Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg
Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

The Inside Secrets of New York's Most Exclusive Food Tour

A table at Rao’s. The fried chicken dinner at Momofuku. There are some near-impossible New York dining experiences that have food nerds foaming at the mouth—and one of them is writer Calvin Trillin’s walking tour of Chinatown and downtown Manhattan, held annually during the New Yorker Festival. The $150 tickets sell out in seconds to 35 lucky people, many of whom have waited years for the privilege. On the 14th year of the event, Bloomberg tagged along.
Everything Flat Bagel, Hudson Bagels
Everything Flat Bagel, Hudson Bagels

"I think everyone in New York thinks that the best bagels are near their house," explained Trillin, 79, as his fans gathered around him at Father Demo Square in the West Village. It's 11 a.m. on Sunday, and to energize the group he's brought in flat everything bagels from his own local joint, Hudson Bagels. They are buttered and griddled. Hudson Bagels was opened by German Irish people, not Jews, he explains, and now it's owned by the people who run the Italian restaurant next door to it. (They are Middle Eastern.) "Flat bagels are for people who like the outside more than the inside," Trillin notes. The bagel is salty, and chewy enough to make your jaw hurt. It is perfect.

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Blue Ribbon Bakery
Blue Ribbon Bakery

The group on the tour was a quintessential New Yorker-slash-NPR-slash-Zabar's crowd. For this mild walking expedition, they wore overly technical outdoor gear from stores like REI, wool blazers, and significant eyeglasses. On the way down the pretty side streets of the West Village, toward Blue Ribbon Bakery, there was a sighting of Sofia Coppola in the wild.

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Savory Matzo Cracker, Blue Ribbon Bakery
Savory Matzo Cracker, Blue Ribbon Bakery

"If matzo really tasted like this, the Jews would have never left Egypt," Trillin told the crowd, once they had these brittle, frisbee-size delights in their hands. "Try some savory matzo and reassess the history of the Exodus." The salty cracker was coated in a thin layer of toasted cheese, which in turn covered a healthy smattering of rosemary. One woman dropped hers on the ground, and it shattered like glass.

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

SoHo
SoHo

Trillin, called "Bud" by those who know him well, spoke into a headpiece and wore a speaker around his neck. But it was one of those rare microphones that has the effect of somehow making a person sound even quieter, such that the crowd crammed in around him at every stop, frantic to catch his murmurs of wisdom. (More than one told me they'd signed up for the trip not for the food, but rather to spend a couple of hours with a longtime hero.)

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Sesame Pancake With Vegetables, Vanessa's Dumplings
Sesame Pancake With Vegetables, Vanessa's Dumplings

Trays of these warm, doughy triangles were delivered to a SoHo street corner from Vanessa's Dumplings on the East Side. Filled with carrots, cucumbers, and cilantro, they tasted like a cozier version of banh mi.

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

SoHo
SoHo

It's weird to be on a New York walking tour full of New Yorkers. These are people who probably roll their eyes at other walking tours on other days. But even though these guys know better, the giddiness of being on this special adventure made everyone forget themselves. They crossed streets against the light, and they clogged sidewalks. Rather than get sheepish for seeming so touristy, they hoped to be asked what they were doing in this big scrum. Then there would be the chance to explain! At one point, a car blared its horn at the group, and a woman joked, "They obviously don't know who we are."

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Tortilla Española, Despaña
Tortilla Española, Despaña

After walking down to Broome Street, the group piled into Despaña, a Spanish restaurant and specialty food shop that makes and imports Iberian delicacies. The tortilla Española, Trillin explains, "is a great thing for a party." It serves a lot of people and is easy to make. This version of the potato-and-egg dish has inflections of ham, but the primary effect is to remind you that the flavor of the humble potato is one worth honoring.

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

The Back Room at Despaña
The Back Room at Despaña

New Yorker writer Trillin is one of the world's most treasured humorists, and on the tour he had the group in stitches. Yet he himself never seemed to smile or laugh.

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Chorizo, Despaña
Chorizo, Despaña

A worker encouraged visitors to try different flavors of imported chorizo sausage. Giving out samples, Trillin argues, is "obviously the polite thing to do."

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

The Police Building, 240 Centre Street
The Police Building, 240 Centre Street

This former police administration building, across the street from Despaña, is now full of luxury apartments. Trillin explained that since it looks so much like a cathedral, people used to call it "St. John the Fuzz."

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Summer Rolls, Saigon
Summer Rolls, Saigon

In many places, summer rolls "just taste like grass," Trillin told our group. "But here, it has a peanut sauce!" The rolls, filled with daikon, chicken, carrots, and herbs, were indeed much improved with a puddle of dark peanut goo.

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Graffiti Wall, Little Italy
Graffiti Wall, Little Italy

The tour clogged another sidewalk, blocking a street style blogger as she tried to take advantage of some colorful graffiti for a photo shoot. A man with impeccable white hair said to a friend, "We've got the golden ticket. We're invincible for three hours."

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Di Palo's, Little Italy
Di Palo's, Little Italy

The next stop was Di Palo's, one of the last remaining Italian specialty shops in Little Italy. The cluttered space has that earthy, almost-bad-but-so-good smell of fermenting cheese, and sausages and hams hang from the ceiling. "They make mozzarella every day," Trillin explained. "The places that don't make it every day need to keep it in the fridge. A fridge to mozzarella is like a wooden cross to a vampire."

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Prosciutto, Di Palo's
Prosciutto, Di Palo's

Sal Di Palo comes out to explain his family business, and introduce some of the generations working there at the moment. He has four cheesemakers making mozzarella seven days a week, and "everyone has their own techniques." We taste thick, springy slices of the cheese, and it is so fresh it tastes like pure, salty milk. (The bulbous things in the picture are prosciutto hams aged for 24 months.)

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Banh Mi Saigon
Banh Mi Saigon

Next door is Banh Mi Saigon. Banh mi, Trillin explains, is "Vietnamese ingredients on French bread. I've described it as the only good argument for colonialism."

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Banh Mi
Banh Mi

At this point, dizzy from all the food, I couldn't eat the whole banh mi. I stuffed most of it in my backpack with the hopes I'd eat it later. Loose backpack sandwich, what could go wrong?

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Deluxe Food Market, Chinatown
Deluxe Food Market, Chinatown

On the way to our next stop, the group tromped through a long, narrow market full of exciting foods, like this tank of live crabs.

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Deluxe Food Market, Chinatown
Deluxe Food Market, Chinatown

Also frogs.

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Xi'an Famous Foods, Chinatown
Xi'an Famous Foods, Chinatown

Young Xi'an co-founder Jason Wang was so driven and focused on expanding his family's chain, according to Trillin, "on his wall he didn't have a picture of his grandmother as his Chinese hero; he had a picture of the founder of P.F. Chang's."

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger, Xi'an Famous Foods
Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger, Xi'an Famous Foods

Like a Philly cheesesteak supercharged with cumin, and pressed between firm discs of bread, the lamb burger is so spicy that it makes your scalp tingle. It is perhaps the best thing we've tasted all day.

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Shrimp Noodles, Sun Hing Lung
Shrimp Noodles, Sun Hing Lung

Farther east in Chinatown, we stopped by a storefront where they made rice noodles in an open shop on the sidewalk as you watched. One tour member asked the proprietress if she sold frozen dumplings to take home. Her English was not strong and she didn't understand, so he repeated his question louder, and in a Chinese accent.

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Making Noodles, Sun Hing Lung
Making Noodles, Sun Hing Lung

The woman making noodles would take milky rice water and splash it into rectangular trays, which she slid into this steamer. Moments later, she would pull them out as sheets of gummy noodles, which she scraped effortlessly into little styrofoam containers to hand out to clients passing by on the street.

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

88 Palace, Chinatown
88 Palace, Chinatown

Our last stop was 88 Palace, a cavernous dim sum casino splashed with pink fabrics and crystal chandeliers. It was located upstairs in a subterranean mall directly underneath the Manhattan Bridge. The woman seated next to me spoke about how rapturous she was to have taken the tour. She'd tried to get on it for exactly 10 years. "I didn't really believe it until I was putting in my credit card information," she said. A few tour members used this opportunity to ask Trillin to sign copies of his books for them, like Remembering Denny, Tepper Isn't Going Out, and About Alice.

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg

Shrimp Noodles, 88 Palace
Shrimp Noodles, 88 Palace

Trillin came by our table to point out this dish and thank us for coming. "I used to take my daughters here," he said. "My girls used to call these 'slime.'"

Photographer: Chris Rovzar/Bloomberg