This past weekend I decided, last-minute (8 days out), to take a weekend trip up to New York for food touring. I went with my roommate Matt (from the Ecuador trip) and Yelp Elite friend, Kana. Both share a love for food.
How’d we get there?
With two people, the best way to get to NYC (at least from Philly) is the Chinatown bus. The $20 roundtrip fare is cheaper than tolls/gas. The bus removes the hassle of parking in New York, which can be its own adventure. We left from Chinatown Philly and arrived in the heart of Manhattan at 120 E Broadway. The bus isn’t less comfortable than Greyhound.
Armed with our tickets and light backpacks, we stood in line in Philly at 9am for the bus. A weary traveler, a girl of maybe 23 years, ambled to the back of the line behind us. She wore a multicolored Adidas tank top and messy bleached blond hair. She’s a recent grad from the University of Virginia. She quit her job in investment banking and was on a mission of self-discovery in NYC, no return ticket booked. Our conversation on the way up helped pass the time on the Jersey Turnpike, between light naps. We talked about Excel, the meaning of work, and Charlottesville.
You can check the Chinatown bus schedule here.
Upon disembarking the bus and leaving the wafting diesel fumes behind, we scurried with packs in hand down the grungy trash-scattered streets of Chinatown in New York. We were in a hurry to find our food tour companion. I met Kana at a Yelp event in Philadelphia this past March. We shared food tour battle stories and argued over the merits of Yelp. Kana lives up in NYC and was a natural companion for the excursion this past weekend. She’s an insurance analyst by day, food aficionado by night. She might be the first person I’ve met that has a deeper passion than I for restaurants, chefs, and food. She has impressive pedigree, having eaten at nearly every restaurant I know of. She’s level-headed, fun, and passionate about food. I’m grateful she joined us.
Our first stop was Lam Zhou. Lam Zhou is a barebones dumpling eatery in Chinatown. There are no decorations, signs, or artwork. The only interesting thing about Lam Zhou are the dumplings, and the noodles, and the women who labor in the back tirelessly pressing dumplings all day. The shop is compact, oddly yellow, and a dirty. The floor is lined with cheap wooden folding tables and chairs where diners share common space. The dumplings are excellent, crispy and chewy, filled with scallions, fish and soy sauce, and ground pork. You dip these pockets of love in a little vinegar, and you’re mouth fills with sweet, savoury, and acidic juices and meats. 8 of them for $3 is hard to beat in New York.
The food tour was created by grabbing 450 cheap eats of NYC into a spreadsheet. They were filtered by rating and number of reviews. I eliminated restaurants with less than 25 reviews (this turned out to be too low of a cutoff) and cut off the super popular places with 1000+ reviews. These places have big, touristy lines. I imported the remaining places into Google MyMaps, which plots the locations on a map.
With this map, I plotted a tour route. Using Mapquest’s Route Optimizer, I picked 8 places close to each other. The app optimize d the shortest path between them.
The Food (2)
From Lam Zhou, we walked our way up the east side of Manhattan.
Clinton Square Pizza
I enjoyed both the NY Style thin crust and the Sicilian pizza. The Sicilian was the winner. It had thicker cheese and soft, buttery crumb. The sauce was too sweet on it, however.
One man runs this Japanese stall in the Essex Market. I found the salmon slightly overcooked and the rice too hearty. This place felt too much like an intentionally healthy meal to enjoy.
Gaia Italian Café
Despite the creepy mythological nomenclature, we gave this place a try because it shows up on cheap eats lists across the web.
We ordered the chicken “Milanese” panino and mushroom truffle ravioli.
The panino was 3.5/5 stars. The chicken cutlets were small though well-executed: juicy, well seasoned, crisp on the bite of the crust. The bread was thick, soft, and light crisp on the exterior. Unfortunately the bitter arugula dominated the flavor profile and made the pesto and tomatoes at most an afterthought.
The ravioli on the mushroom truffle ravioli was handmade, lightly chewy, and the right floury/doughy taste. The mushrooms inside were savoury, well-seasoned, and juicy. These were complemented by earthy romano cheese shavings on top. The sauce was a medium-bodied bechamel with hints of truffle oil. Light sprinkling of parsley balanced the cream and fat of the sauce with a fresh and green flavor and mouthfeel.
The ravioli was good enough to redeem the panino’s mediocrity, but not enough to make the experience 5 stars.
Xe May is a hip and popular bahn mi joint. The sandwiches aren’t Saigon street prices at $9. But, they are tasty, a nice balance of fresh bread, sweet bbq savoury pork, and vegetables.
Fat Cat Kitchen
Close to Union Square. Their breakfast sandwich had a fluffy potato roll and well executed eggs. The bean spread on the sandwich was savoury and nicely seasoned.
I enjoyed this place that came recommended by my Yelp friend. The chocolate cannoli was crunchy and buttery on the shell. The inside was sugary, but not grainy/powdery in texture. The milk chocolate added complexity.
I’m so glad Yelp and Opentable pointed us to Ise in the East Village. The Hexagon meal was a no-brainer choice. It is five courses served on stackable trays. It’s unique. It’s well executed. Everything about the meal is efficient and thoughtful.
The starter layer of the hexagon is a few appetizers. There were a few preparations of Tofu along with salad-like app.
The sushi layer contained various types of nigiri including Tuna, Salmon, and Salmon roe along with a tuna roll and two other cuts of white fish. The fish was fresh and creamy as it ought to be. The rice was well executed. The next layer contained house-pulled Soba noodles. These were firm, spongy, fresh, and held onto their dipping sauce very well.
The final course was a chicken consomme mixed with the remaining soba dipping sauce. This was so cool. Very savoury and well seasoned.
I finished my meal with vanilla ice cream dusted in soy powder. The ice cream was silky and creamy. The sauce tasted like maple syrup and peanut butter. Amazing.
This is a good value for a meal of its caliber in NYC.
Blue and Gold Tavern
My roommate introduced us to this place. It’s a dark and grungy dive bar. But the drink prices were the lowest I’ve seen in Manhattan. $4 and $5 for a beer!
At the end of the night on Saturday many people end up at Crif Dogs. They have good hotdogs at a reasonable price. The dogs are all beef, have a nice snap, and can be topped with a tasty chili.
TheInfatuation.com led us to the Emmy burger in Brooklyn which it touted as the “best burger in NYC.” While the burger was delicious and came together with a unique emphasis on carmelized onions and charred cheddar, I don’t believe it deserves the top spot. The search for NYC’s best burger continues. This one is overpriced at $27.
It’s become a tradition of mine to spend time lounging on Sheep Meadow in Central Park. There’s a massive green space, an excellent view of the skyline, and hundreds of interesting subjects for people watching.
The cheapest non-Chinatown dump motel I found was the International Student Residence in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While cheap, the accommodations were Spartan. The room was nothing more than wooden stall with a bunk bed and a trash can. There was no ceiling. The place was clean, but noisy and very tight. It’s hard to justify spend 3x as much for a hotel room in Manhattan, but I’d be tempted.
New York has a diversity of thought, activity, and resources unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s a privilege living 2 hours away. During my food planning, I found there are over 20,000 restaurants in the NYC area, with options consistently changing. Because the options are nearly limitless, choosing one place to eat is a problem in discipline and information science. New York presents the perfect opportunity to analyze restaurant ratings in a rigorous manner. It gives one access to some of the best restaurant options in the world, within walking distance.