Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: Lower East Side Food Tour with Sidewalks of New York

...the one in which we Can't. Stop. Eating....

So...the Lower East Side.


I was SOOOOOO excited for today, as I've read soooo many books and seen soooo many movies that focus on this neighborhood and it's immigrant past. Once a predominantly Jewish enclave, it's now a true multicultural blend, with trendy boutiques, nightclubs, and dining venues.

You can have your snooty Upper West Side, or upscale Park Ave neighborhoods - I'll take the LES, please.

I did some EXTENSIVE research into finding the best way to fully explore this complex neighborhood, and I finally settled on a 3-hour Lower East Side Eats tour from a company called Sidewalks of New York Tours.

They are ranked an impressive #10 out of 426 activities in NYC on TripAdvisor. From their website, this is what the tour promised:

On this 3 hour tour of the Lower East Side, we eat our way through the streets, as we sample delicacies from New York's premier appetizing shop, ethnic eateries, and a "mom and pop" restaurants.

Join us as we explore what was once an immigrant and working class neighborhood rich in ethnic diversity and culture. Learn about the history of the tenement buildings occupied by the poor.

The neighborhood is best known for having once been a center of Jewish culture. We will view historic synagogues as well as "nosh" on delicacies from the best "kosher style" delis and bakeries in the city.

The total cost of our tour - for three of us - was $144.00. So, $48 a person for a three-hour tour is not bad...not bad, at all! Not only would we get to walk the streets of the neighborhood with a guide, but we'd get to have lunch - and then some!

Our meeting spot was at the Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery, located at 137 East Houston Street. Our meeting time was at 10:00 am, and pretty quickly our group of approximately 10 or so people formed, along with our guide, Dante.

Dante and Daughter...but note the little man who inadvertently photobombed the picture....!

It's another brutally hot day...but Dante quickly herds the group into the cool comfort of the Bakery, passes out cool bottled water, and quickly does a brief orientation on the neighborhood, as well as the tour. He then passes out our first sample - some knish, a dumpling that is a favorite snack of Jewish background.

The mashed potato knish...EEP!

I'll be perfectly honest. I've never had a knish before. Heck - I'd never HEARD of a knish before. I apologize for my sad, sheltered upbringing - but that was one of the reasons for this tour - to broaden my horizons. So...what did I think of my knish??

NOMS. This was delicious. As well it should be - Yonah Schimmel has been in a storefront since 1910, and is considered a landmark in the LES. Not to mention it was a POTATO. I mean, really? A potato? God's perfect food?!! The family consensus was that we rated this 5 out of 5 stars. WELL worth a trip down to the LES - for the knish. Seriously.

Not very big...but it carries a powerful punch with its tasty food....!

We were certainly off to a good start...and my excitement was already building. Where to next?? I was almost skipping beside Dante as he led our group to the next stop - which turned out to be none other than Russ & Daughters, at 179 East Houston Street.

So...if you're wondering what's so special about this place...well, wonder no more. Per their website, Russ & Daughters is New York's "premier appetizing shop" - since 1914, they've specialized in the highest quality of smoked fish, caviar and specialty foods. Anthony Bourdain once said, "Russ & Daughters occupies that rare and tiny place on the mountaintop reserved for those who not just the oldest and the last - but also the best."

Wowza. Lofty words. Would the food deliver? We would soon find out, as Dante took us inside so we could soak up the ambiance - and the crowds - that make up Russ & Daughters, while he handed out rugelach for our culinary quest:

A Jewish pastry...much like a strudel or nut roll....

Yup. It delivered. Very flaky and very like very much. Another 5 out of 5 stars.

Just a few doorsteps down, we stopped at our third stop - the famous Katz's Deli, located at 205 East Houston Street - right on the corner.

I say famous for two reasons - first, they pretty much have the WORLD'S GREATEST PASTRAMI since 1888...and second, if you've ever seen the movie, "When Harry Met Sally," Katz's is where the much-talked about scene was filmed when enjoys her sandwich (I'm not sure how to delicately put it.) A video of the famous scene can be seen HERE. There's a sign hanging on the ceiling, pointing out the table where this scene was filmed:

Yes...I had what "she" had...and it was awesome!

Katz's can be crazy busy...and they have a crazy system of getting your food. When you walk in, you are handed a ticket:

DO NOT LOSE THIS TICKET!!!! Seriously - treat it like gold. You MUST have this ticket when you exit the deli...if you don't, you'll end up paying a $50 fine when you leave. No joke. I'm dead serious. DON'T LOSE THE TICKET!!!!

After getting your ticket, you can either choose a table where a waitress will serve you (of which there are very few of these tables, just any FYI), or you can walk up to the deli counter and order on your own. (Don't worry - there are tons of tables to sit at that DON'T offer waitress service). They will write the cost of your order on the back of your golden ticket, which you present to the cashier while checking out. And another FYI - they only take cash here. No credit cards.

Anyway - while Dante ordered our sandwiches, our group enjoyed perusing the tons and tons of pictures of celebrities along the walls, as well as using the facilities. Soon, our pastrami sandwich was presented:


Um. How about 10 out of 5 stars? HOLY MEAT EATER, BATMAN - THAT WAS A GOOD SANDWICH!!!

At this point, Dante could have just ended the tour, sent us on a our way, and I would have died a VERY happy girl.


That WASN'T all - EEP! We have more places to go...FIVE, to be exact!!!

We walked a few blocks, which was nice, actually, even if it was hot - simply to walk off some of that pastrami sandwich - and ended up at Economy Candy, located at 108 Rivington Street. And here I thought it couldn't get any better after a succulent, perfect pastrami sandwich. And you now take me to a CANDY store??!!

Economy Candy, in business since 1937, is a kid's dream and a dentist's nightmare. It's as if a giant candy manufacturer just puked sugar and sweets - with just about Every. Single. Candy. Bar. ever made here. Even if you don't plan to purchase anything - even if you HATE candy - you MUST go visit this place, just to see it. Sugar...sugar...and more sugar...stacked to the CEILING. Stacked in the aisles.

Speaking of aisles...they're very narrow, due to the towers of cavities sugar in every available inch of the store...and we happened to arrive about 5 minutes after a busload of children arrived - they were apparently on a field trip, of all things. There's an expression that says, "like a kid in a candy store", imagine, if you will, LITERALLY dozens of kids in a candy store.

It. Was. Insane.

However, we had a few minutes of free shopping time...and I was determined. So, without further ado, I managed to snatch up some little treasures, including a favorite from my childhood:

Yes. Candy cigarettes. Don't judge.

I got this next item, simply because it looked...intriguing:

It was...awful. Ack. 0 out of 5 stars. Don't waste your money.

Trust me. I wanted to buy chocolate - because there was TONS of it. However, knowing that it was, like, 350 degrees Fahrenheit outside, I figured whatever chocolate I DID buy would soon be a puddle. And who wants puddles?

While we were shopping, Dante passed out some halvah - a confection made from sesame seeds:

I liked it. The family - not so much. So, a mixed review of 3 out of 5 stars.

As we walked to our next destination, Dante kept us informed with various tips, trivia and history of the LES. It was interesting to see how the "old" tenement buildings have been revitalized into new apartments and boutiques:

At some point, we passed the Zarin Fabrics building...if you're a fan of The Real Housewives of New York, this is Jill Zarin's claim to fame - where she and her Hubby made their millions. I would never have dreamed it was located down in the Lower East Side:

I tried to catch a "Jill" sighting - but nope. Didn't happen.

We had now entered Chinatown (and yes, Chinatown is on the LES), where Dante parked the group under some shade on the sidewalk while he went and got us a dumpling from our next stop, Prosperity Dumpling, located at 46 Elridge Street:

While we waited, Daughter enjoys a brief moment to sit down and enjoy the shade:

...while I enjoyed the pretty streets of Chinatown:

Soon, Dante was back with our dumplings:

Um. Yes, please. Another winner. Probably the most tasty dumpling I've ever had. Another 5 out of 5 stars. Prosperity Dumpling would be a destination place for me if I lived in NYC. Noms.

At this point, my tummy was seriously trying to tell me, "Enough already!" But we weren't done. Onward!

Next stop: The Pickle Guys, located at 49 Essex Street:

Their name pretty much says it all. As we duck inside the small interior, Dante explains how these guys cure their pickles - the old fashioned way, in barrels....

Soon, Dante comes out with an assortment of pickles for us to try...we can choose from a "new" pickle (barely sour), a "half sour" pickle, or a "full sour" pickle. Our family is like the Goldilocks and the Three Bears of Pickles - Daughter chooses "new", I go for "half", and Hubby goes all in and tries the "full":

Yum. Cold. Crunchy. Juicy. 4 out of 5 stars - if Daughter liked pickles better - ANY pickles, for that matter - The Pickle Guys would have received 5 stars. A perfect snack on a very hot day, and we enjoyed crunching away as we strolled to our next stop.

We were soon at Kossar's Bialys Bakery, located at 367 Grand Street...the oldest bialys bakery in the United States:

Hubby and Daughter listen while Dante explains what a "biayls" is....

The best way to describe a bialys...a Polish bagel, but with no hole...not boiled...with some sweet onion in the center:

Very good. 4 out of 5 stars...

And finally...our last stop....the Doughnut Plant, located at 379 Grand Street:

Daughter outside the storefront....

Here, we stepped inside to not only enjoy the wonderful air conditioning, but two different types of donuts, including the Tres Leche and the Black Out:

5 out of 5 stars....

10 out of 5 stars. It's chocolate. 'Nuff said.


Stop. Enough.

Unfortunately - or fortunately - the tour was over. We. Were. Stuffed.

Seriously...the food was fantastic enough, but Dante? Well. Dante was sensational, as well.

He knew this neighborhood. He knew the stories. He knew the food. He kept us engaged, entertained, and enraptured - and that's not easy on a hot summer day in New York City with a large group of hot and hungry tourists from all over the world. yourself a favor the next time you're in NYC.

You MUST explore the Lower East Side...and you MUST eat your way through.

Do this tour.

Go hungry.



NYCStylelittleCannoli said...

looks like a great tour Did the candy cigarettes blow fake smoke? Have been looking for those for AGES! Love Doughnut Plant, amazing doughnuts! enjoyed your tour in the lower east side!!


ladyofgrand said...

Next time you are looking for a tour of the Lower East Side check out Lady Of Grand food tours. We don't go to the touristy spots, but rather take you on an intimate tour where you feel like you are a local.

Jay said...

O...M...G...hubby is always on the lookout for those candy cigarettes. He has found them a few places, but they are harder and harder to find.