Last month, we spent a few days visiting New York City with Evan and Claire. I will be featuring our kid-friendly trip to NYC in a series of blog posts starting today with Chinatown/Little Italy, the Lower East Side, Dumbo in Brooklyn, and a recipe for Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings). Miss our NYC travels last year? Here are the links to those posts: Rockefeller Center, Times Square, Chelsea Market, Greenwich Village, and New York Style Pizza; 9/11 Memorial & Museum, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Bagels; and Central Park, Chinatown, Flatiron District, and Black and White Cookies.
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We live outside of Washington, D.C., so it was an easy train ride to reach New York City. Our train left Union Station at 5:25 in the morning and arrived at Penn Station at 8:45 am. Since we had all our luggage and the kids, we grabbed a taxi to take us to the hotel.
While at Union Station and Penn Station, we also took advantage of Amtrak’s Red Cap Service. I previously had no idea this existed, but it was such a lifesaver. The agent took all of our luggage, escorted us onto the train, and helped put away the luggage so we could focus on getting the kids settled. It was especially helpful at Penn Station since we were able to sit in a less hectic area off to the side and didn’t have to worry about finding the right track at the last minute while juggling everything.
This hotel was in no way sponsored (though it was partially covered by travel points), but I just wanted to say how much we enjoyed our stay here. I sifted through hundreds of hotels before settling on this one. New York City has so many! I wanted to stay in Manhattan in case we needed an easily accessible spot for mid-afternoon breaks (which we often did take an hour or two a day to recharge) and something close to the subway lines. NobleDen Hotel was perfect for us.
NobleDen Hotel is located at 196 Grand Street on the border of Chinatown, Little Italy, and SoHo. For subways, it is also within a five minute walk of Grand St, Canal St, and the Spring St stations. We stayed on the top (7th) floor away from the street with a view of the Empire State Building and an aerial view of the hot pot restaurant next door. We never had any issues with noise and our absolute favorite part (especially for Evan) was the accessible roof with sweeping views of Lower Manhattan.
The staff was incredibly friendly and went out of their way to make us feel at home. Upon arriving and noticing that we had two children, the receptionist offered a second stuffed monkey (one is already in the room) so each child would have one. They securely held our luggage for us following check-out on our last day and also arranged for a car service to take us to Penn Station so we didn’t have to worry about hailing a taxi.
As far as Manhattan hotels go, we didn’t feel cramped in our double room. The beds had pull out drawers with storage and a safe. Our room also included a desk, mini-fridge, collection of free toiletries, a shower (no bathtub) with a rainfall shower head, and free Wi-Fi. Downstairs, there is a small area with computers, free beverages (including coffee and hot chocolate), and pastries from Ferrara Bakery across the street set out at 7:30 am (first come, first served). The elevators worked quickly and we never had to wait longer than a minute for one. There isn’t a restaurant or room service on site, but we definitely didn’t miss it with the abundance of options surrounding us.
Last year we only spent a couple of hours in Chinatown, so I was excited to try a few more restaurants in the area. Chinatown is located in Lower Manhattan (there are also newer neighborhoods in Flushing, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn along with a few other communities) and follows San Francisco’s as the second oldest in the United States.
It may have been only 40˚F outside, but we especially loved stopping by Taiyaki NYC on 119 Baxter Street (and Miami, FL). Inspired by their travels in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Korea, and Japan, the Taiyaki NYC team created a unique way of pairing delicious soft serve ice cream with taiyaki waffles! Everything is made fresh on-site and the ice cream is produced and churned in small batches for the best quality possible.
Taiyaki (鯛焼き) are Japanese fish-shaped pastries made with a pancake or waffle batter and filled with red bean paste, custard, or other possibilities. Taiyaki NYC has adapted the taiyaki pastry into a waffle cone that is able to hold the ice cream with an option of a red bean or custard center. Not up for ice cream? You can also have a traditional taiyaki on its own.
In addition to the customizable soft serve options (you can pick your own ice cream flavor, cone, drizzle, and toppings), seasonal products are also offered. Before entering, Evan was set on chocolate, but quickly changed to the Unicorn Taiyaki with a swirl of vanilla and strawberry ice cream, red bean taiyaki cone, unicorn sprinkles, a set of unicorn ears, and a unicorn horn for the top. Since we visited the week before Easter, Claire picked out the specialty bunny cone. Other fun combinations include Straight Outta Japan (matcha and black sesame swirl with a red bean taiyaki and rainbow mochi) and It’s Choco-Lit (chocolate ice cream with custard taiyaki, chocolate drizzle, chocolate powder, and a wafer stick).
We had dinner at Nyonya on our second night after getting back to the hotel a little late. Luckily it is directly across the street and open until 10:45 pm.
This was actually our first time visiting a Malaysian restaurant. It may have been late at night, but I couldn’t resist a Teh Tarik (Malaysian Pulled Tea). We also had a smoothie, Roti Canai, Roti Prata, Clay Pot Pearl Noodle Soup, and Hainanese Chicken Rice. I was pleasantly surprised that they brought out kid-friendly bowls and utensils for Evan and Claire. As a note, this restaurant is cash only.
I didn’t add Sweet Moment to our itinerary until about a week before the trip. One thing I love about New York City is that I can spend weeks planning and still come across new restaurants and ideas. Sweet Moment was just a block away from our hotel on Mott Street. We got their adorable CreamArt (Coffee with Red Velvet and Tea with Green Tea) and Hot Chocolate as an evening pick-me-up, but they are also known for their impressive Bingsoo and Waffles.
We went to Noodle Village on Mott Street for our last dinner. We tried their Mango Punch, Steamed Shanghai Soup Dumplings, Heaven Ramen, Ginger and Scallion Lo Mein, and Steamed Rice Rolls with Peanut and Hoisin Sauce. Everything was delicious and there were so many other things on the menu that I would have liked to try.
The kids also loved the macarons from Macaron Parlour. Located at 44 Hester Street (and on the Upper West Side), Macaron Parlour features a variety of specialty macarons, pastries, and beverages. We stuck to the character macarons (Unicorn, Hello Kitty, and Cookie Monster), but other notable flavors (which may rotate) include S’mores, Tiramisu, Creme Brûlée, Cheetos, Lemon, Matcha, Earl Grey, and more.
Piemonte Ravioli is located on Grand Street just a couple of doors down from our hotel. As a pasta lover, I was completely enamored by this shop and wished that I could have taken everything home. Since I had no way of transporting refrigerated products, I settled on some dried Ziti Lunghi, garlic, and black pepper pasta.
I first heard about Di Palo’s after reviewing The NYC Kitchen Cookbook and was excited to find out that it was also next door to our hotel. Established in 1925, Di Palo’s Fine Foods features cheeses, cured meats, pasta, sauces, and other specialty Italian items. For service, you take a number near the entrance.
Lower East Side
After checking in, our very first stop was the Doughnut Plant at 379 Grand Street (there are also locations in Chelsea, Brooklyn, and Queens). When talking about New York City and what we were going to eat, Evan’s main request was for doughnuts, specifically chocolate doughnuts.
Doughnut Plant has a variety of flavors with cake and yeast-based options. Evan picked out the Brooklyn Blackout. Named after the Brooklyn Blackout chocolate cake, this doughnut is a chocolate lover’s dream with a chocolate cake base, chocolate pudding filling, Valrhona chocolate glaze, and chocolate crumbs on top. We also enjoyed the Black and White (I love that even the cake doughnut was half chocolate/half vanilla, not just the glaze!), Tres Leches, and Pistachio. This was definitely the perfect start to our vacation.
After doughnuts, we walked around the corner to Cheeky Sandwiches at 35 Orchard Street for something a little more savory. Unfortunately, the Shrimp Po’boy wasn’t available, but we had an incredible fried chicken sandwich on a buttermilk biscuit with cole slaw and gravy.
On our first day after stopping by Doughnut Plant and Cheeky Sandwiches, we hopped on the subway for a short ride to DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) in Brooklyn. We didn’t have much time to spend in the area since we had to be in SoHo by 2 pm, but were able to see the great views, spend some time at the playground, and ride Jane’s Carousel. I had a few restaurants written down, but we didn’t get a chance to check them out (Juliana’s Pizza, Le Bagel Delight, and Usagi NY).
While walking to the playground, we came across this mural called “The Owls, Revealing Flight” by artist Craig Anthony Miller (CAM) on York Street.
Main Street Playground
Brooklyn Bridge Park has a variety of playgrounds and other fun activities along the waterfront. We stopped by Main Street Playground to give the kids a chance to run off some energy after being stuck on the train. There is also a dog run nearby and Pebble Beach with beautiful views of Manhattan. Evan was particularly fascinated by the Brooklyn Bridge (to the point of asking me to draw it on a cookie cake for his birthday).
Jane’s Carousel is located in a glass building right next to the Brooklyn Bridge. The 1922 carousel is home to 48 horses and 2 chariots in 3 rows (the outside row doesn’t move). After a full restoration, it opened to the public in Brooklyn Bridge Park on September 16th, 2011. This was another highlight for the kids. Rides are (currently at the time of this post) only $2 per person with those 3 and under able to ride for free. During the winter, the carousel is open Thursday-Sunday 11-6, but only closed on Tuesdays from May to September (check the website for specific hours).
I had so many restaurants and other activities saved during my research that we didn’t get the chance to check out in our 4 1/2 short days, but I am including them in case they may interest you:
Canal Street Market, Lam Zhou Handmade Noodle and Dumpling, Round K, Golden Steamer, Supermoon Bakehouse, Cafe Himalaya, Balaboosta, Economy Candy, Tongkatsu, Margherita NYC, and Roasting Plant.
Xiao Long Bao (小笼包)
Xiao Long Bao (小笼包) are delicate little soup dumplings from Shanghai. Enclosed in the thin, soft wrapper is a flavorful soup and rich pork filling. I could have eaten dozens of them from Noodle Village in Chinatown, so I wanted to learn how to recreate them at home.
To be able to fill the dumplings, the soup is actually created by boiling collagen rich ingredients then refrigerating until the resulting soup firms slightly into a jelly-like texture. Many also dissolve agar-agar or gelatin into hot stock before refrigerating to get the same results (or use this as a fix for soup that doesn’t set correctly- about 1 1/2 teaspoons gelatin dissolved into 1 cup of soup before refrigerating).
The dumplings are served straight from the steamer with chopsticks, a soup spoon, and a black vinegar and ginger dipping sauce.
I often like to make dumplings in larger batches to freeze for later, but these Xiao Long Bao are best made with just enough for immediate serving. Letting them sit in the refrigerator or freezer often allows for the wrapper to absorb the soup.
These Xiao Long Bao took some practice and also require some prepwork. Give yourself an extra day to make the stock and allow enough time to set in the refrigerator before assembly.
I originally mixed the cubes of soup with the pork mixture, but had inconsistent dumplings due to my lack in mixing skills (there’s a fine line in under and over mixing). This final time, I left the pork filling and soup cubes separate, opting to individually adding a couple of cubes to each wrapper before adding the pork. If you are going to mix everything together, add about 3/4-1 cup of the soup cubes to the pork and gently combine. You want to add as much filling as possible to the wrapper while still being able to seal it.
I also need to work on getting my wrappers more translucent like Noodle Village’s. Each wrapper should be slightly thicker in the center to help hold the weight of the filling and soup, but as thin as possible around the edges without tearing and with as many pleats as possible.
Shaoxing Wine is a fermented rice wine originally from Shaoxing in eastern China. I have been able to find it at larger grocery stores with a sizeable wine selection, such as Wegmans. It is also available in Asian food markets specializing in Chinese ingredients. Sherry can be used as a substitution.
Chinkiang Vinegar (Zhenjiang, 镇江香醋) is a glutinous rice and wheat bran-based vinegar from Zhenjiang that is aged until it becomes dark brown to black resulting in a rich flavor with a hint of sweetness. I have been able to find it in Asian markets with Chinese ingredients and more recently even in larger grocery stores. It is also available on Amazon for a higher price: Gold Plum Chinkiang Vinegar.
Xiao Long Bao (小笼包) Recipe
Xiao Long Bao (Chinese Soup Dumplings)
- 1 pound (454 g) pork neck bones
- 1/2 pound (227 g) pork skin cut into 1 inch pieces
- 2 slices fresh ginger
- 1 scallion roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
- 3/4 cup (106 grams) bread flour
- 6 tablespoons (57 grams) all-purpose flour
- 7 tablespoons just-boiled water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons canola oil
- 1/2 inch piece fresh ginger peeled and julienned
- 2 scallions roots discarded and sliced
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon white pepper
- 1/2 pound (227 grams) ground pork
- 1/4 cup Chinkiang vinegar
- 1 inch piece fresh ginger peeled and julienned
To make the soup (Aspic):
Place the pork bones and skin in a pot and add enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, then immediately remove from heat, drain, and rinse off the bones, skin, and pot to remove impurities.
Place the bones and skin back in the pot along with the ginger, scallion, wine, and 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 2 hours. The liquid should reduce to around 1 1/2 cups.
Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Strain the liquid into an 8x8 inch baking pan or wide bowl. Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight.
To make the dough:
In a large bowl, combine the bread and all-purpose flours. Make a well in the center and slowly add in the water and oil. Mix together with a wooden spoon, then knead to form a soft and smooth dough. If too crumbly, mix in a little more water. If too sticky, add a little more flour.
Wrap the dough in plastic or seal in a plastic bag, removing any excess air. Allow to rest at room temperature for 1-2 hours or refrigerate overnight, returning to room temperature before using.
To make the filling:
In a small chopper or food processor, combine the ginger, scallions, rice wine, sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar, salt, and pepper. Blend until creamy.
In a medium bowl, combine the ginger scallion mixture and ground pork. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes or refrigerate until ready to use.
Remove the gelled stock from the refrigerate and slice into small 1/2 inch cubes.
Line steamer trays with parchment or cabbage leaves and set aside.
On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough in half.
Cover one half of the dough with a towel or plastic and roll the other into a rope about 10 inches long. Divide the rope into 8 equal pieces, covering with a towel.
Roll one piece into a ball and flatten into a circle. Gently roll out the edges, keeping the center slightly thicker. Try to get the edges thin enough to become translucent. Add 2-3 cubes of stock and about 1 tablespoon of the pork filling to the center of the circle, keeping 1/2-3/4 inch of the edge clear. Pleat the edges over the filling and pinch the tops together to seal, twisting gently. Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling. Cover the assembled ones with a towel to keep them from drying out.
Place the prepared dumplings in the parchment-lined steamer about 3/4 inches apart and 1 inch away from the edge.
Steam over boiling water at medium heat until the dumplings have puffed and become translucent, about 8 minutes.
Remove the steamer tray and place over a serving plate. Serve the Xiao Long Bao hot with the ginger vinegar dipping sauce, chopsticks, and a soup spoon.
To make the dipping sauce:
Divide the vinegar among individual dipping bowls. Top each with julienned ginger.