Months before my West Coast foodie venture Gourmet Seattle Walking Tour in early April, we booked a similar tour in NYC with friends Gary and Rosanne Zarrilli for the end of April. It was marketed as “Upscale Asian eats with seated tastings including the very best of Dim Sum & Peking Duck and a view of Chinatown you can’t find on your own.” We were about to find out…
The day dawned with prospects of the temps hovering in the high-80’s, so summer attire was in definitely in order. With the tour commencing at 10:30 a.m. near Browery and East Broadway, in NYC, we had to be up bright and early. Our rendezvous was at the Zarrilli’s so we could take just one car into the City (commuting would have been long and costly.) Gary and Rosanne are old pros at schlepping into NYC, so we were glad to tag along in their wake.
Russ knew ahead of time that they do provide food substitutions for vegetarians, but unfortunately CANNOT provide food substitutions for any other food allergies such as gluten-free or dairy-free. With his gluten intolerance issues, he was going to have to make some sacrifices one way or the other. But he was willing…
The ride was smooth sailing until we hit the approach to the Holland tunnel, only one lane was open due to construction, causing a long back-up. Then we encountered some minor issues finding a parking garage in town that was conveniently only a few minutes walk to our destination—Michelin and Zagat-rated Dim Sum Go Go—a vegetarian-friendly restaurant located in the Chinatown Two Bridges section.
A view from the second floor of Dim Sum Go Go.
It’s reputation as cheap, tasty dim sum ordered off a menu rather than snagged from a trolley makes this utilitarian Chinese less chaotic than the typical C-town outfits. Dim Sum Go Go is proud of it’s “Bib Gourmand Award.” Face it, not everyone can afford to eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, so Michelin’s version of “cheap eats,” known as the Bib Gourmand Awards feature restaurants at which you can get two courses plus a dessert or a glass of wine for under $40.
Gary shows off his chopstick skills while we wait for the show to begin.
The first to arrive out of our group of 19, we were ushered upstairs and instructed to take a seat at one of a few designated tables while waiting for the others. What we didn’t anticipate was a group of around twenty 5- to 7-year-olds celebrating a birthday party at the other end of the rather small room. Let’s just say, our tour guide Raheem had to practically scream to keep above the loud raucous chatter of excited little ones. So much so that he said he’d wait until we were outside (it’s less noisy in Chinatown outside??) to give us the historical spiel.
Raheem, center, starts explaining our first course while trying to talk loud enough for us to hear above the children’s chatter.
Those “others” in our tour included three young ladies who were in college together obtaining Physician Assistant degrees, and a dozen folks from the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club in town to see the Broadway play Groundhog Day. One of the guys made us honorary members for the day, and gave us all a large gold coin to commemorate the occasion.
Nowadays, the term “dim sum” is a meal—usually taken on a weekend morning—that encompasses a vast roster of small dishes prepared as little bite-sized portions of food served in mini steamer baskets or on small plates and usually served with tea.
As we were served our first course, a bamboo basket of three steamed dumplings: duck (and it actually looks like a duck head in the lower right); a combo of ginger, asparagus, and baby corn; and chives with shrimp, Raheem explained that “dim sum” means “to touch the heart.” He also described the three very tasty condiments, shown below, of which you could choose to dip your dumplings. They were all good but I was enamored with the green grated ginger and scallion concoction, while Russ favored the one with dehydrated shrimp and Virginia ham. The middle sauce had a real nice hot pepper kick to it which always appeals to me.
The Fried Pork Dumpling, with shredded meat—not ground—was our next course and probably my favorite. Although I’ve had them many times in many different places, these were among the best. Wrapping up the Dim Sum meal was a steamed bun known as Bao, a complete meal conveniently packed away in a snowy-white, warm, soft bun. Filled most traditionally with a pork mixture, as these were, the perfect bao should be round, smooth and soft, and steamed in bamboo baskets, giving off a subtle woody scent.
Raheem explained that achieving the highest quality bun requires very exact practices performed by dedicated bao artists called “baoists.” Apparently, it’s a very long and complicated process from mixing the dough from scratch, all the way to the steaming, in a continuous motion without pause. Its origins has something to do with medicinal purposes, the history of which I cannot recall.
We gather around our tour guide as he regales us with interesting facts.
After gathering the troops outside, Raheem gave us a history lesson on Chinatown that he couldn’t relate inside due to the kids. Wouldn’t you know, halfway into his lecture, those same kids came streaming out of Dim Sum right past us!?! We all looked at each other in horror thinking they’re on the tour with us, eeegads!
On our way to destination number two (without the children’s posse), Raheem led us in and around some back alleys (places we’d never wander on our own) all the while captivating us with colorful stories from years ago when the gangs, brothels, and opium dens ruled the roost. Meandering through Columbus Park we saw/heard a lot of Chinese musicians and everywhere were Asians of all ages playing cards and games of chance, a national pastime.
We made a quick pit-stop on Mott Street at a store that sold hundreds of edible items from nuts and candies to dried fish and fruits, many of which had samples out for tasting. One in particular that struck our fancy was the cajun-spiced dried butter bean. Strange yes, but a tasty little devil.
A few short steps away on the other side of the street was Peking Duck House. We were told that you can get a full Peking duck dinner (Russ’s absolute favorite) here for only $35 and it’s a BYO to boot. Oddly though, Raheem offered us a beer or glass of wine at an additional $6 to go with our duck rolls, and Gary and Russ took him up on the offer.
Duck in general is not easy to cook, and authentic Peking duck is loads more difficult. In China, Peking ducks are bred on farms near Beijing and force-fed a diet of grains and beans for several weeks before slaughter. Then they are prepared by a painstaking process that includes hanging to dry for six to eighteen hours. After roasting, the duck is sliced ritualistically, the meat going into one pile, small pieces of ultra-crispy skin with fat removed, into another.
A closeup of one of the four cooked ducks that was wheeled out to our table.
Serving Peking duck is also complicated. It requires last-minute assembling, sometimes in the kitchen by cooks, more often tableside, as they did for our group. A pancake much like a crepe is packed with a few standard ingredients: skin, sauce, scallions. Then it’s folded or rolled up.
The chefs prepare our portions, and we each got two rolls. You had the option of having them assembled in lettuce leaves instead if desired.
Third stop on the tour was West New Malaysia, a Bowery hideaway serving sizzling, authentic Malaysian food. Their menu is giant and composed almost entirely of real-deal Malay dishes, interspersed with Chinese, Thai, and various pan-Asian offerings. But our course was Roti Canai, the national dish for Indians in Malaysia, a type of flat bread served with dhal curry, a very mild and nutritious curry made up mainly of lentils, tomatoes, and chilies. Very few spices are used and sometimes potatoes and gourds are added.
We were instructed to tear the hot flaky bread—handmade in paper thin layers aspiring to be a croissant—and dip it into the curry which may have had a chunk of potato (mine) or chicken (Russ), or both. When Raheem asked if anyone wanted a side of hot pepper dipping sauce, Russ enthusiastically asked for some. I was more into that then the curry but by this time I was too full to even pretend to eat most of it.
Our final stop was at Golden Manna Bakery for a Portugese custard. The place was jam packed with people and our group only made it all the more so. In fact, several just waited out on the sidewalk and Raheem brought out their individual custard. Already full, and not a dessert eater, I took mine wrapped to go (which I ended up throwing out anyway), but Rosanne, Gary and Russ all enjoyed theirs, saying they were light and not very sweet.
It was only about 2:00, and we had hours of sunlight left so we decided to sightsee, walking nearly 5 miles through the financial district to Battery Park, then on to Ground Zero and the Freedom Center. We were eager to scope out its centerpiece, the $4 billion Oculus, a mind-boggling glass-and-steel structure designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava which serves as the centerpiece of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, incorporating 78,000 square feet of multi level state-of-the-art retail and dining.
Rosanne and Lynn take a breather by a field of potted tulips with strong cooling breezes coming from the river.
A memorial called “Reflecting Absence” honors the victims of the 9/11 attacks. It consists of a field of trees interrupted by the footprints of the twin towers. Pools of water fill the footprints, underneath which sits a memorial space whose walls bear the names of the victims.
One World Trade Center is the main building of the rebuild after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and the sixth-tallest in the world.
The 800,000 square foot World Trade Center Transportation Hub called the Oculus, was completed in 2016 at a cost of $4 billion dollars!
Weary from our travels, we all agreed it was time for an adult libation. And Rosanne thought Eataly would make a perfect spot. A bustling Italian marketplace with 40,000 square feet overflowing with five restaurants, six take-away counters, and a free food university, this place is mind-blowing. With vast arrays of cheeses, olive oils, meats and breads, our only disappointment was the meager selection of gluten-free pastas, when they had every shape, color and size of regular pasta.
This adorable critter greets the customers as you enter into Eataly.
Just a small sampling of their vast array of cheeses above, and condiments below.
With about a 15-minute wait for a table in La Pizza & La Pasta, we were shortly seated by the large bay of windows overlooking the hub. The immediate dilemma was do we order glasses of wine or get a bottle? The bottle made more economical sense so with that decided, we had some trouble zeroing in on what to eat since none of us were super hungry.
After three inquiries from the waitress, we opted to share two plates. One was the Spuntini: House Marinated Olives, Funghi Arrosto consisting of roasted cremini mushrooms with garlic and thyme, and Gamberetti a small bowl of poached shrimp mixed with calabrian chili and lemon juice. Each one superb in its own way.
Our other platter was the Grande Piatto Misto Di Salumi & Formaggi, an assortment of their favorite cured meats and cheeses with housemade accompaniments arranged on a wooden cutting board. Even though it wasn’t a lot of food for four people, we couldn’t finish it all.
Working our way back to the parking garage, Rosanne was on a mission to stop at the Ten-Ren Tea Shop on Mott Street. Ten-Ren which means “Heavenly Love” in Chinese was recommended by Raheem and has a worldwide reputation with over 74 stores in Taiwan and nearly 61 stores in the US, Canada, Japan and Malaysia. Both she and Russ purchased some loose leaf green tea.
Finally back to our parked car at 7:00 p.m., we were elated that the cost was only $20—for 9 hours in New York City!! The shock must have stayed with us for a spell because we went the wrong way back to the Holland Tunnel, and once we did navigate our way out, we passed the entrance to the NJ Turnpike and had to go miles out of our way. Oh well, small price to pay for good company and a great time in the nooks and crannies of Chinatown.
I hear there is a walking food tour in Brooklyn….