Do you want to discover where to get the softest tortillas in town? The crispest biscotti? The tangiest Vietnamese barbecue? Of course you do! Unfortunately, finding all the great places to eat in such food destinations as Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco can take a lifetime. To speed up the process, we tracked down nine insiders who know every butcher, baker and cannoli maker worth knowing. They are seasoned guides whose tours explore America's hidden culinary corners, and they enjoy nothing more than seeing the look on the face of somebody tasting their first sublime tamale or shrimp dumpling. Read on for a listing of these food gurus and a few of their favorite shops and restaurants.
THE ITALIAN MARKET
The guide Celeste Morello is a criminologist and a historian of the Italian Market on Ninth Street in South Philadelphia, where her family has been in the cheese and trash businesses for a century. She is currently co-writing the Italian Market Cookbook. How has she liked living in this food-lover's paradise for the past 17 years? "To be honest, hon, I'm used to it by now," she says.
The tour One of the country's last surviving outdoor street markets is on Ninth Street. The sidewalks are jammed with vendors hawking fruits, vegetables, flowers and fish, just as they've been doing, rain or shine, for more than 80 years. The market is also the birthplace of tenor Mario Lanza (1921) and the Philly steak sandwich (1930).
Top shop D'Angelo Brothers (909 S. Ninth St.; 215-923-5637), founded in 1911, makes impressive pancetta and 45 different types of sausage. It also offers an astounding variety of wild game: lion, camel, emu, kangaroo and, during hunting season, Scottish grouse from the royal grounds of Balmoral Castle.
Must eat Sicilian roasted-pork sandwiches from Cannuli's (937 S. Ninth St.; 215-922-2988), where lean young pigs are rubbed with Grandma Cannuli's special seasoning and baked in gigantic ovens.
Details Two-hour walking tours are $8 to $25 per person (rates vary in inverse proportion to the size of the group); 215-334-6008.
AN ETHNIC ODYSSEY
The guide For a book she planned to write, Evelyn Thompson spent two years making an exhaustive, street-by-street study of Chicago's ethnic restaurants and markets. She never wrote the book, but she shares her research with the small tour groups that she ferries around in her Toyota station wagon. "I carry a knife, cutting board and paper plates," she says.
The tour Thompson keeps a list of addresses all across Chicago for authentic Jamaican, Mexican, Cuban, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Vietnamese and Persian food. The number of stops on the tour can be varied to suit stamina and appetite.
Top shop Argo Bakery (2812 W. Devon Ave.; 773-764-6322), which makes a chewy Georgian bread called shoti. "It's baked in a pit oven with brick walls. It's fantastic," Thompson says.
Must eat The huge ginger cookies known as totoes and the gizzado, or coconut tart, at the Caribbean American Bakery (1539 W. Howard St.; 773-761-0700).
Details Four-hour custom tours in Thompson's car are $25 to $40 per person; 773-465-8064.
THE NORTH END
The guide The daughter of a Polish butcher, Michele Topor says her life changed 28 years ago when she moved to the North End and got her first taste of good olive oil. She began taking classes with Marcella Hazan and Giuliano Bugialli, and today she's a cooking teacher herself. She's led her North End walking tours since 1987.
The tour Along the narrow streets of Boston's oldest residential neighborhood, little alleys lead to hidden Italian vendors. Some are venerable, like the liquor store V. Cirace and Sons (173 North St.; 617-227-3193), founded in 1906; some are newcomers, like the bakery Biscotti's (95 Salem St.; 617-227-8365), where the pastry chef arrived from Salerno only this year.
Top shop Boschetto (158 Salem St.; 617-523-9350), where the oven is 120 years old. "The crust of the bread will cut the roof of your mouth. I consider this high praise," Topor says.
Must eat A cannoli from Maria's Pastry Shop (46 Cross St.; 617-523-1196). "It's very simple: a crisp shell that gets filled with some very good ricotta and a little sugar when you order."
Details Three-hour walking tours, offered twice daily on Wednesdays and Saturdays, are $35 per person; 617-523-6032.
The guide Laurie Rothstein, an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker, became fascinated by the food of Indonesia while doing fieldwork there. She runs a catering company, Cooking Culture, which specializes in unusual ethnic cuisines.
The tour At markets in and around Boston's small Chinatown, Rothstein gives advice on where to buy and how to choose the ingredients essential for authentic Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, Cambodian, Laotian and Malaysian cooking.
Top shop 88 Supermarket (50 Herald St.; 617-423-1688), a big, exhilarating pan-Asian emporium. Rothstein comes here for kecap manis, a thick, sweet, tangy Indonesian soy sauce rarely found in American markets.
Must eat Vietnamese barbecue from Dong Khanh Restaurant (81 Harrison Ave.; 617-426-9410), which is often the last stop on Rothstein's tours. The meat is thinly sliced and marinated in lemongrass, fish sauce and black pepper, and then grilled. "Hot, sweet, sour, salty--it hits all the taste buds," she says.
Details Three-hour walking tours, by appointment, are $50 per person; 617-522-5454.
ARTESIA'S LITTLE INDIA
The guide Neela Paniz is executive chef at L.A.'s acclaimed Bombay Café, which serves light, fresh renditions of Indian street food. A native of Bombay, she loves introducing people to the specialties of her homeland.
The tour Pioneer Boulevard in the tiny city of Artesia, southeast of Los Angeles, is the commercial center of one of the largest Indian populations in America. On her tours, Paniz visits salons that do henna painting ("That's such a rage now," she says), shops that sell made-to-order saris and vast grocery stores that carry such Indian essentials as fresh fenugreek leaves and snake squash. She winds up her tours with a South Indian lunch at Dasa Prakash (11321 E. 183rd St., Cerritos; 562-924-0879).
Must eat The crisp, savory pancake known as khandvi made at Surati Farsan Mart (11814 E. 186th St., Artesia; 562-860-2310). "The cooks simmer yogurt and chickpea flour together for about 45 minutes, spread it flat and roll it up. Then they season it with sizzled mustard seeds and garnish it with fresh coconut and cilantro. It's incredibly time-consuming and absolutely divine." Another specialty is a snack from the western state of Gujarat called pani puri--a small puffy bread the size of a Ping-Pong ball filled with vegetables, chutney, mint and water. (Yes, water.) "You pop it in your mouth and end up with this wonderful feeling: crisp cold water, cumin, tamarind, a hint of chili--all these lovely flavors. I'm going to be introducing this dish at my restaurant soon."
Details Five-hour walking tours are $65 per person; 310-472-4475.
The guide Twenty years ago, students in the public schools where Linda Burum taught nutrition started introducing her to the ethnic foods they ate at home. Burum became obsessed, quit teachingand wrote a guide to Los Angeles's ethnic foods. It's out of print now, but Burum's wide-ranging tours cover much of the same ground and, unlike the book, include refreshments.
The tour If you know where to look, you can find just about every variety of Asian cuisine somewhere in greater Los Angeles. Burum knows where to look--no-pork Chinese Muslim restaurants in Monterey Park; warehouse-size Japanese supermarkets in Gardena; regional Thai cafés below the Hollywood hills; Vietnamese sandwich shops in Orange County. Tours can cover a large area, so bring a car and be prepared to drive.
Must eat Banh cuon, steamed Vietnamese rice noodle sheets, flat and white, either stuffed or topped with meat and vegetables and served with a sweet, garlicky dipping sauce, at Banh Cuon Tay Ho (9242 Bolsa Ave. #C, Westminster; 714-895-4796). "They're satiny and delicious," Burum says.
Details Five-hour custom tours are $65 per person; 310-472-4475.
The guide As the chef at the late, great China Moon Cafe, Barbara Tropp became famous for turning out sparkling variations on Chinese homestyle dishes. Anyone familiar with her encyclopedic, opinionated cookbooks, such as The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking (Hearst Books), will want to sign up for a tour yesterday.
The tour Located in the foggy Richmond neighborhood, Clement Street is San Francisco's other, newer Chinatown. Chinese grandmothers crowd the markets in their quest for choy sum, dried shrimp, pea shoots and live turtles and frogs.
Top shop New On Sang (617 Clement St.; 415-750-8250) sells everything from Cornish game hens to black chicken. "The Chinese think black chicken is good for high blood pressure. It makes incredibly flavorful stock," Tropp says.
Must eat Dim sum at Ton Kiang (5821 Geary Blvd.; 415-752-4440). "It serves Shanghai dim sum, which is lighter and cleaner than the classic Cantonese style. Try the pan-fried dumplings stuffed with shrimp and chives," she advises.
Details Three-hour walking tours are $75 per person and include lunch; 415-922-4789.
The guide A former cook, GraceAnn Walden writes a regular restaurant-news column in the San Francisco Chronicle. She first got to know the food and history of North Beach by interviewing longtime residents, some of them in their nineties. She has been leading walking tours of the area for 15 years and now lives there.
The tour The bohemian feel and the old-world-Italian flavor of North Beach have been chased out by pricey boutiques and tourist traps, right? Wrong, Walden says. She can point out delis that make their own sausages and a store that sells brilliantly colored Italian ceramics.
Top shop Liguria Bakery (1700 Stockton St.; 415-421-3786), a 90-year-old establishment that makes only focaccia and sells out of it every day.
Must eat Very hard, very delectable ossi di morti (bones of the dead)--brittle, nutty meringue cookies--at the unprepossessing Danilo Bakery (516 Green St.; 415-989-1806).
Details Four-hour walking tours on most Saturdays are $40 per person and include a three-course lunch; 415-397-8530.
THE MEXICAN MISSION
The guide Agustin Gaytan was the founder of Berkeley's Dos Burros Cafe, where he prepared authentic dishes he learned from his mother in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant closed in 1993; now Gaytan teaches cooking, leads culinary tours of Mexico and is working on a cookbook.
The tour The Mission district draws immigrants from all over Latin America, but Gaytan focuses on the neighborhood's large Mexican population, with stops at bakeries, a tortilla factory and a butcher shop that specializes in menudo, a spicy tripe soup.
Top shop La Victoria (2937 24th St.; 415-550-9292), a bakery that makes delicate cocadas (coconut macaroons), pumpkin empanadas and sweet bread rolled in the shape of a crocodile.
Must eat Spectacular soft tacos from one of the two Tonayense food trucks (Harrison at 19th Street and Harrison at 22nd Street; no phone). Each taco will set you back exactly one dollar.
Details Four-hour walking tours are $80 per person and include tacos and tamales along the way; 415-289-6890.
Jennifer Reese is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco.