Let me preface this by saying that I probably watch too much Anthony Bourdain. You can usually catch me winding down after a day at work with an episode of one of Bourdain’s shows (iust finished watching The Layover, now alternating between Parts Unknown and No Reservations) and a beer. To learn more about the man behind the shows and to also understand more about how he got to where he is (his job is literally to eat and travel??), I started reading his book No Reservations. He presented some general travel tips as well as tips on how to find the best food in each city/town/village you’re visiting. I thought they were too good and useful to not share with y’all.
How to Find the Best Food in Any City:
This would be your typical Lonely Planet guidebook. I have this habit of falling in love with guidebooks. By the end of a trip to Halong Bay in Vietnam with a friend, a woman we met gave us her Lonely Planet Vietnam guidebook. I voraciously read it cover to cover, trying to understand more about Vietnam through its food, sights, and culture. While the guidebook set up a good foundation and provided us with ideas on what to do and eat, I didn’t see it as the ultimate final word on where we chose to eat.
6. Online Resources
There are a ton of websites online for foodies, ranging from your typical food review sites like Yelp or OpenRice to your forums like eGullet forums. You can can use Yelp to see which Lonely Planet recommendations check out with reviewers and also if the restaurants are still open! Something I couldn’t help but laugh about while reading Bourdain’s No Reservations was his tip on what to post in these food forums: “Oozing certainty, begin a thread titled ‘Best Laska (popular spicy Malaysian noodle dish) in Malaysia!!’ describing your recent experience at the perfect, off-the-beaten-track laska joint in Kuala Lumpur. Proudly insist that it’s the best – better than any other place you tried. Be sure to misspell a few words – maybe even get an ingredient wrong. Now stand back and watch the fun. Outraged, indignant food bloggers form the U.S., Malaysia, and Singapore who’ve dedicated their lives to chronicling their adventures in laska…will seize on you and your post like enraged seagulls…Many will provide colorful descriptions, lavish details of ambience, menus, links to other websites and blogs…” By provoking the foodies with an outlandish claim, you get so much more in return. I feel like this would work similarly in the Bay Area with “best burrito,” in South Korea with “best galbi (Korean BBQ)”, or Naples with “best pizza.” If you’re feeling up for it, you could always try contacting one of the less crazy sounding posters to meet up too (and please let me know in the comments if you do!).
5. If You See More than Two Tourists, Leave!!!
If you’re at a spot with more than two tourists or with menus in several different languages, run! These places are usually tourist traps that feature a watered down, tourist version of the local fare. They are most often located near famous monuments and other areas frequented by tourists. Sometimes going off that beaten path is really worth it to get that authentic pasta carbonara from an Italian restaurant where no one speaks English or that bowl of pho that the Vietnamese woman has been making and perfecting since before you were born.
4. Go Where the Cooks Go, Not Where the Concierge Tells You To
If you’re staying at a Western style hotel, asking the concierge where to eat sounds like the logical choice. But he/she will most likely direct you towards one a destination similar to the one listed above in tip#3, namely, a tourist trap. Instead, if your hotel has a restaurant, try asking one of the cooks where they go for grub. After cooking all day, they are unlikely to go somewhere with subpar food and have probably been around long enough to have eaten at, or at least know of, some pretty bomb restaurants. Offer to buy the head cook a drink at the hotel bar and then take notes!
3. Local Markets
Local markets are an interesting way to immerse yourself in the culture because you can see how people shop for their food and how they like it prepared. For example, Barcelona’s Boqueria is very different from Tokyo’s Tsukiji (think fruit vs fish), but what they both have in common is fresh, local food. If you’re looking to buy some produce, you can observe how the locals pick out their food and what they are drawn towards. Since these markets typically have casual food stalls, you can usually get something ready-made that is delicious and cheap to eat as well. Bourdain points out that it doesn’t hurt to be friendly and visibly enjoy eating your food. Doing this could break that initial ice and make locals feel more comfortable coming up to you to start a conversation and perhaps, even provide recommendations on other places to visit and eat.
2. Irish Pubs
Okay, so the pub doesn’t have to be Irish. But the premise is, you go to a bar that locals frequent, make some friends, maybe even buy a round of drinks, and then ask for recommendations on what and where to eat. This option is especially great if talking to the cooks wasn’t particular helpful or there were no cooks at the accommodation you were staying at.
1. Having No Plan is Sometimes the Best Plan
It allows for you to open yourself to meeting more people. I think it depends on the person, some like to plan their itinerary out to the hour and if that gets you going, by all means, go for it. Personally, I like having the basics down, like where I’m sleeping, but other than that, it’s fun and also kind of glorious to let yourself go and give in to the promise of adventure in an unplanned day. Say a local you just met wants to take you to the best noodle place in town on their motorcycle? Go for it (while being reasonably cautious). See that farm over there that promises the “best strawberries in town”? Why not check it out? Who knows, you might meet some passionate, hilarious locals who can give you better tips than any guidebook can (as much as I love my Lonely Planets, the locals know their stuff).
In order to get those good eats, you can do some research by looking at guidebooks and going online, but the best way to really see is to go out there yourself and talk to the locals and explore. Be open to the chance that the restaurant or meal may not be that great. The restaurant that the local said was life-changing may be closed on Mondays and guess what, you’re there on a Monday. You might get lost in your attempt to find that hole-in-the-wall. But when you do stumble upon some culinary greatness, these trials and tribulations will make your meal that much better. In closing, I leave you with this quote by Bourdain. “Be impulsive. Happy accidents, those perfect meals and experiences, happen only to those bold enough to let them happen. You can’t find the perfect meal. It finds you.”