Tasting and Touring Chinatown with Robert Zhu

There are a lot of great neighborhoods in New York, but Chinatown has always been one of my favorites. I worked in Chinatown for several years as a guidebook editor for Not For Tourists, so I got to know all of the mom-and-pop restaurants — dumplings, noodles and dim sum every day for lunch! On top of the cuisine, the culture, architecture, and vibrant street life make Chinatown a must-see destination.

So I was very excited in March when Bowery Boys Walks launched a brand-new Chinatown tour (“Tastes of Chinatown: Neighborhood History and Food Tour”) with guide Robert Zhu that combines two of my favorite things in life — food and history.

I had the chance to sit down with Robert in between tours to find out how he came up with the content for the tour and how he chose the restaurants.

Robert Zhu

Give us a little background on your life in New York and how you become a tour guide.

I moved to New York City way back in 1995 and fell in love with her at my very first sight. I found New York City inspirational, inclusive, and forgiving. If one year in a dog’s life equals seven years in a human’s life, one New York City day is seven days in other cities, if not more! Under her fast-paced exciting facade, I’m fascinated with New York City’s rich history and mixture of world cultures, and I always wanted to tell her stories. So for me, being a tour guide is a dream come true.

What do you think makes Manhattan’s Chinatown so special?

Although Manhattan’s Chinatown is no longer the largest Chinese population outside of Asia — that is now Flushing Chinatown in Queens — it still has the most diverse Chinese immigrant population with many Chinese dialects spoken. It was where the railroad builders settled escaping California’s extreme discrimination back in the 1870s. It welcomed the tired, the poor and huddled Chinese immigrants despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and today it is still the beating heart of all Chinatowns on the East Coast.

Food is probably the number one attraction of the neighborhood. How do you pick the restaurants and the dishes you want to showcase?

I ate a lot of food at many different places. I have the best research team one can hope for, it consists of me, my dad, and my mom. My parents gave me lots of insights, and I have a list of restaurants and dishes that they endorse. 

Bowery Boys fans are already loving this tour. How did you blend in the history of Chinatown with the cuisine?

Food is an integral part of any culture. Cooking and enjoying delicious meals with family and friends is a big deal in Chinese society. We discuss almost everything including social issues and personal affairs over family-style dishes. I think in this case, Anthony Bourdain is a perfect example of someone who could combine culture, history, and food. He could discuss politics and current affairs over a dish with people he met anywhere in the world. I try to do the same. 

What are a few of your favorite landmarks or streets in Chinatown? 

The intersections of Doyers, Pell, and Mott Streets, East Broadway, and of course, the Golden Noodle Pegasus. This soaring statue was put up over Pell Street where it meets Doyers Street in 2017 and is rumored to be made of dried egg noodles and handmade in Shanghai. My understanding is that it symbolizes the power of creative spirits in all of us and helps Chinatown to weather the bad times and renew itself. 

The Golden Noodle Pegasus floating above Pell Street.

If there’s one thing you want people to walk away with from your tour, what is it?

Feeling satiated — both physically and intellectually.

Finally, you only get one choice — noodles or dumplings?

It’s got to be the dumplings! 

Hungry for a tour through Chinatown yet?

Sign up for a tour with Robert right here.

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