Food Vault: Chinatown’s Best Dumpling Houses – A Walking Tour

by Jeff

An oldie but goodie. A couple of years ago, I used to run Walking Food Tours for those unfamiliar with or new to the city. I wanted to share the wealth of knowledge that I had about food by showing people around the best places to eat in any given locale. There used to be a theme (i.e. Dumplings) and a location (i.e. Chinatown) for every Walking Tour. Now defunct, I stopped doing it due to flakers. It’s not so much about prepayment and taking people’s money first regardless if they show, but more about the principle of someone showing up and not flaking. There was a time when someone’s word was a firm handshake and meant something.

I used to charge $20 per person for these walking tours, in which I would map out the route on Google and share the route before heading out. I would cook up a little something related to the theme of the Walking Tour and also provide a parting gift for people to take home. I thoroughly enjoyed both teaching about food as much as learning about my new found friends and their background. Yes, customer service is a lost art in this greedy world of high profit margins, ambivalence, and ADD.

Regarding the flaking, one time 12 people signed up for a Walking Tour and only 4 showed. Why, you ask? It was raining. As a responsible being, I do not believe in overbooking and providing a cushion to account for the ‘flake factor’. Instead, I like to see the good in people and give them the benefit of the doubt. Fortunately, my tours didn’t require any substantial inventory (unlike my Supper Club now, in which I would be eating the same food for a week should many people flake).

As you can imagine, after organizing over 550 Foodgasm Dinners, I have seen all walks of life. One thing remains static though: If you have ever organized an Event with strangers, you will know not to give people excuses to flake. This includes changing the details of the event, whether it be address, time, cost, date, etc or Mother Nature in my case. Once it started precipitating, right away I knew that I was screwed. Come T-minus 10 minutes, the next 15 minutes would be full of excuses via text and phone. Text for those who are weak sauce in manning up to their wrongdoings, and phone for those who simply flaked but owned up to it, if that’s any consolation.

It’s good to see that the article was worthy of mention in this guy’s blog, even though the dumpling houses we tried were not the ultimate ‘best’, per se. This is because I held 2 other Dumpling Walking Tours before that one and went to totally different places. Born and raised in Chinatown, it saddens me to see sites like SeriousEats totally misinform the public of what is considered a good dumpling. Unless you have made them yourself and grew up eating them as a baby, do not tell me what the best food in my culture is. Non of my top 5 even made it to their crappy list. Sure, a gullible audience would fall prey to such irresponsible reporting, but that’s just plain wrong.

Smiles came to my face when I pulled up this article, reminding me of a time when I could enlighten the ignorant, all of whom were strangers. To this day, I’m still doing that but at my Supper Club instead, where I help demystify what people are eating. I feel it is imperative for the informed to bring awareness to the less informed, whether it be in the manner of explaining what you cook for them or simply give a background or a silly factoid about an ingredient. This interaction with your customer allows for a unique and memorable experience, one that transcends any monetary gains. Most importantly to me, people leave happy, satisfied, wiser and even establish friendships when all is said and done.

Anyway, here it is. The original article that was published about my Dumpling Walking Food Tour.

P.S. To this day, I still run my i8 Supper Club employing the same practice: on an honor system. People pay when they leave and there is no prepayment necessary.

Chinatown’s Best Dumpling Houses – A Walking Tour

Posted June 20, 2009 by Michael S

Chinatown_NewWonton_cook

Despite being away from New York for nine years, I still know the city like the back of my hand, even if it’s sometimes behind my back. I always know where I’m going – until I don’t.

Anyway, I’ve got to admit that I’ve never had a strong handle on Chinatown, which has expanded most of the years of my birth and scoffed up all but a sliver of Little Italy. Even now, as its growth seems fto have stalled, it’s morphing again at the edges, thanks to a minor insurgency of Lower East Side hipsters. Any way you chop it, my native New Yorker pedigree doesn’t stop me from feeling like a happy-snapping tourist in Chinatown.

So I decided to put a dent in my Sino-Manhattan naivety by signing up for one of Jeff’s ever-present walking food tours of New York. I first found Jeff via one of his Meetup groups, Best Walking Food Tours, and later learned that he runs even more groups and a dizzying number of food events every week. His dumpling tour was exactly the kind of speed-tasting blitz that I needed to cover a wide swatch of Chinatown sidewalk.

The tour started at Jeff’s apartment, not far from South Street Seaport. As I approached the non-descript building, I met a fellow walking tour attendee, unsure about where to go, and we walked up the single flight of stairs to Jeff’s apartment together. There we found a couple more food walkers waiting outside the door. I rang the bell and no one answered, so I turned the knob, and the door opened easily. I called out, but there was no answer. Not wanting to break-and-enter, we decided to wait outside. Minutes later, Jeff walked up the stairs and let us in, nonplussed that he had forgotten to lock his door.

And that was the first thing I found interesting about Jeff ’s tours. He readily welcomes strangers into his home, which is a strange sight in a city whose residents are often afraid to let the UPS man into their home out of fear of revealing a blueprint to burglary. But Jeff, a mad-keen foodie, cook and under-employed IT consultant, was more than content to entertain in his home. As 10 of us gathered, Jeff quickly whipped up and served small octagonal crackers topped with wasabi and cured salmon, then proceeded to (unexpectedly) dole our party favors in the form of boxes of jasmine tea and bottled tea drinks.

Moments later, we were off on foot, making the short commute to Chinatown. We were busy getting to know each other, so the stroll went by quickly and I couldn’t tell you how we got there. What I can tell you is that I discovered that Jeff is a bit of a Yelp food celebrity, having contributed 1,125 restaurant reviews, and growing by the day. This boy can eat, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more knowledgeable resource on New York dining, maybe save Frank Bruni.

Chinatown_SweetSpring_dumplings

Our first dumpling fix was at Sweet Spring Restaurant on 25 Catherine Street, a barebones corner shop pumping out a half-dozen dumplings for a measly $1.25. With some eight dumpling outposts on the walking tour, a few of us agreed to share orders and pace ourselves. We split one order of fried pork dumplings and another plate of steamed ones, and both were delicious, even if neither lacked the crispiness that would identify one as the fried variety. Seats were scarce, so we shared a table with a Chinese gentleman who was eating an oversized bun stuffed with bean sprouts and unknown vegetables. We hand-signed through the language barrier as he showed us the contents of his lunch.

Chinatown_SweetSpring_outside

Next was an even smaller shop, simply entitled Fried Dumplings, on 99 Allen Street, near the corner of Delancy. Their half-dozen were even cheaper, at $1 a plate, and a New York Times review at the window seemed to suggest it had a reputation as a go-to dumpling joint. But upon closer inspection of my photos post-walk, I realised the review was before the new millennium and it may have explained why these ghastly overcooked crescents and their accompanying dense-as-a-doorstop pork buns might no longer meet the Times‘ lofty standards. It also came with a watery soybean drink that could have been confused with drippings from a leaky roof. Fried Dumplings may have been good once, but that’s ancient history now.

Chinatown_FriedDumplings_dumplings

The Beijing-style dumplings at Tasty Dumplings, 54 Mulberry Street, got us back on track. We split servings of two types: shrimp and chive, and pork and cabbage. Both were tasty and with nicely crisped skins, and with a dumpling sauce that was flavourful but light enough in balance – not too much soy, not too much vinegar.

We were all getting a little dumpling’d out, so Jeff made a suggestion for an ice cream diversion, and we all resoundingly agreed. So it was off to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. Jeff kept raving about the pandan ice cream, but the shop had run out by the time we got there. Instead, we negotiated and agreed to share three flavours: black sesame, lychee and almond cookie. All were terrific. The lychee had small pieces of fresh fruit scattered throughout, the sesame a pleasing crunch and distinct sweet-savoury flavour, and the almond tasted like a vanilla scoop with a nutty edginess.

Chinatown_IceCreamFactory

We were all getting full, so some of the walkers began drifting off, and we made a pact with Jeff that we’d only hit the best two dumpling houses that remained on our list of eight. So we ventured to the New Wonton Garden, 56 Mott Street, a Chinese restaurant with an extensive menu. We were here only for the dumplings, and only sharing two plates, which the restaurant’s proprietor couldn’t seem to understand, given the large group. He negotiated with us to order a larger dish of dumplings, which we happily accommodated, and we added a bowl of dumpling soup for a little variety. The fried pork dumplings were the best of the day, perfectly crisp and with a heavier wonton wrapper (and at $6.95 a plate, by far the most expensive), whereas the soup came with silky money-bag dumplings.

Chinatown_Meetup_group

A longer walk was welcome to Vanessa’s Dumpling House, 118 Eldridge Street, at a site that’s really more Lower East Side than Chinatown. Vanessa was unique in that it had a monthly special, and this month’s was a combination of shrimp, pork and bok choy, and it was a nice change of flavour complexity. We also shared a slice of sesame pancake, taking turns at its crunchy exterior.

Just as we thought we couldn’t eat any more, and some of us couldn’t, Jeff led us to our final destination, Lam Zou – famed for its handmade noodles and dumplings – at 144 East Broadway. For once, we stuck with the noodles and watched as our dish began as a single wad of dough before being slammed down onto a table, repetitively stretched and pummeled thinner and thinner until it reached the desired circumference. The final product arrived in a bowl topped with minced pork and baby bok choy. It was a good example of northern Chinese noodles, even if I have to admit that I’m more partial to the thicker fresh noodles and less-densely sauced mince of my old regular haunts in Sydney: Chinatown Noodle Restaurant and the Chinese Dumpling & Noodle House in Kensington. Still, fresh noodles are always a delight, no matter how thick or thin you bang ‘em.

We sampled with interest but grudgingly, given the continual onslaught of food. In the end, I probably consumed about two dozen dumplings, plus ice-cream, plus fresh noodles. It will mandate a few trips to the gym, but it was worth it for the foundation for digging further into the ADD-inducing array of Chinatown nosheries. Next time, I need to explore further: maybe dim sim (New York speak for yum cha), more noodles or regional Chinese. Whatever – for $20 for a tour guide and another $15 for food, I can afford to splurge in this neighborhood more often.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lisa T

    The dumplings & ice cream look amazing – great shots, too – it’s made me so hungry! For Chinatown and for New York!

  2. Posted by sally

    Hi – This sounds great. How do I sign up for Jeff’s Chinatown Dumpling Walking Tour?
    Thanks, Sally

    • Posted by Michael S on

      Hi Sally. Jeff schedules an infinite amount of food events, but I did have a look at his Meetup page and the next dumpling tour is on the 26th. Go to here for more details. You can also find Jeff via his Yelp page at http://walking.yelp.com.

  3. Posted by Neine

    Hi, I’m very excited to do one of Jeff’s dumpling tours! They sound absolutely great! I wanted to know if there are any tours (now that the days are longer) which will be held in the early eve on a Sunday? They all seem to start at 1PM. Please let me know!

    • Posted by Michael S

      I’m not sure, but I’d think so extensive a walking tour would be easier to hold during the day. In any case, check out Jeff’s Meetup.com site and that’ll give you a good idea of what he’s up to. I know he does other types of dinners in the evenings.

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