It’s a funny kind of tour group that stops in front of South Williamsburg’s Williams Plaza projects in the first 15 minutes for a primer on Hasidic culture, then heads to Motorino. Ray’s Food and Walking Tours are a little different.
I was fortunate to take the tour on a rare July Friday, when the weather was pitch-perfect for a stroll. Tour leader Michael Morgenthal took a small group of tourists (and me) on a journey. A born-and-bred New Yorker — he grew up right across the Manhattan Bridge — Morgenthal was a fount of local wisdom.
This food-focused, 3-hour walking tour is titled Hip, Hispanic, Hasidic; it promises flavors from all three categories. Morgenthal framed the tour as a mash-up of the neighborhood’s duelling demographics. It’s a celebration of the ability to obtain a Dominican juice drink, a Reuben and a salted caramel mini-cupcake within a 15 minute walk.*
I should get this out of the way now — I don’t love a tour. Not because I’m too cool or hate tourists or any such nonsense. The problem is my attention span — I drift. Something about a tour guide’s patter drives me deep into my head, so I get very little from the experience and wonder why I shelled out the loot (typical answer: “because my relatives wanted to do it.”)
Not so with Ray’s tour! The subject matter was quite compelling, and Morgenthal was a skilled guide. He deftly coursed between food facts and neighborhood history, in the casual tone of a lively dinner guest. You didn’t feel lectured at, rather that you were chatting with someone who happens to know more than you.
We kicked things off with Morir Soñandos from Reben Luncheonette, an old-school Dominican lunch counter. The drink — which translates to “die dreaming” — is a Dominican mainstay, made with orange juice, milk, sugar and ice. You’re drinking an orange creamsicle, as one of my new tourist friends from Long Island was quick to point out.
Next, it was on to Motorino, which Morgenthal mentioned around five times was rated best New York pizza by the New York Times. (I fact-checked this later — it’s true.) We hunkered down family style and shared some objectively stellar slices. I folded mine in half and ate like a normal person, but didn’t judge the Bay Area ladies next to me for going fork-and-knife.
Speaking of the Bay, these sweet women turned fierce when we headed to our next stop — a taqueria. On the walk over, we went back and forth on our favorite SF taco joints (La Taqueria and Taqueria Vallarta, if you care); it was clear we didn’t expect much from Williamsburg’s La Superior. But Morgenthal threw us for a loop! He ordered nopales tacos, a wild card order for sure. The Bay Area ladies had never eaten cactus, and it wasn’t too common for me. In any case the verdict was delicious.
Bonus moment: We brought our tacos to the Berry Street Garden, adjacent to La Superior, and ate among the veggie plots and the chickens. For me, this was an urban power-up, one of those unexpected New York moments that help it all make sense. For the tourists, I think it was just a trip. There were flies buzzing about and our lawn chairs seemed on the verge of collapse. Plus we got to hang out with Johnny, the eccentric older Puerto Rican caretaker of the garden (and a friend of Morgenthal’s). This wasn’t no Gray Line tour.
It should also be noted: the tacos were a last-minute replacement for our original destination, a kosher deli. Apparently the deli’s owners were on vacation for two weeks, to Morgenthal’s clear dismay. I’m glad Ray’s was nimble in replacing the stop, but sure do love a good Reuben.
Next stop was Devoción, a coffee shop that started in Colombia but just opened a branch in Williamsburg one year ago. There’s a lot to recommend here, from the sun-dappled, airy interior to the precision craft coffee operation. We all got a nice Bean Sourcing and Roasting 101 from the store manager, then my insanely potent Kyoto-style iced coffee provided a jackhammer’s power for the next 37 hours.
After that, we were off to Sweethaus and Mast Brothers for our sweets fix. Both of these places certainly skew to the “Hip” section of the tour’s title, but who can find fault with dessert? I wolfed down a salted caramel cupcake (Morgenthal’s favorite) at Virginia-based Sweethaus, then cut out a bit early. I’m sure Mast Brothers was fine.
If you take Ray’s Williamsburg tour, I promise you’ll learn a ton, will never feel bored and will go home full and happy. You can also try Ray’s “Classic Brooklyn” food tour, which takes you through Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO. All told, these $50 tours are well worth it — whether you live in Austria or Australia, Williamsburg or the West Village.
Note: I received a complimentary press ticket for this tour.
*This is possible in many areas of New York, with some variants on the listed items (soup dumplings, kebabs, BBQ brisket, etc.)