Though I do not qualify based solely on Anthony Bourdain’s “2 years and you’re in” rule, I consider myself a New Yorker… seasoned, at the very least, in the spices and sauces of Chinatown. So, when Alana Hoye of the Ahoy New York City Food Tour contacted Michelle and I with an offer to join her tour this morning, I suffered through a period of stubborn reluctance. After all, I’m used to telling everyone else where to eat. I did a bit of soul searching, though, and ultimately decided to swallow my pride, put on my raincoat of humility and head to the 6 train. And I’m so glad I did.
Alana and her company have been running tours in Chinatown and Little Italy for three years. Ahoy values history and storytelling just as much as they value the incredible food that can be found in these two neighborhoods, a welcome change. We set out to explore a Little Italy and a Chinatown I have not discovered before – an older, more storied one.
The group, comprised mostly of Northern Virginians trying to make the most of a rain-washed day in Manhattan, met on Canal street at the break of dawn (10:15am). Following a few introductions, we were off to Mulberry street’s Little Italy, a neighborhood I’ve unfairly ignored to maintain my “cool New Yorker who knows where he shouldn’t ever go” status.
After a few captivating stories about Little Italy’s violent past (I won’t try to recreate them in the hope that you’ll take the tour yourself), we were brought to Alleva, America’s oldest Italian cheese shop, where we sampled a deadly combination of fresh mozzarella and prosciutto… +10 for Ahoy. Next, we hit Di Palo’s, a speciality Italian store, for sheep’s and cow’s milk cheese that renewed my belief in our big world. A trip to Ferrara, America’s oldest espresso bar, for cannolis capped off the first leg of the delicious tour. Then, it was on to Chinatown. Let’s slow it down a bit.
When Alana told us we would be sampling Thai cuisine first, I hoped it would be Pongsri. Though I’d never been to the Bayard street slocation before, I was no stranger to its flavors, the oldest of their kind in Chinatown. Pad See Ew with Tofu and Chicken Pra Ramm were on today’s menu. A plate of stir-fried broad rice noodles with tofu sprinkled throughout, Pad See Ew may just be my all-time favorite Thai dish, and few do it better than Pongsri. The Chicken Pra Ramm was a dish I hadn’t had before. Drowned in a peanut-infused curry sauce, the chicken and its broccoli counterpart were tender and juicy. A pot of Jasmine tea washed it all down perfectly.
Many of you may know my tumultuous, albeit short history with Tasty Dumpling. For those who don’t, it was the spot that just missed the list on my guide to dollar dumplings in Chinatown. As I chatted with Alana about the pros and cons of Tasty Dumpling and Mosco’s street’s Fried Dumpling just around the corner, she helped me realized something very important – it’s not always about price. Though Tasty Dumpling may be a whole $.25 more than Fried Dumpling, Tasty spares you from the wrath of “the dumpling woman” – the rather unpleasant chef who (wo)mans the kitchen at Fried Dumpling, the one who could not make it any more obvious that you’re burdening her just by living in a world where dumplings that you want to eat exist. Sometimes, it seems, an extra quarter is worth your time. Oh, and the pork and chive dumplings were perfectly done. Not bad.
One of the biggest perks to Alana’s tour was getting the chance to see Chinatown through the eyes of someone who knows it much better than me. When she told me we were going to sample Lychee cupcakes at a bakery across the street from Fried Dumpling, I wondered how she was going to conjure the place out of thin air, as I didn’t remember ever seeing a bakery on Mosco street. But it was there, invisible if you weren’t looking for it. We headed up a set of rickety stairs to the smallest bakery I’ve ever seen. Run by chef John Wu, who was trained in the art of pastries by Bill Yosses, Obama’s famed pastry chef, Everything Frosted is known for specialty cupcakes. Alana wanted us to try the lychee cupcake with whipped frosting. As is typical with lychee dishes, its flavor was understated, though incredibly so. Wu and his assistant chef Danny know what they’re doing, and it’s amazing to me that this shop remains unknown to so many.
Our last culinary stop was Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a restaurant that holds the coveted title of Chinatown’s oldest Dim Sum house. Located on ‘the bloody angle’ (one of the most intriguing stories Alana relayed to us), Nom Wah retains the final spot on Alana’s list for good reason. After all, she brought us here to introduce the group to a real egg roll… a lesson that could not be more important for Chinese take out kings and queens to take home. A fried egg crepe full of chicken, egg, mushroom and other mixed vegetables, it was truly a beautiful sight to behold, and a better one to digest.
Though I was initially skeptical of taking a New York City food tour of a neighborhood I believed I knew so well, my time with Alana on the Ahoy New York City Food Tour was as fun as it was eye-opening. As she led us from rain-protecting awning to rain-protecting awning with the speed and grace of Konami’s Frogger, she dropped more knowledge on the two neighborhoods than I can begin to recount. If it had a story behind it, Alana knew it, knew how to tell it, and was happy to share the wealth. So, whether you’re a Chinatown rookie or a guy who spends the better part of his paycheck on Mott street (oh yes, it’s getting bad), give Ahoy’s tour a shot.
Link to the tour: New York City Food Tours