Friday, August 21, 2009

How to Plan a New York Trip If You Like Food

The best thing about being a foodie traveler today is that there's more information available than ever before about local food and restaurants around the world. The problem is that most of this information isn't in guidebooks, it's scattered in magazines, newspapers, blogs, online review sites, or locked away in the brains of your foodie friends.

To be fair, guidebooks vary by publisher, location, and author, and some are significantly more thoughtful about food than others, but overall guidebooks are simply insufficient if you're a devoted foodie. Guidebooks have the built-in constraint that only a limited space can be allotted to food content, but the biggest problem I find is that the guidebooks aren't written specifically for me and my personal tastes. I don't really know why this is, in fact someone should really do something about that, but for some untold reason guidebooks are written to appeal to a broader audience, so I find that only a small fraction of the recommendations in most guidebooks are exactly what I'm looking for. I've included below a breakdown of the types of restaurants one can typically find in any given guidebook in the form of a colorful pie chart:

So how do you plan a trip if you're a foodie and you want to tailor a trip to your own peculiar food tastes? Write your own mini-guide. My version of this is almost embarrassingly low-tech: an extensive, sometime multi-page, always sloppily-written, longhand list that I keep in my pocket during the trip. Maybe once I break down and get a smart phone this will change (and, honestly, why I haven't typed these lists is beyond me), but I've done quite well so far with the hand-written list.

My well-used list of food destinations from my recent New York trip

When planning my recent New York trip, I came up with a few categories of places that I wanted to hit during this trip (e.g., pizza joints, gelaterias, hummuiots [see below]), then I pulled together info from various sources including places I've loved from previous trips, recommendations from friends, Yelp, Chowhound, TV food shows, New York bloggers, and various New York publications.

Luckily, Maggie and I have compatible traveling styles: we both like to have a small number of activites planned in advance (typically only things that require advance planning like theater), and then we come up with a list of things we might like to do during the rest of the trip. This allows flexibility in case the weather is bad or unplanned laziness strikes, and it generally lets you do exactly what you want to do at any given moment, which is something I look forward to on vacation. With the food list in your pocket, no matter what neighborhood you find yourself in, there's a good chance that the list has something tasty nearby to try. If not, then guidebooks, concierges, cabbies, serendipity, and your nose can fill in the gaps, and it's always fun to include some off-list experiences.

Highlights from the list:

1. Pizza. I mostly covered the pizza experiences in the previous New York post, but this serves as an illustration of one way the list helps keep you flexible: we wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, which neither of us had done before, but we didn't know what day we were going to do it as it relied heavily on weather. What we did know is that whenever we did cross the Brooklyn Bridge, we'd be right near Grimaldi's at lunch time, so having the address/directions, say on a hand-written list in your pocket, could come in quite handy.

On the way to Grimaldi's (looking back at Manhattan)

2. Hummusiots. I had read an article in the New York Times about the rising popularity of hummusiots, restaurants where hummus is the star of the show. I had been to one such place in London (Hummus Bros) that had disappointingly under-seasoned hummus, but the NY Times article talked up several locations and got me craving some really good homemade hummus.

Hummus with chickpeas from Hummus Place

I have to give credit to my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook on this one, because the best hummus we had in New York was from the amazing Taïm in the West Village, recommended in the guidebook but not even mentioned in the NY Times piece. If you go to Taïm, don't stop at the hummus: make sure you try the falafel, the salads, the brown sugar lemonade, and pretty much anything else they make. If you're curious, Taïm has a series of podcasts that show you how to make many of their dishes (including the hummus).

3. Breakfast. Anyone who knows me well (or even slightly) knows of my love for all things breakfast-related. Despite having a free continental breakfast at our hotel, always a plus, we had to go out for a few breakfasts to explore a bit of Manhattan's breakfast scene. I could claim that I got the tip to go to Clinton Street Baking Co. in the Lower East Side from a recent issue of Lonely Planet Magazine, but in fact I saw it first on an episode of Throwdown! with Bobby Flay, where they competed with Bobby Flay to see who makes a better blueberry pancake.

Breakfast at Clinton Street Baking Co.

I had every intention of ordering the pancakes until I saw the menu. I love places that make it difficult to order by having too many tempting things on the menu, and Clinton St. Baking Co. is definitely one of those. In the end I went with the Southern Breakfast with eggs, cheese grits, fried green tomatoes, and sugar-cured bacon, while Maggie went with a southwestern-style breakfast roughly the size of her head that involved homemade biscuits and tomatillo sauce.

4. Root beer floats. Always on a quest for amazing root beer floats, I did some research on Chowhound and found a few places recommended around Manhattan. At dinner with some of our NY friends at Peasant in Nolita, they snagged our list and eagerly scoured it crossing out things that weren't worth our time, adding arrows, exclamation points, and underlines to things we should definitely do, and even writing in a few additional places that fit our interests. Shake Shack got an emphatic arrow, and prompted one of our friends to say in satisfied caveman voice, "Shake Shack! Shake Shack gooooood!" This was high praise indeed.

Inside Shake Shack - keen eyes will observe a rare and very discerning choice here: Abita Root Beer on tap

The fact that they had Abita Root Beer on tap, my current favorite root beer for making root beer floats, was an excellent sign, as was the fact that they use homemade frozen custard. Sure enough, the float was excellent, but was overshadowed by the almost supernaturally delicious burgers. These aren't ultra-gourmet burgers (although they do use high quality ingredients), they're just really good fastfood-style burgers but with a sprinkling of magic unicorn horn to make you crave more.

Off-list highlights:

1. The Sturgeon King. I feel ashamed now, but I purposely left Barney Greengrass the Sturgeon King off of my list assuming it would be silly and contrived. Boy was I wrong.

We had two other excellent breakfasts out, one at Clinton Street Baking Co., and the other at Blue Ribbon Bar, but our breakfast at the Sturgeon King was far and away my favorite. Complaining that the H&H Bagels on the Upper West Side makes incredible bagels but doesn't toast them, our Shake-Shack-loving friends pointed out that the Sturgeon King serves toasted H&H bagels with their fish platters. That alone was enough to convince me to give it a try.

Inside Barney Greengrass the Sturgeon King

I know smoked fish for breakfast isn't for everyone - and I don't want it every day myself - but when I'm in the mood and it's high quality, it can be amazing. This was one of those times.

H&H Bagels with a Nova lox and whitefish platter

Beyond the excellent food, The Sturgeon King has some serious character, not to mention some serious characters working there, which makes only adds to the experience. This ain't TGI Friday's.

2. A Brief Seinfeld Moment. I didn't eat here but had to take its picture when we happened to walk by on the way to a friend's apartment:

It felt wrong to see this view without a laugh track and bass riff

3. Cheesecake. I wasn't planning to go out of my way for cheesecake on this trip, but I chanced across a Junior's counter just as they were closing for the night in the food hall at Grand Central Terminal.

Junior's cheesecake is a bit sweet, the crust gets a tad soggy, but the flavor's good and the consistency has the mix of lightness and richness that I look for in a cheesecake. Interestingly, it tastes even better when eaten off the ticket counter in the main hall of Grand Central.

Between the list and the off-list places, we ate extremely well, in fact I can't recall a trip in which I was happier with the food, and we mostly avoided very high-end places. Next step, typing the list so I don't have to rewrite it every time.

For the über-curious, here's a map of all of the places we ate on our New York trip, and I'm happy to go into silly levels of detail upon request.

View New York Food Spots - July 2009 in a larger map


An American in London said...

unicorn horn - that and the pie chart - well, you've outdone yourself this time.

in any case, I'll hit up for the full details when next I'm in NY. You know, there are many new yorkers who haven't eaten half as well as you did as a visitor. As for hummous and falafel, I'd say you should go to Israel, but I suppose enough Israelis have found their way to NY to save you the trip.

I'm flying to SoCal tomorrow for my brother's wedding. I'm looking forward to as much Cal Mex as my stomach can hold. It's going to be great. [and I'm sure my brother's wedding will be cool, too.]

Andy Murdock said...

That was my reasoning about the hummus too. I saw a video about a place in Tel Aviv that supposedly makes the world's best hummus (although there was some grumbling about that). No trip to Tel Aviv in my near future, New York had to serve as a stand in.

Oh yay, you get to chow down on SoCal Mexican food - be sure to pace yourself :)

An American in London said...

I think anyone claiming they've got the "world's best" anything is asking for trouble, but of course there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Jerusalem is a "must see before you die," and while you're there, you'll have to swing by Tel Aviv. :-) The best hummous I tried in Israel was in Acco/Acre, which also had a nifty Crusader castle.

Will def report back on SoCal Mexican if I haven't exploded from the vast quantities of it I plan to eat.

Venessa Paech said...

Mouth watering post Andy, thanks :)

Pie charts are almost as delicious as American pie.

Might I also recommend the tasty delights of Gray's Papaya. I still dream about those dogs and paw paw juice...

Andy Murdock said...

I'm with you on the Gray's Papaya, or Papaya King (can't say I have a favorite between the two). I don't think I'd drink that frothy papaya beverage in any other context, but it really works with the dog.