Undiscovered New York: Top 5 breakfasts

To truly experience New York during your next visit, you need to start your day with a good breakfast. No meal better epitomizes the different attitudes and moods of the city’s residents then this first (and sometimes last) meal of the day. Whether we’re talking about the quintessential lazy weekend brunch, a bacon egg & cheese from a deli or a strong cup of joe from the street cart, New Yorkers’ breakfast choices are about as diverse as the city itself.

You’re probably already familiar with the old standbys – New York bagels are legendary the world over. And New York’s iconic paper coffee cup never seems to go out of style. But for everything you think you already know about what New York likes to eat for breakfast, there’s plenty of surprises. Breakfast here includes everything from your standard omelette to Chinese Dim Sum to Dominican Mangu and Italian breakfast panini.

With all these choices, where exactly does a breakfast-lover get started? Breakfast is, after all, the most important meal of the day, and who can stomach such an essential daily ritual becoming something bland or boring? This week Undiscovered New York is here to get your New York morning off on the right foot. We’ve compiled a list of our top five breakfasts from across the city. Step away from that yogurt and see what we picked…
Breakfast Five – Barney Greengrass
It would be downright sacrilegious to leave the classic lox and bagel off a New York breakfast list, and Barney Greengrass is arguably one of the best places to get it. Located well off the beaten path on New York’s Upper West Side, this delightfully old-school institution has been slinging some of the city’s best cream cheese, bagels, smoked salmon and whitefish since way back in 1908. Enjoy your bagel with some schmear and the Sunday New York Times in the restaurant’s old-school wood-panelled interior.

Breakfast Four – Joe Art of Coffee
New York could not function without caffeine. The self-proclaimed “city that never sleeps” seems to be mainlining a constant IV drip of the brown stuff. The problem is most of it sucks. The scalded, bitter excuse for caffeine you’ll find at most delis simply won’t do. Instead head to Joe the Art of Coffee, one of the city’s growing range of quality coffeeshops. In addition to a zealous dedication to a quality cup, Joe also offers in-store classes to help take your appreciation and coffee brewing skills to the next level.

Breakfast Three – Chinese Dim Sum
Consider this while you’re crunching that morning bowl of Special K – breakfast around the world is as different as the people that eat it. And in many countries, the typical yogurt, fruit and cereal is not on the menu. New York’s large population of Chinese residents happen to enjoy Dim Sum for their weekend breakfast, a leisurely meal that consists of many small plates chosen from constantly moving food carts. Though there’s no one typical dish served at Dim Sum, the meal usually includes staples like dumplings, spare ribs and sweets filled with bean paste. Try Chinatown spots like Jin Fong, the Golden Unicorn or Flushing’s Ocean Jewel.

Breakfast Two – Alpha Donuts
Way out in the Sunnyside section of Queens, they take their breakfast seriously. That is to say, they don’t mess around with fancy-pants breakfast food like brioche french toast or omelettes filled with goat cheese. What they are serious about is donuts – the ultimate sugary breakfast favorite. That’s why Alpha Donuts leads the pack. In a city filled with fancy breakfasts, Alpha Donuts stands out for its simplicity and commitment to this classic American staple, which they’ve been making since World War II.

Breakfast One – Shopsins
There’s no easy way to explain what to order at Shopsins, a hilariously quirky breakfast establishment located in Manhattan’s Essex Street Market. The correct answer is probably “What do you want to eat?” Not only does Shopsins serve all the classic breakfast favorites like skillets, sausage and cereal – they’ve also got plenty of one-of-a-kind morning meals prepared by the surly owner Kenny Shopsin. How about some “Slutty Cakes” made with pumpkin, pistachio and peanut butter? You also can’t go wrong with the “Jihadboy Sandwich” topped with beef, pomegranate, olives, sheep feta and tahini.

Spa Castle: Hot, Wet and Totally Relaxing

New York City can be a stressful place. The economy is in the tank, winter refuses to relinquish its grip on the weather and people are perpetually worried about their careers and families. How can New Yorkers (and visitors) relax while in the city that never sleeps? How about a complex with massage pools, saunas and sleep areas? If you’re in New York City and in need of a respite from the manic world around you, look no further than Spa Castle in Flushing, Queens. It’s five stories and 100,000 square feet of relaxing bliss within the borders of our fair city. And because I care about you all so much, I toughed out a day at Spa Castle yesterday just so I could file a full report.
Getting to Spa Castle couldn’t be easier. From Manhattan, take the LIRR to Flushing or the 7 train to Flushing – Main Street. Then all you have to do is walk five minutes to the municipal parking lot on Union Street and 39th Ave. From there, you can pick up the free shuttle van that will whisk you off to Spa Castle. A ten minute drive later and you’re at the front door of paradise. Not coming from Manhattan or want more detailed directions? Check out their site for more info.

After paying your admission ($35 for adults during the week and $45 on weekends), men and women will part ways and enter their respective locker rooms. You are given a digital key-lock watch that acts as your locker key and currency while you are at Spa Castle. It has a number that corresponds to your locker. I proceeded into the locker room and locked my shoes in my shoe locker. I then proceeded to my main locker where I changed into my swim trunks and locked up my belongings. It’s worth noting here that you may want to bring a beach towel. The only towels on site are small free gym towels or beach towels that you must pay to rent.

Upon locking up my belongings, I picked up my uniform. In most common areas, you are required to wear a spa-issued shirt and shorts. Simply put the uniform on over your swim trunks and off you go. The vast majority of the facilities are coed, so the uniforms and swim trunks keep everyone modest. Except for the ladies in the pooks wearing bikinis. But hey, I’m not complaining.

I walked upstairs and met my companions in the lounge. From here, we walked upstairs to the outdoor pools. Once in the pool area, I removed my uniform and braved the cold as I made my way into the heated pools in just my swim trunks. Here, I indulged in various massage jets and a Hinoki Bath, which is constructed out of 300-year-old wood and is filled with heated, bubbling mineral water. Despite the near-freezing temperatures, I enjoyed my time in the outdoor pools as the various jets massaged away all the knots in my muscles that I had acquired during three weeks of travel in New Zealand and Australia.

After an hour or so in the pools, I was ready to move on. My friends had been indulging in some steamed shumai at the food counter right inside. To pay, they simply scanned their digital key-lock watch at the counter and the product was added to their accounts. You pay when you leave the spa, so no need to carry cash with you. You keep your belongings safely in the locker room.

From here, I headed to the dry saunas. You can choose from several dry saunas of various heats and “themes.” They range from facilities with LED lights with adjustable colors (each color provides a unique healing experience) to one with mineral salts to another with gilded walls. One thing they have in common is that they will all make you sweat. I spent 10 minutes or so in each sauna and was a soaking wet mess by the end. It may be a dry heat, but nothing about your skin and t-shirt will look dry. But I felt like a new man. A weekend’s worth of whiskey had evaporated through each and every one of my pores.

From here, I lounged on a massage chair for a bit to get my legs back under me. I had been relaxing at Spa Castle for more than three hours and had a dinner appointment in the city that was rapidly approaching. It was time to retreat back to the men’s locker room and start preparing to re-enter normal society. And this, my friends, is where things got a tad more interesting.

As you recall, I mentioned that the locker rooms are segregated by gender. They are also home to the showers, several more pools and additional saunas. And it’s all full nude. That’s the rule. Want to shower? No swimsuits allowed in the shower area. Want to hop in a mineral bath? Better be comfortable with nudity because you’ll be buck naked. Want to use the locker room saunas? Put a towel down before you grab a seat. But, and I am being perfectly honest here, you get comfortable with the nudity almost immediately. There is nothing sexual about this scene. It’s all about health. So, I dropped trou and headed into a few more baths before getting dressed and hopping on the shuttle.

I was back home in downtown Manhattan in under an hour. I felt rejuvenated and alive. And I had a new-found comfort level with close-proximity male nudity. So, it was a growth experience.

All in all, Spa Castle is a great experience. They offer memberships and are open until late in the evening. The next time you find yourself in New York and at your wits end with the noise, the recession or just life in general, take a spa day in Queens and rediscover what relaxation is supposed to be.

Undiscovered New York: Exploring New York’s Chinatown(s)

Welcome to Undiscovered New York. Considering this past Monday was the traditional start of the Chinese New Year, now seems as good a time as any to celebrate one of New York City’s most interesting and diverse neighborhoods: Chinatown.

Upon moving to New York, my initial impression of Chinatown was an overwhelming feeling of the unfamiliar and mysterious. Everything about it seemed so at odds with what I knew and what I understood: huge piles of fish and strange produce glistening on the sidewalk in cardboard boxes, the pungent smells, impenetrable language and strange customs.

Yet as I grew more comfortable with this intriguing neighborhood, its many charms were slowly revealed. It was no longer an area of cheap designer knock-off handbags and pork-fried rice. I saw it as an indispensable part of my city – a neighborhood that was just as integral to my view of New York as the Statue of Liberty or the East Village.

What I also soon discovered is that the Chinatown in Manhattan is only one of three distinct Chinatowns in New York City, with another in the Flushing section of Queens and the newest slowly expanding in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Each of these three Chinatowns is a unique city-within-a-city, offering a completely diverse array of regional cuisines, interesting stores and unique sights.

Want to learn about some out-of-the-way spots in all three Chinese enclaves? Step inside Undiscovered New York’s guide to exploring the Chinatown(s).
Manhattan’s Chinatown

Centered just east of Broadway and Canal, Manhattan’s Chinatown is definitely New York’s biggest and also its best-known. But there’s still plenty of secrets waiting for the interested visitor. Given the timing of this post, it’s only fair that we mention the Chinese New Year festivities taking place this coming weekend. The big event is arguably the Dragon Parade on Sunday 2/1, which features dancers parading in elaborate dragon costumes down the area’s sidestreets.

Anybody with a hankering for some authentic Chinese food need only point his nose towards one of the area’s many eateries. Dim Sum is one Chinese tradition that’s not to be missed. The meal typically features a variety of small plates like dumplings, spare ribs and Jin deui served in a communal, buffet-style setting. Head over to the Golden Unicorn, grab a seat and watch the servers roll by in a constant parade of carts with interesting foodstuffs. Joe’s Shanghai is another area favorite – they’re known for their soup dumplings filled with steamy broth. Make sure not to put the whole thing in your mouth all at once!

It’s often said that the Chinese are experts in non-traditional herbal medicines. If you’ve ever been curious about Chinese herbal remedies, Chinatown is a great place to learn more. Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy markets itself as the “Largest on the East Coast.” The store feaures over 1,000 different traditional Chinese herbs and ingredients as well as treatments from a licensed acupuncturist.

Queens’ Chinatown
Though Manhattan may have the most famous Chinatown, Queens’ Flushing area may have its most diverse. The area boasts residents from neighboring Taiwan and Korea as well as areas of China as far-flung as Fujian to Lanzhou. One of the best ways to experience it all is by stopping in to one of the area’s numerous food courts. The Flushing Mall features a particular favorite – this otherwise mundane shopping mall features a mouth-watering food court in its basement spanning Sichuan, Taiwanese and Cantonese cuisines.

Flushing also boasts all kinds of quirky shopping sure to please even the most jaded visitor. Magic Castle is a Korean (one non-Chinese pick, sorry!) pop culture store that sells Korean pop music as well as stationary and toys like Hello Kitty. World Book Store features all the latest magazines straight from the Shanghai newsstand.

Brooklyn’s Chinatown
New York’s “newest” Chinatown is probably also its least-visited. Tucked into Brooklyn’s more remote Sunset Park neighborhood it tends to escape notice from visitors but is still well worth a visit.

Like the other Chinatowns, one of the principle attractions is the amazing, authentic Chinese cuisine. Start your visiting by gawking at some strange Chinese foods at the Hong Kong Supermarket, one of New York’s biggest Chinese supermarkets. Sea Town Fish & Meat Market is another interesting local retailer, offering one of Brooklyn’s biggest selections of Chinese specialty seafood items. When you get tired of “looking” at Chinese food and want to eat some, make sure to visit one of the area’s many street vendors for some authentic street food.

Dumpling Redux – From Shanghai to Queens

It’s midnight and my mouth is watering for some soupy dumplings. World Hum points me to Disanne McLane’s search for the best dumpling in Shanghai. Which takes me back to my own encounters with the darling dumplings of Shanghai — I ate at two of the places McLane reviews in her quest for the perfect soup dumpling, and agree with her that Din Tai Fung’s are the best tasting, although the atmosphere at Nanxiang suited me better and felt more “authentic” — catering to tourists, the pace is faster and the decor not as pretty, but the dumpling sure do hit the spot.

Since my return from China I’ve yet to seek out similar soupy goodness on the streets of New York. When time allows, I’ll do some research and head straight to Chinatown in search of some Shanghainese authenticity in the heart of Manhattan. But Gothamist alerted me today that a detour to Flushing may be in order. Seems there is a Nanxiang noodle house in Queens with a reputation for serving up delicious dumplings. They go so far as to label them “the best in the city.” Seems worth a trip to me…