So much food, so little insider knowledge…
When you head to a new country or city, you naturally want to enjoy the sights that people have been raving about but you also want to find the hidden gems. Sometimes they are hard to locate or opinion is divided about the best example. It’s no different when it comes to food. One of the ways to learn more about the highly prized foods that are integral to a community is to tap into local knowledge via a walking tour. This is exactly what we did on a wet November afternoon that also just happened to be Anthony’s birthday (because it may have been his birthday but it’s always about me and the food).
We chose Free Tours By Foot, a pay what you wish walking tour. The idea behind these tours is that you pay at the end of the tour based on what you can afford to pay and also on the knowledge and effort the guide puts in. On a food tour you also pay for any food you decide to taste. This is much better value than many of the set price tours on offer. Our guide Dante took us on a 2 hour tour through the streets of the East Village, chatting and sampling, learning about the history of The Village, its ongoing gentrification and the food culture surrounding it.
EAST VILLAGE FOOD TOUR
Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery
We meet at Schimmel’s to start our tour. Whist waiting for stragglers, we order a knish. My only exposure to knishes was from an old episode of Welcome Back Kotter where he talks about his childhood addiction to potato knishes. I’m a bit doubtful about why a potato knish would be so addictive. Essentially a filling of mashed potato wrapped in thin pastry and baked, we share a potato and spinach knish and find it to be stodgy and lacking in seasoning. There’s mustard to perk it up and we take the chance whilst listening to Dante to go back for more mustard. In the same way that you need to have grown up with Vegemite to truly enjoy it, knishes are clearly a comfort food from Jewish childhoods. Ordering is an experience. If you are familiar with the Soup Nazi, you will be familiar with the customer service style of the counter manager. If you’re not familiar with the Soup Nazi, know that if you order at the counter, you must have already made your knish selection and YOU MUST NOT eat at the tables once you receive your knish. He will find you and send you packing. Schimmel’s has been in its current location since 1901 and is the last dedicated knish maker in NYC. Quirky service aside, Schimmel’s is steeped in history, remaining true to recipes from over 100 years ago so it’s well worth a visit.
We walk past Katz’s Deli and stand outside to talk about its history and enduring popularity but don’t stay for a Rueben sandwich. It would have taken too long and to be honest, who wants to eat that much pastrami when you have many more stops on the tour?
Who doesn’t love a warm dumpling on a chilly autumn afternoon? How about the added bonus of a sesame duck pancake for $2.50? A short walk from Schimmel’s is our next stop. This hole in the wall is an outpost of the main Prosperity Dumpling shop in Chinatown on the Lower East Side. There’s a short menu to choose from including the classic pork and chive dumplings served with black vinegar and a squirt of Sriacha if you desire. A bargain at 4 for $1.25. The sesame duck pancake is not Peking duck style but rather, a sesame dough pancake cooked on the griddle, split and filled with roast duck and pickled vegetables. Mmmmm. Despite the bare bones nature of this stop, it has received an A rating for food prep and cleanliness from the NYC Dept of Health. Make sure you drop in for a snack.
Moving on, we walk straight past a working matzo factory, sitting alongside apartment buildings and a schoolyard. Streit’s is one of the last matzo factories on Manhattan Island and is a relic from a period when the East Village was predominantly populated with Jewish migrants. A knock on the window and we get to peek inside as they pass out pieces of matzo, warm from the oven for us to share. Matzo is an unleavened bread that tastes like a thin Sao – another Jewish comfort food that is an essential for Passover and matzo ball soup.
Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery
One cupcake shop may seem much like another but this cupcake shop has an added bonus tucked inside. Pudding. I had seen a shop in another part of the East Village selling coffee and pudding and wondered exactly what they meant by pudding. Christmas pudding style fruitcake? An Italian style chocolate mousse budino? Pudding is in fact a concoction of sponge cake, flavoured creams and custards with a variety of sprinkles and toppings. You and I probably know it better a ‘trifle’. Buy a massive bowl to cater for a party, take a tub home, eat a cup in store (yes, that’s perfectly OK here) or have a taster shot. We share a shot, knowing we have more stops. A little taste of Christmas Day. Delicious!
On the way to our next destination, Dante points out a popular old fashioned candy shop as well as taking us on a quick walk through the Essex St Market so we can come back to both when it suits us.
The Pickle Guys hold the slightly sad title of last pickle shop standing in the once vibrant Pickle District around the entry point to the Williamsburg Bridge. Doesn’t the term Pickle District just make you smile? One Hundred years ago, the streets around Delancey and Essex were full of pickle shops, selling to the local migrant communities. Many people know Gus’ Pickles from the movie Crossing Delancey Street. It became a huge tourist attraction. Sadly, during the Pickle Wars of the new millennium, Gus’ fractured through a series of lawsuits with the name going one way and the pickle maker going another. So, the Pickle Guys are flying the briny flag for the Pickle District. Essentially four walls and a heck of a lot of pickle barrels, you can get just about anything at The Pickle Guys. Sweet, sour, salty, cucumbers, chillis, olives, mango, pineapple and any number of other vegetables are on offer. I buy some crunchy purple hued pickled turnips and a giant sour pickle for us to enjoy back in our apartment. Cheap as pickle chips and definitely a sight you won’t see twice. Please keep your hands out of the barrels…
Here’s something completely new to this Aussie girl. A bialy. I’ve never even heard of one. I know the name Max Bialystock from the movie and musical ‘The Producers’ and in turns out that both Max and the bakery item are named after the town of Bialystok in Poland. A bialy is a yeasted roll that looks like a bagel but unlike a bagel, is only baked rather than boiled and baked.
Kossar’s is the oldest bialy bakery in the US. It’s a simple shopfront where you can see the bialys being made alongside racks of cooling bakery goods including the amusingly named ‘pletzel’ – a flat bread with poppyseed and onion topping. Bialy makers once had their own union, The Bialy Bakers Assoc but these days like many of the places we visit, Kossar’s Bialys is one of the last remnants of old traditions in the East Village and the wider city. Fresh bialys and pletzels cost less than a few dollars and like all baked goods, are wonderful fresh from the oven. They are an excellent vehicle for conveying turnip pickles to your mouth.
The tour finishes right next door to Kossar’s, at the Doughnut Factory. Though not part of the tour, the Doughnut Factory is no middle of the road, mass producing doughnut maker. They are known for their seasonal flavours and flagship product, the creme brulee doughnut. With a creme patisserie filling and crunchy bruleed coating, it’s not cheap and is only a few mouthfuls so it’s quality over quantity.
There is much to see, taste and learn about on this tour. I must say that having such a well informed guide in Dante made our particular tour all the more interesting and enjoyable.
Free Tours by Foot have a rolling calendar of walking tours all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. There are several food tours on the list.