You can't go to New York and not eat, well, everything. From the Brooklyn-style slabs of 'za to the inventive plates at Michelin-starred restaurants, this enormous city has it all, and at any time of day or night. So when visiting the Big Apple for the first or even fourteenth time, a food tour of the city can offer a glimpse into some of the coolest and most unassuming hotspots in the city. Plus with so much coming and going, opening and shuttering, you know there's no way you could have already tried it all.
For such an experience, travelers can head to Foods of NY Tours. Operations Manager and tour guide, Mason Kardon, chatted with VIVA to discuss the company, the tours, and better yet the entire city of New York, from which neighborhoods offer the best eats to where he personally likes to spend his time off in the city. Read on for insider tips, tours, and plenty of tantalizing treats.
Tell me a bit about how Foods of NY Tours got started, and how you ended up working with them.
There's some great info on how the company started on the website, but I’ve known Todd since 2002 when I worked at Home Restaurant on Cornelia Street in the West Village and used to see his tours come in all the time. My best friend continued to work at the restaurant over the years and ended up marrying the Director of Operations for the company. I re-connected with Todd at the wedding and told him and Amy to keep me in mind when an opportunity came up. Which it did about a year later in 2014 when I started with the company as a tour guide and Operations Manager.
As an expert on the New York food scene, which neighborhoods would you say offer the best eats?
I may be biased (like ever NY’er is) but anywhere below 14th street! The downtown area has so much character and I think that’s radiated through its eateries. You can find incredible cheap eats, cuisines from every corner of the world and high end eateries that are actually worth every penny! The East Village is for food hunting, the West Village for cosy hidden date spots, Tribeca for it’s foodie scene, Chinatown for extreme eating, Nolita for the latest food trend… the list goes on.
Which tour is your favourite and why?
It’s so hard to pick... like picking your favorite child when they are ALL great in their own respect. But I really love the Original Greenwich Village tour as it was the first walking food tour in the country started in 1999 and we still go to some of the same places we went to 18 years ago. Neighborhoods change often in Manhattan as business close and long time neighbors move, but when the food stays the same the neighborhood really holds onto its identity. It’s been an Italian neighborhood for over 100 years and to try the same foods that that your grandpa was eating when he was a kid visiting Greenwich Village is really remarkable, and not easily achieved in other neighborhoods of NYC.
You describe the theme of that tour as a "melting pot." What other foods do you discover in Greenwich Village?
The Heart of the Village tour explores the central area of Greenwich Village which is home to Washington Square Park and NYU University. The park and village area was a central point in the East Coast 60’s counter culture, which brought many people with different ideals, nationalities, and cultures to the neighborhood. These people also brought their taste for food from their homelands. Today, this neighborhood is packed with small shops serving authentic food from around the world to serve the large student body and faculty of NYU at an affordable price. On Macdougal street over 2 blocks you can try all kinds of food from Ethopian, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Iranian, Belgian and more.
How have different cultures developed different food scenes in Manhattan?
When NYC is described at the melting pot of of the world there is a reason for that. Immigrants from every corner of the world have come to or through Manhattan over the last 300 years, bringing with them the cuisines and cultures of their homelands. Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs go through almost continuous changes of landscape and cultures. Areas like Chinatown, Curry Row, Little Italy, Korea Town, and the Lower East Side are known for specific cuisines and cultures. But there are only a handful of Italian restaurants in Little Italy and most of the Jewish businesses of the Lower East Side have closed or moved. But there are the neighborhood fixtures that have served over the years that we still identify with the neighborhood and those are the places that we LOVE to visit!
What do you think is the most underrated neighborhood for food in Manhattan and why?
I think Chinatown is intimidating to some people but it has some of the best affordable food in Manhattan. $35 for a three-course peking duck meal at the Peking Duck House, handmade noodles and dumpling on every corner, even foodie destinations like Mission Chinese, Apotheke Bar, Nom Wa Tea Parlor. Even the street vendors have something that you’ve never tried or seen before.
Let’s talk a little bit about the Chelsea Market: where are some of the very best things to try there and why?
Chelsea Market is one of those areas going through some “neighborhood” changes as some long-term leases are ending and shops aren’t able to afford the rent increases. But it is, and always has been, a stop to find some of the best eats in NYC. From the amazing Adobada tacos from Los Tacos No.1, umami-packed ramen from mŏkbar, amazing house-made hotdogs from Dicksons Farmstand, fresh biscuits from Sarabeth's, Oyster happy hour from Cull & Pistol, authentic Australian meat pies from Tuck Shop, hot mini doughnuts from the Doughnuttery… it’s a food wonderland!
Your website teases of so much more than just eating different foods. Can you tell me how you give visitors an "off-the-beaten-path glimpse of life in NYC?
Wether you’re a local from the area or a traveler from abroad we are going to show you something new and teach you something you didn’t know before. We have been touring and living in the neighborhoods we visit for over 20 years, and some longer, so we definitely know things that aren’t in any guide or history books. We tell stories about the history of area, the architecture you see, the movies and TV shows that were shot there. But also our tour guides are REAL locals who also have stories about the life of a local butcher that they met, the doughnut shop owner who is an Instagram celebrity, or the 200 year-old farmhouse at the back of a restaurant you would have otherwise walked right by. These are the experiences we love to share with our tours.
What's the longest-standing restaurant that you know of in NYC and what do you think their secret is?
There are definitely some restaurants in NYC that have stood the test of time. Lombardi’s Pizza, Peter Luger’s, Nom Wah Tea Parlor to name just a few. But I think the secret to a restaurant surviving over time is having a great product/dish that you specialize in and NEVER changing. Also great customer service helps... but really, no one is going to Peter Lugers for their customer service.
Where do you personally like to hang out in New York on your days off?
I love just walking around downtown through the villages and eating my way around while people watching at the the parks. I usually start in the West Village for a great breakfast at Bouvette or La Bonbonniere, walk over to Washington Square Park to read a book and listen to music, then lunch at JG Melon for a burger or Saigon Shack for Pho and finally over to the East Village for Happy hour and tacos at Empellon Al Pastor or Lower East side for Katz’s Deli.