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A "Taste of Hell" with Rum and Blackbird

To see all of my pics from this amazing adventure, click *here*

People always ask me how often my parents, who reside in Texas, come to NYC to visit me.  “Um, they come here about once every 1.5-2 years.  Honestly, they think NYC sucks and would prefer that I meet them out West.” You can imagine the shocked looks and questions I receive after stating my answer.  But it’s true, my parents get sick and tired of seeing the same old sights, sitting next to hobos on the subway, and getting treated like shit (well, compared to Texas).  I, on the other hand, am not bothered by that stuff at all.  I love everything about NYC, even amidst all of its grit, claustrophobia and attitude.

So I bet you’re wondering: how does my parents’ dislike for NYC tie in to a culinary walking tour of Hell’s Kitchen?  You’re just going to have to read the rest of this post to find out!

Inspired by a recent trip to Italy, my friend, Moira Campbell, decided that it was time to ditch “Corporate America” and start her own business combining her two favorite pastimes: eating and traveling.  Having fallen in love with her own neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen, Moira wanted the rest of the city/tourists to understand why its gritty western avenues and crowded restaurant blocks kept her on the streets seeking out delicious food in the most unlikely places.  And with that, Rum and Blackbird Tasting Tours, Adventures in Eating” was born.  First line of business on Moira’s proverbial plate? “A Taste of Hell: Hell’s Kitchen Tour,” promising adventurous eaters an unforgettable guided walking tour filled with handmade food and some very infamous Hell’s Kitchen history. 
*Note* Prior to your scheduled tour date, Moira will ask you to disclose if you have any allergies or follow a specific diet (vegetarian, kosher, vegan, etc.), as tasting plates are pre-arranged. My fellow group of “kids that Jewish grandmothers would not be proud of” remained open to whatever tasty treat (be it pork) was in store for us.

On Sunday morning around 11:30am, I met Moira and my friends, Dana and Adam, on the corner of 50th Street and 8th Avenue.  After handing us each a bottle of ice-cold water and a map depicting the order in which we’d taste our way through the neighborhood, the four of us began pounding the pavement.  As I reviewed the list of the culinary destinations we were about to visit, I realized that out of the seven businesses mentioned, I had only been to one!  The reason that is so strange/embarrassing is because I lived in the ‘Kitchen for two solid years!  Looks like I had some serious catching-up to do.
So here’s an idea of how our 3-hour tour worked: at each of the seven spots visited, Moira had previously been in touch with the restaurant/shop.  Upon our arrival at each, a table was set up for the exact number in our party, and at most of the venues, our “tastes” were presented immediately.  We spent about ten minutes at each spot before heading to the next. 

Numbered by exact order visited:
1.    Empanada Mama’s corn-flour ground beef empanada: This was unlike any empanada I’ve tasted (if you’ve never seen an empanada, visualize something along the lines of a fried pie or calzone).  Its maize-colored, corn-based exterior was thicker, denser and slightly harder than the greasy, thin pie dough-like versions that I’m typically used to.  The spicy ground beef filling was perfectly seasoned and gristle-free.  While I couldn’t tell you exactly what they consisted of, both of the accompanying red and green dipping sauces acted as the final piece of the flavor trinity (the corn envelope and fragrant meat being the other two).      
2.    Island Burgers and Shakes’ black & white milkshake: OK, so of all of the spots listed, this was the only one that I’ve actually been to (via delivery).  While I’d never had one of their shakes until the tour, I can say that IB&S makes one of the city’s best burgers.  Only draw-back?  Since the restaurant is so tiny, they don’t have a fryer.  What does that mean?  No fries, no onion rings, etc.  Fortunately, the milkshakes *almost* make up for that character flaw.  Each of us received a glass (not much larger than a shot glass) that had been doused with a splash of chocolate syrup and filled with homemade (from a local source) vanilla ice cream.  This was truly the liquid version of NYC’s own black & white cookie.  
3.    Gazala Place's boureka: I did not believe in heaven, or much else for that matter, until I tasted the boureka from GP.  Imagine, if you will, a circular croissaint measuring 3" wide and 1" thick stuffed with handmade goat's milk yogurt (with the consistency of ricotta cheese) and sour, brined grape's leaves (Can someone confirm if what I ate were grape's leaves?  It's just my guess.).  Instead of making the croissant-like outer envelope of the boureka with butter, Gazala uses solidified olive oil.  If you've not yet tasted this flaky treat for yourself, I would run sprint, not walk, to this humble storefront.  I'm telling you, this pastry changed my negative outlook on life.  Yes, it is that excellent.
4.    Xie Xie’s sweet glazed pork bun: This restaurant has been on my short list of places to check out because of the one-too-many incredible things I've heard about their Asian twist on the traditional New England-style lobster roll.  On this visit, though, we came to sample Xie Xie's sweet glazed pork bun.  Before we were served, I was praying that the Chinese sandwich wasn't going to be stuffed with pork belly...because just like my ex-boyfriend, I'm completely over that crap.  To my oh-so-pleasant surprise, the bun was filled with succulent pieces of gristle-free pulled pork, sprigs of cilantro, and a molasses-colored sweet glaze bursting with notes of soy and hoisin.  Pure perfection. 
5.    La Rosita’s chorizo taco: Believe it or not, this unassuming Mexican deli/restaurant was my least favorite stop on the tasting tour.  While the taco was authentic and homemade (2 warm corn tortillas stacked on top of each other), the chorizo (Mexican sausage) was frightening to look at with its artifical red coloring and even more frightening to taste.  After nearly choking on one-too-many rubbery bits, I couldn't fathom taking another bite of the greasy, gristly mass of bi-products.  Just the memory of this makes me dry-heave.  Blech!
6.    Biscotti di Vecchio's assorted biscotti: Sadly, this was another let-down.  We received baggies filled with four cookies, two chocolate-pistachio and two vanilla-cranberry.  Perhaps I'm biased because I've eaten L'Ecole's fresh-out-of-the-oven-biscotti, but I found these to be dry and stale-tasting.
7.    Poseidon Bakery’s alfali: I love any dessert soaked in honey, so this Greek delight was a major shoe-in.  Imagine a piece of baklava shaped like a wheel of brie cheese, with the phyllo dough completely enveloping the sweet's nutty interior.  There was a burst of liquefied honey in each and every toothsome bite.  To. Die. For.


For $49, I learned more about my old neighborhood's unique history, tasted delicious foods from around the world, got 2-mile's worth of walking/exercise, and had a great time with my friends.  Upon speaking with my mother shortly after the tour, she made a brilliant, and quite shocking (for her, the NYC hater, that is), point: this is the kind of activity that locals, first-time NYC visitors and experts alike will enjoy"We must do this the next time I'm in town," she gushed.  And I could not agree more.  There is no better way to get a more delicious and authentic taste of the Big Apple.


P.S. For menus and addresses: http://www.menupages.com/
P.S.S. Mass transit directions: http://www.hopstop.com/?city=newyork

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