Summer is the perfect season for a food tour: The onset of sunny weather encourages you to collect edibles, stumble into one of the parks along your route, and picnic al fresco. In addition, the long summer days make it possible to tour after work. What city neighborhood doesn’t look more appetizing at dusk? Accordingly, here are a couple of tours featuring favorite New York food nabes.
Of the city’s five Chinatowns, the one I like most is in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. In Flushing’s Chinatown, the streets are too thronged; Manhattan’s caters too much to tourists, who stand and gawk and then demand that their food be made without discernible spices. Elmhurst’s Chinatown is fun, but lacking focus, while Homecrest’s is in such an early stage that you don’t feel Far East, or even as far east as Marine Park.
Get off the N train at the Eighth Avenue stop in Brooklyn. Instead of the crumbling tenements of Manhattan’s Chinatown, or the high-rise co-ops of Flushing, you have sunny two-story row houses smiling down on the tree-shaded streets. The bright colors and the fragrance of garlic, ginger, and green onions hit you the minute you debark the train and head north on Eighth Avenue. On your right is the relentlessly red Hong Kong Supermarket, which you may treat as your private zoo, admiring three types of turtles in tubs, as well as granddaddy bullfrogs and live crabs making a desperate attempt to flee their cardboard boxes, like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. Meanwhile, eels, buffalo fish, and tilapia cavort in tanks, never suspecting the common fate that awaits them.
You’ll encounter the first chance to feed your face when you reach the corner of 60th Street, where Lan Zhou Handpull Noodle (5924 Eighth Avenue, entrance on 60th) and Quickly (same address) are found side by side, the first stretching excellent handmade wheat noodles, the second specializing in bubble teas and miniature buns that squirt creamed corn custard when you bite into them. Two blocks up, Thanh Da (5624B Eighth Avenue, entrance on 57th) fabricates one of the city’s best Vietnamese banh mi—a warm demi-baguette layered with pork pâté, ham, homemade sausage, cilantro, and pickled vegetables. Also check out their brittle cashew cookies, pork sashimi, and Southeast Asian fruit chips. Ever crunched a jackfruit snack before?
The scene that flanks you as you float northward on Eighth is a salutary one, with vendors selling soft bean curd, miniature Hong Kong cakes, and banana-leaf-wrapped rice meals studded with sausages and dates. Along the route, you’ll find plenty of sit-down restaurants, too—including five Vietnamese, two Malaysian, innumerable Cantonese and Hong Kong seafood places, cybercafés serving the latest in East-West fusion, and humble duck shops aplenty.
For a diversion from eating, pop into China Tea (777A 50th Street), where tea-related paraphernalia beckons along with loose teas that top out at $86 per pound. If you skipped the noodles at Lan Zhou, remedy the mistake at Yun Nan Flavor Snack (774 49th Street), a microscopic noodle parlor vending rice noodles with the spicy pork of China’s Yunnan region.
Sunset Park’s Chinatown begins to peter out around 46th Street, at which point you should turn left and walk over to the park itself. If it’s after June 27, you can take a dip in the humongous municipal pool. Otherwise, just enjoy the breathtaking views of Staten Island, Manhattan, and the Statue of Liberty from the hill’s summit.
$ Getting to Arthur Avenue is never easy—unless you’ve got a car, of course. The closest trains stop on Fordham Road (4, D, or B, the latter during rush hours only). Take one of them, then walk approximately three-quarters of a mile east to Arthur Avenue. Or, hop on the Bx12 bus, which follows the same route.
Walk south to the tri-corner of Arthur Avenue, 183rd Street, and Crescent Avenue. You’re steps away from one of the best pan-Italian restaurants in town, Roberto (603 Crescent Avenue), where there’s a no-reservations policy. The best dishes are found on the specials chalkboard, including the pastas al cartoccio (“in a bag”) or anything featuring bunny or lamb. Alternately, start out at Calandra’s (2314 Arthur Avenue), where many of the cheeses—including fresh and smoked mozzarella, fleecy ricotta, basket cheese, and the chile-encrusted Calabrese—are either made on the premises, or at the store’s dairy farm in eastern Pennsylvania.
The highlight of your tour will be the Arthur Avenue Retail Market (2344 Arthur Avenue), one of the few Fiorella LaGuardia–era markets still operating. There you’ll find Italian ceramics and sausage-making machines (Nick’s Variety Place); a butcher specializing in offal (Market Place Specialties); a deli with dozens of salamis, cheeses, prepared salads, and killer fried artichokes, featuring a picture of Mussolini behind the counter (Mike’s); and a sit-down informal restaurant and espresso bar specializing in Sicilian pizzas, octopus salad, stewed tripe, and luscious frittatas (Café al Mercato). Oh, and there’s an odiferous Dominican cigar-rolling operation as well.
A few steps north of the market, find the city’s best cannoli—filled to order with sweetened ricotta—and crusty breads in all shapes and sizes at the Madonia Bros. Bakery (2348 Arthur Avenue), founded in 1918. Your next stop is Cosenza’s Fish Market (2354 Arthur Avenue), where you can feast on freshly opened cherrystone clams and local oysters while standing at a gleaming counter thrust out onto the sidewalk. For a sit-down seafood dinner, consider Umberto’s Clam Bar (2356 Arthur Avenue), a cousin of the Manhattan Little Italy original. Just across the street is Teitel Bros., a grocery store that will take you back to the 1930s, with an amazing selection of olives and olive oils. Up a block, around the corner, is the city’s best purveyor of Italian wines, including dozens of Brunellos and Barolos at reduced prices, Mount Carmel (609 East 187th Street).
Weather and time of day permitting, head north to the New York Botanical Garden (nybg.org), just north of Fordham University. Skirt the baseball stadium on the right to get to the main entrance of the botanical garden, where hiking opportunities abound.