Capturing Hell’s Kitchen flavor



Behind the scenes at Guelaguetza, a tiny Mexican restaurant at 526 W. 47th St., which serves homemade tacos and sopes. Photo: Anna Irrera.

In the Hell’s Kitchen blocks that stretch from 38th to 43rd streets, known not so long ago as Paddy’s Market, Irish, Greek, Jewish and Italian peddlers once sold a wide variety of produce at cut-rate prices. But in 1938, the street vendors were evicted to make way for the traffic to the new Lincoln Tunnel.

Nowadays, the market is a hazy memory, but Hell’s Kitchen is still more of a mom-and-pop neighborhood than most places in Midtown.

On a recent sunny Saturday morning, a small group of hungry food enthusiasts assembled in front of Empanada Mama, a restaurant on Ninth Avenue between 51st and 52nd streets. In 10 minutes, they would embark on a three-hour gastronomic adventure through the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. 

The group included: one mother, one father, one daughter – and one tour guide, whose job it was to show them the unique flavor beneath the surface of a neighborhood that is too easy to dismiss as the left side of the Theater District.

“The tour was a birthday present from our daughter,” confided Kim Spar, 55 from Short Hills, N.J., who accompanied her husband, Michael, and her 23-year-old daughter, Danielle. They were walking tour veteran,s and Danielle was also there to gather intelligence on places she might want to return to, because her boyfriend lives in the neighborhood, she said.

Organized by a local company called Rum & Blackbird Tasting Tours, the excursion promised to capture the neighborhood’s unique flavor and rich history, from the crowded restaurant blocks of Ninth Avenue, to the artisanal bakeries and unpretentious delis on the side streets that lead to the river.

“I hope you will fall in love with the neighborhood and come back to the restaurants I point out,” said guide Melanie Portsche, whose previous job as a concierge at a Times Square hotel served as good training for her new occupation.  While working at the Westin, cheerful Portsche familiarized herself with the area’s culinary attractions. Now, she handed out a cheat sheet of the neighborhood’s highlights, including the Korean restaurant Bann (350 W. 52nd St.) and Daisy May BBQ (350 W. 50th St.).

She explained how on Saturday evenings, in the last decades of the 19th century, residents of Hell’s Kitchen would flock to the pushcarts set under the tracks of Ninth Avenue El train to shop for the week’s food provisions.

Today, that stretch of Ninth Avenue looks very different. The tracks are long gone, and the El has been replaced by the buses that stream in and out of the Port Authority’s maze of elevated ramps. The tours, which began in 2009, attract a mix of New Yorkers and tourists from all around the world.

A lightly fried beef empanada in corn shell. Photo: Anna Irrera

A lightly fried beef empanada in corn shell. Photo: Anna Irrera

“The selection is very community based, we look to restaurants that have a strong history as well as those that are doing something particular that affects the makeup of the neighborhood,” said Moira Campbell, 30, founder of Rum & Blackbird. Campbell, originally from Worcester, Mass., is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and of Clark University in her hometown, and is currently completing the Food Studies program at New York University.

The tasting kicked off with a sampling of lightly fried warm beef empanadas in corn shells at the crowded Empanada Mama. The narrow restaurant with bright green walls opened in 2005 and serves more than  40 types of sweet or savory empanadas, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Portsche explained that empanadas, a Latin American specialty, get their name from the Spanish verb “empanar,” to wrap or coat in bread.

“The owners are actually Greek, but they make a mean empanada,” she added.

The group then proceeded to walk to the off-the-grid Stiles Farmers Market, on 352 W. 52nd St. Inside the covered market, cardboard boxes packed with seasonal bright orange pumpkins lay surrounded by stacks of cassava and shiny green peppers.

Right by Stiles, hidden by a hungry crowd of customers, is another entry on the Rum & Blackbird cheat sheet, the tiny Totto Ramen, similar to the narrow noodle shops that line the streets of Japan.

Around the corner, Portsche led the group to the next destination, to sample chocolate milk shakes at Island Burgers at 766 9th Ave. Then the tour headed west, stopping briefly at Clinton Community Garden, created 20 years ago in a vacant building lot. Nestled between the low-rise town houses of 48th Street were wooden benches surrounded by patches of vibrant flowers and neatly trimmed shrubs. Behind a metal fence at the far end of the garden, people tended to small plots of land.

“Somebody saw a wild tomato plant growing amidst the rubble, and the community decided to apply for permanent park status,” explained Portsche, describing how local residents started the garden. Any Hell’s Kitchen resident can request a key to enter, but only the most fortunate are assigned a small allotment of land to grow anything from tomatoes to rosemary. The current waitlist is eight years.

In one corner, hidden by branches bearing their first fall leaves, was a tall wooden box.

“In 2010, the community installed a beehive. In its first year, it generated one hundred pounds of honey,” said Portsche.

One of the best reasons to take the tour is to stumble upon off-the-grid restaurants such as Guelaguetza, at 526 W. 47th St. (between 10th and 11th avenues), an unassuming, family-owned Mexican restaurant that consists of three tables tucked away behind a deli counter. For the past three years, owners Diana and David Lopez have been serving handmade traditional tacos and sopes to the customers seated in the back of the store.

A sampling of zucchini focaccia at Sullivan St. Bakery. Photo: Anna Irrera.

A sampling of zucchini focaccia at Sullivan St. Bakery. Photo: Anna Irrera.

“My favorite dish are the sopes, which are open maize tortillas,” said Diana Lopez.

Other Rum & Blackbird sampling partners include Sullivan St. Bakery (533 W. 52nd St.), which produces Italian breads and focacce, and the 89-year-old Greek Poseidon Bakery (629 9th Ave.).

The tour ends with sweet reminders of Hell’s Kitchen’s proximity to the Theater District.  Almond biscotti by Biscotti di Vecchio, a company founded by Danielle Di Vecchio, a professional actress who has starred in “The Sopranos,” followed a slice of delightful warm sour cream apple walnut pie at Little Pie Company (424 W. 43rd St.), an all-American bakery owned by Broadway performer Arnold Wilkerson.

After the last stop, the Spars thanked the guide and said they were planning to head back to Stile’s Market for some groceries.

“We loved the sampling on the tour, and I liked that Melanie really gave us a feel of the community, showing how diverse it is,” said Kim Spar. The Spars are regulars to food tours and have already signed up for gastronomical visits of the Lower East Side and the food trucks in Midtown Manhattan.