Review: Chinatown Chow Down iPhone app

One of the best things about living in New York City is that you can experience the foods from all over the world without ever leaving town. And one of our favorite ways to do that is by heading to Chinatown. There’s one problem with selecting a place to eat in Chinatown, however: how do you choose from the hundreds of restaurants? It’s easy to be paralyzed by choice as you see block after block of ducks hanging in windows, dumplings steaming and dim sum carts rolling along. While there are several websites and mobile apps out there that provide restaurant reviews and assist with the selection process, none specialize solely in Chinatown. Given the incredible number of restaurants focusing on various types of Chinese cooking, we were in need of an expert to help us navigate through the organized chaos of this Chinatown. That’s why we had high hopes when we heard about Chinatown Chow Down. The brainchild of Craig Nelson, an editor at Not For Tourists, the app has some serious credentials behind it. We put it to the test to see if it truly can help us make sense of Chinatown.

%Gallery-124014%The app first allows you to select the type of cuisine that you’d like to eat. If you’re thinking that it’s all “just Chinese food,” you’re sorely mistaken. From dumplings to seafood to some of the best Malaysian and Vietnamese restaurants in the city, each Chinatown restaurant has its own specialty. Once you make a selection, you can sort by name, distance from your location or cost. Given that Chinatown isn’t all that large, the distance option is not as helpful as it would be in an app that covers an entire city rather than just a neighborhood. Still, it’s a useful feature if you’re not familiar with the neighborhood.

chinatown chow down gadlingOnce you select the cuisine and sort method, you are presented with a list of restaurants. Tap on a restaurant and you get a fairly comprehensive writeup. All of the copy was written by Craig Nelson, and his experience with Not For Tourists shows both in the tone and thoroughness of the text. Links in the text go to reviews from outside sources, writeups of other restaurants in the app and even YouTube videos that play seamlessly on the iPhone. Each restaurant entry includes fantastic photos and a map that immediately displays both your location and the location of the restaurant. All of these items might sound simple and basic, but when we’re attempting to decode a chaotic and frenetic neighborhood like Chinatown, simple and basic is what we want in an app.

Users can leave comments about restaurants similar to leaving tips on Foursquare. You can also add restaurants to your Favorites, which you can then find in the Favorites category in the list of cuisines. The Share feature only allows users to email a restaurant writeup (it opens automatically in the iPhone’s mail app). We’d like to see more integration with social media in future updates.

Chinatown Chow Down includes over 100 restaurants at the moment (each one of them personally visited by Nelson during his research). There’s talk of including the Chinatowns of New York’s outer boroughs (here’s a tip: head to Flushing, Queens right now!) in the future, and updates should push through more reviews, as well.

Chinatown can be intimidating, but with Chinatown Chow Down, it’s suddenly much more accessible. The app is like having an expert in your pocket, which, while sounding cliche, is exactly what an app like this is supposed to be. The user interface is clean and simple, the information is comprehensive without being overwhelming and, at $1.99, it’s priced like much of the food in the neighborhood that it covers.

Unlike many of the restaurant apps that we’ve tried and then forgotten, we can legitimately see ourselves using Chinatown Chow Down regularly when we find ourselves in the neighborhood. It’s singular focus allows it to excel and it truly helps users satisfy their cravings even when they can’t read all of the signs.

Chinatown Chow Down is available in iTunes now.

Review: Not For Tourists New York iPhone app

not for tourists new york app nftFor those of you familiar with Not for Tourists books, you know that they are handy little guides designed to help locals (and visitors) discover new and interesting places that are oft-overlooked by the larger guidebook series out there. While their books are typically pocket-size and easy to carry, not everyone (especially actual locals) wants to always be toting a guidebook around with them. Sometimes you’re just out and about and have a specific need worth addressing. Whether it’s a place to buy a scarf because a cold spell caught you off guard or a strong need for a stiff drink after a long day, Not for Tourists books have always been useful. Now, however, they have an iPhone app for New York City that puts all the useful tips of their book right in your phone. I put the app to the test over the last few weeks. Since I live here, I’m very familiar with bars and restaurants in my neighborhood. However, I often need recommendations when I head to other parts of the city. I was curious to see if the Not for Tourist app would lead me astray or replace the friends I often call for suggestions when I head to other parts of town.When you open the app, you are presented with a list of neighborhoods. Rotate your iPhone into landscape and the list gives way to a map with neighborhoods clearly marked. Once you select a neighborhood, you are given a list of categories from which to choose. These include Top Picks, Restaurants, Nightlife, Shopping, Landmarks, Libraries and Museums. after choosing a category, a list of locations appears. From there, you can pick your poison and make your decisions.

The first thing I noticed about the Not for Tourists app is that it is probably more beneficial to a local than a tourist (even though many tourists love their actual guidebooks). Information is limited within the app. Summaries of bars and restaurants are often only one sentence. If you’ve heard of a place before or received a suggestion from a friend, the NFT app is a nice supplement, but it is not a robust primary source of information.

On a recent trip to TriBeCa, I was at a loss for where to go for a drink. Since the NFT app is broken down by neighborhood, I simply selected TriBeCa followed by Nightlife. I was then presented with a list of bars. Bars are categorized but, unlike the paper editions of the books, the app lacks a key to decipher the pictures. While I could figure out that a knife and fork meant that the bar served food, I was unsure about other icons.

You can search by name if you are looking for a specific location. I selected The Ear Inn, a bar with which I was somewhat familiar, to see what NFT had to say about it. The app included a one line synopsis and a lengthy description of the bar that was incredibly useful. Then I decided to select a bar with which I was completely unfamiliar. I tapped “Toad Hall” and was provided with a very basic description stating “Laid back vibe with SoHo locals.” Unlike the write-up for The Ear Inn, there was no additional information provided. As such, the app essentially told me that the bar existed and not much else.

This was the case for additional searches over the course of the next few weeks. Most listings had simple one sentence summaries that were not terribly descriptive.

If you are a fan of NFT guides, are familiar with their aesthetic and typically agree with their suggestions, then the app is significantly more useful than random Yelp or Google Places reviews. If you’ve never used NFT guides before, the app is certainly too vague to distinguish itself from other apps and online resources.

Overall, the Not for Tourist iPhone app is useful for New Yorkers who occasionally are flummoxed when they leave their comfort zones. For visitors, it could be a helpful supplement to a fuller guidebook, but probably wouldn’t replace the Not for Tourist paper edition, which contains much more information and is a richer resource. Considering how small the actual NFT book is, I’d be more apt to keep that in my bag than rely on the app, considering how inconsistent the information is on the phone.

Thankfully, Not for Tourists has kept the price low. The New York app costs just $2.99 (as do their apps for San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles and elsewhere) and is available in the App Store. If you don’t feel like carrying around a book, the apps could be useful.