My Town: NYC
Famous Fat Dave’s Guide to Gluttony (At Under $10 A Pop)
Hail down NYC taxi driver and certified foodie “Famous Fat Dave” Freedenberg, and we guarantee your tummy will thank you. That is, if you can spot the 28-year-old Maryland native whose epicurean curiosities have landed him pseudo-celebrity status amongst food-lovers worldwide.
From his ‘Hungry Cabby’ food blog, to his personalized five-borough-wide eating tour, to pitching a pilot to the Food Network and penning a gastronomy-based book; Freedenberg lives and breathes food, making him a premier NYC food guide. For those not fortunate enough to find themselves in his back seat (most likely enjoying Milli Vanilli courtesy of the taxi’s tape deck, and being offered a bite of whatever Freedenberg is munching on up front) we called the self-taught gourmand in hopes of landing some insider tips:
What drives your love of food?
Ah, start it off with a good one. I don’t think that I’m different from most people. So many people call themselves foodies. Calvin Trillin writes a lot about food (he’s sort of a personal hero of mine). He says that foodies like “sleepy-time restaurants, where everything is served on a bed of something else.” I just love food, and then it spreads to where I take jobs to get food. It rules my entire life.
After I graduated [NYU] I took a job at Orwasher’s Bakery on the Upper East Side and used to drive around NYC delivering bread. I lost the job after September 11th and was unemployed for four months. The only wanted signs were on cab’s bumpers. So, since there was no chance for me to get a job that would make mom happy, I took a job that would make my mom furious.
What do you love most about life on the road?
I like talking to people and I like traveling. Driving is like traveling, except the people are coming to me. So, I just sit around and chat for 15min. Food enters in because I’m totally obsessed. I’ll ask them, ‘Where do you eat?’ on the way to their house, and 9 out of 10 times it’s a great place to eat.
And how did the Food Network pitch come about…
It’s with a buddy who went to NYU film school; I starred in one of his silent films. My tours have always been for my family and friends, but one day he told me, ‘we can make it into a show.’ We got together a friend with a camera, and a friend to do sound, to make a trailer. I took three execs from the Food Network on a real eating tour. They loved it. So we pitched it to the Food Network and they gave us some money and had us do a demo reel, which is like half a pilot. They’re looking at it now, so, hopefully in the next month, we’ll get the green light.
Let’s talk about food. What’s easiest – by neighborhood? Borough? Best under-$10?
By borough maybe… I’ll eat at high-class joints, but only if the bill is on my parents. I like to eat where the people eat, so pretty much everything is under $10. I occasionally take people to Blue Ribbon on the Midnight Munchies tour for a Chocolate Bruno or Shrimp Cocktail.
How about starting with Chinatown, where I live, for my own benefit?
I have a couple favorites there. The Dumpling House and the Excellent Dumpling House.
Which is more excellent?
I think the Dumpling House is better. It has the least expensive meal in NYC; it’s $1.50 for a Sesame Pancake sandwich with either beef or tuna. They fry the pancakes in a wok, cut it into slices, then slice it in half and add pickled carrots, cilantro, and beef or tuna. It’s ridiculously tasty. Excellent Dumpling House has great dumplings, and a particularly good chow fun.
In Brooklyn’s Chinatown, I really like Ba Xuyen. They have these Durian Shakes. Do you know what Durian is?
No, I don’t.
It’s this South East Asian fruit with spikes on the outside. It’s super-creamy and tastes delicious, but the actual fruit smells like wet garbage.
Interesting… what about pizza?
In Brooklyn you’ve got Totonno - the best pie in the city. Classic thin slice. I’d have to say the original Patsy’s in East Harlem is my favorite slice. And, Louie & Ernie’s in the Bronx; they have a great sausage slice there. It’s my vestige of Chicago blood. Sausage is a big thing in Chicago, and I think it’s lacking in NY pizza. They also have a meatball slice, where they literally take a meatball and smash it as the topping. It’s better than their sausage. The best part about this place is that it’s in a residential neighborhood and in the basement of this house; the family that runs it lives upstairs.
And favorite late-night spots?
My favorite late-night spot is Fratelli Pizza Café at Hunts Point, which may be the champion of the worst neighborhood in NYC. There are hookers everywhere and the place looks almost post-apocalyptic. All the vegetable deliveries come in through here so they have first dibs on the best produce. Joe always has this ultra-fresh broccoli rabe. I’ll take people there just to get a place of broccoli rabe. It’s open 24hrs a day, weekdays and closed all weekendweek.
There are also a bunch of Dominican pork trucks in Washington Heights. There’s one on the side of the road at 155th and Broadway that’s my favorite. They serve something called a Chimmi – it’s a nasty little piece of meat over-spiced to overcompensate for the fact that it’s not good meat. They put every kind of condiment on it – ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, hot sauce…everything. Then they grill it and it liquefies all of the sauces into one delicious sauce. It’s a different world up there.
What about favorite food characters?
My favorite person in NY in food is Gus Vlahavas who runs Tom’s Restaurant in Prospect Heights. He is the sweetest man, super friendly, and has these stories. When you go there it feels like you come home. And they have great Belgian Waffles!
The Pickle Guys on Essex Street, like Al Kaufman - a ball-breaker, total New Yorker.
So what are you always asking for recommendations for?
The classics – bagels, pizza, and pickles…
What’s the fascination with pickles?
I could sell pickles for the rest of my life. Rolling barrels out in the morning – it could be 100 degrees or 1 degree and I’d sell pickles and eat them all day long. There’s just something about it… a nostalgia. I remember working at Guss’ and all these people would come and tell their stories about growing up in the Lower East Side. 100 years ago there were 80 pickle stands down there. Every culture has its pickles. Mesopotamians did pickles!
What about the future - any aspirations to become the next Frank Bruni?
I would like to be the next Calvin Trillin. I don’t want to be a critic like Bruni; he’s too tough. I’m not a critic; I’m a food lover.
Orwasher’s Bakery, 308 E. 78th St, (212) 288-6569
Blue Ribbon, 97 Sullivan St, (212) 274-0404
Dumpling House, 118 Eldridge St, (212) 625-8008
Excellent Dumpling House, 111 Lafayette St, (212) 219-0212
Ba Xuyen, 4222 8th Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 633-6601
Totonno Pizzeria, 1524 Neptune Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 372-8606
Louie & Ernie’s, 1300 Crosby Ave, Bronx, (718) 829-6230
Patsy’s, 2287 1st Ave, Manhattan (212) 534-9783
Fratelli Pizza Café, 402 Hunts Point Ave, Bronx, (718) 542-7340
Tom’s Restaurant, 782 Washington Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 636-9738
The Pickle Guys, 449 Essex St, (212) 656-9739
Guss Pickles, 85 Orchard St, (212) 334-3616