It may have poured rain on Tuesday for Commencement, but the weather was perfect by Thursday, as my sister and I joined the New York Food Tours East Village Food Tasting and Cultural Tour. New York Food Tours, owned and operated by Candy Chan – who was our own friendly and knowledgeable guide – offers tours of various New York City neighborhoods, cultures, and food types, including vegetarian options. As my sister and I, and six other food adventurers from around the country, met at 11:30 in the morning, Candy arrived, ready to lead us on our way.
The East Village Tour begins near Astor Place, in front of Sunrise Mart, a Japanese grocer and the first stop on the tour. The store is on the second floor of St. Marks Bookstore, and while it may be small, it had more than enough fun and interesting Japanese goodies to keep us occupied while Candy let us browse. We each got to choose our own rice ball, a piece of nori (seaweed) stuffed with rice and one filling – chicken, shrimp, salmon, or plum – which we enjoyed out on the street in front of the store. I had never tried a rice ball before, and what a revelation! It was like a giant piece of sushi, and for only $1.50! We also shared a box a Pocky, a popular Japanese treat made of a skinny breadstick dipped in various kinds of chocolate and other frostings (these are also readily available at Columbia staple, M2M).
From Sunrise Mart, we walked past the Cooper Union, the history of which Candy shared as we passed. Eventually we arrived at McSorley’s Old Ale House, the oldest bar in the city, and the only bar that can claim Abe Lincoln as a former patron. Established in 1854, McSorley’s has retained its original interior, complete with sawdust on the floor, and cluttered collection of framed photos on the walls. Alas, there is no taste test at McSorley’s, but we did have a fair chance to look around inside and take pictures. When we were done gawking, we followed Candy to Pommes Frites, a small restaurant that specializes in Belgian fries and 25 different dipping sauces. I had been to Pommes Frites a couple of times before because it is the best place I have found in the city to enjoy the only real delicacy my home country can claim: poutine. While the poutine is delicious (and highly recommended), it was instead the fries and sauces that we tasted on the tour. Candy purchased a large order of fries (which is humongous) and a sampling of several different sauces, including a roasted garlic mayo, a pomegranate teriyaki mayo, and, mine and Candy’s favorite, a Vietnamese pineapple mayo. Once we were all full of fries, we headed out to our next stop.
Between Pommes Frites and Cheep’s Pita Creations, Candy explained that she used to take her guests for falafels at a different place, but that Cheep’s is new, it’s good, and it’s cheap. At $2 for a falafel sandwich, Cheep’s makes a starving Columbia student yearn to live in the East Village. And Candy was right: dripping with sauce and stuffed full with veggies and falafel balls, the sandwiches at Cheep’s are delicious. From Cheep’s we continued on to a real hole-in-the-wall, Japanese take-out spot, Otafuku. Candy asked if any of us objected to eating octopus, and then disappeared inside to buy two orders of takoyaki, a Japanese appetizer. Described on the Otafuku menu as “hot savory wheat-flour balls with a chopped piece of boiled octopus inside,” takoyaki was a tough sell on our tour. Topped with mayo and smoked fish flakes, takoyaki looks like a donut hole, but it is savory, like unsweetened pancake batter. Though Candy ordered one batch of takoyaki without octopus inside, I went for the real deal. It was tasty, a satisfying mix of textures and flavors, but if I were to do it all over again, I’d refrain from biting the ball in half, only to find a piece of tentacle inside. In this case, I could have done without seeing what I was going to be eating.
From the takoyaki, we moved on to dessert; our first stop was Chikalicious, a “dessert club” specializing in fusion desserts, inspired by owner and chef Chika Tillman’s Japanese heritage and French culinary training. I’m not really one for chocolate desserts, but when Candy handed out our chocolate mousse on top of a chocolate shortbread cookie, I was sold. It was delicious and rich, the perfect way to follow the equally hearty foods we’d already tried. Finally, we made our way to Veniero’s, one of the oldest bakeries in New York City, established and consistently family-run since 1894. The bakery maintains much of its original décor, including metal ceilings and marble floors, and bakes all of its own desserts daily. As we sat down to enjoy a cannoli, our final taste test of the day, Veniero’s family member and current vice president, Robert Zerilli spoke with us about the history of Veniero’s, his family’s connection to Bruce Springsteen (the singer is a cousin on the Zerilli side), and the future of the family business.
Finally, stuffed and smiling, my sister and I stumbled out of Veniero’s into the daylight. The tour had been a delicious and valuable introduction to foods and neighborhoods with which I’d had little prior experience. Thanking Candy profusely, and babbling excitedly about our new food finds (we would definitely be going back to some of the stops on the tour on the regular!), we made our way back towards the village, already discussing which tour we’d take next.
Explore the gastronomy of New York City with New York Food Tours. Columbia affiliates receive 20% off tickets to all tours.
Emily Mousseau, GS’10