real Barbecue was a sprawling, noisy two-story restaurant off of Times Square—back when Times Square was still kind of sketchy. After a plate of ribs or a pulled pork sandwich, we’d go down the block to take in some full-frontal male nudity at the Gaiety Burlesque and/or head for the Siberia Bar, where you could watch Midtown’s off-duty chefs—some of whom would go on to massive Food Network paychecks—get shitfaced on cheap blow and cheaper booze. Virgil’s Vegas location in the shiny, franchised environs of The Linq is much like Times Square’s present incarnation and, once again, the space is loud and the servings are large. One improvement is the live music—on my visit, the band cranked out a solid set featuring a Prince medley that did right both by Prince and the Vegas tradition of medleys.
But how’s the food? Again, I am not disappointed. The Texas beef brisket is still slow-cooked and lightly sauced, while the pulled pork has the sweetness and texture I fondly remember. I never had their chicken-friend steak back home, but I wish I had—it isn’t the damp panko/gluey gravy mess one is used to: A crust of cornflakes, tortilla chips and saltines maintains crunch and adds flavor. The sides are still sold, with cheese grits and mashed potatoes leading the way—and these classics aren’t fluffed up with heirloom this or caramelized that, but served old-fashioned, unfancy grandma style. Papaya King and Virgil’s Real Barbecue don’t have celebrity chefs or famous faces but, when you’ve got hot dogs and barbecue, who needs them?