It’s happened to most of us. Your aircraft touches down at an airport where you’ve never before been. You ride the shuttle bus to your hotel. Once you get through checking in and have a chance to see what sort of room you have, you sit on the edge of the bed and wonder where you might get a good dinner.
Tomorrow will be soon enough to consider museums, the ancient ruins or business meetings, or perhaps to go to a zoo to see the monkeys, or the dolphins, weird bugs, or whatever. Right now you’re tired, you’re suffering jet lag, and you’re hungry.
Of course, there’s no sure-fire way to guarantee three perfect meals a day wherever you are. A restaurant that usually serves the best food will pick the day you invite your boss or a client for lunch that they screw everything up. That’s life. Out on the road in strange cities or even more challenging, in strange countries.
Here I’ve listed some rules that have served me well for more than a decade. I’m a food writer and restaurant critic. This can be a real challenge because I sometimes have to go to iffy restaurants and look at the food that appears to me quite suspicious. Somehow over the years, I’ve learned to manage to do this without getting poisoned or wasting my time.
I wouldn’t advise this for the timid or picky, or for travelers satisfied with whatever is close to the hotel. But if you’re the more adventurous, and can face the thought of talking to prostitutes about goat meat, we can start with rule 1:
Rule No. 1: Get out of your hotel
You may be surprised to learn who best can steer you to a good meal in a strange town and country at two in the morning. At two in the morning? Who’s out and about at that hour? Strippers, escorts and working girls are up and about all night long. They know the town, and they’ve been inside every eatery that stays open past nine p.m. Therefore I say Rule No. 1 is that you must put your shoes on and get out of that hotel.
If you stubbornly decide to hide inside your hotel room, you may or may not be able to find a bite to eat in the middle of the night. Have you ever eaten a sandwich that came out of a vending machine? You have to get out of your hotel. Simple as that.
Great restaurants are outside the hotel for you to find. Some in areas that you wouldn’t expect a restaurant to be, like Kingfishers.
Sure, you say, but there must be exceptions to Rule 1. Trust me on this. There are no exceptions to Rule No. 1. It doesn’t matter if you’re stopping at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo and the great Monégasque chef, Alain Ducasse himself is ensconced downstairs in Le Louis XV and personally handing out free corn dogs.
You have to explore. Get lost. Eat. Experience. Later, perhaps, you can indulge your appetite with a Ducasse Dog, but first, you have to earn the right.
Rule No. 2: Forget technology. It’s stupid.
I don’t care how much money you spend on your gadgets with all their cutting edge technology. It doesn’t matter how much time you waste as you study online reviews posted by travelers who have gone before you, Murphy’s Law holds. You’ve been planning to visit the one restaurant you’ve read so much about. This is the one that gets all the accolades, the one you’re planning to visit, Guess what? The restaurant was recently destroyed by a freak cyclone or has simply closed or sold to the former owner’s idiot cousin who re-opened it as a combination discotheque and sushi bar only yesterday. Sorry, but that’s reality.
I have a three-step process I use to get quickly and intimately acquainted with any new city.
Step 1: I walk. You’ve heard the old saw: ‘Not all who wander are lost.’ Well, if you’re out walking without a fixed destination you can’t get lost since it doesn’t matter where you are. And when you get hungry…
Step 2: Stop and look around you. See where fate and the Brownian motion of the perpetually disposed have brought you. Unless you’re incredibly unlucky, fate will have placed you within steps of some bar or restaurant. If you don’t see one, it just means you haven’t walked far enough.
Just pick the nearest door and step inside. Have a bite to eat washed down with a pint (or two) of beer.
Of course, you should also exercise some basic precautions where you’re going to be the only customer.
Always drink bottled water and never eat tacos in Eastern Europe. Just remember the common
sense stuff. Look around. What are the others eating? Most of them will know what’s fit to eat. Drink what they’re drinking. Can’t go far wrong. Then, once you’ve got your wind back…
Step 3: Walk some more. If you’re in good health and have comfy walking shoes, you can keep this up for hours. You wander through unfamiliar streets; you discover restaurants in real time rather than on the Internet. And when you get back home, you can regale your pals with interesting stories about the way people in that country prepare soup, dumplings or better still, goat tongue. Oh, you want to hear a good goat tongue story? That’s something to evoke interest. You’ll never hear interesting stories about Chicken McNuggets or most Restaurant Maple Ridge.
Rule No. 3: Technology is mostly stupid.
This is more like an addendum to Rule No. 2. While technology does have a place in adventure eating, but it’s a very small niche.
I have to offer an example. This is embarrassing but true. Once I had to abandon all my luggage because I forgot the address, the location and even the name of my hotel. If you’re in a strange city, take the precaution of having a cell phone photo of your lodging. Then even if the cabbies don’t speak English clearly enough to you to understand more than the exorbitant price, they can get you back to your belongings.
When that above-mentioned adage, ‘A man without a destination can’t ever be lost’ goes sideways on you, GPS maps can really step in and help.
Rule No 4: Hookers, Cops, and Cabbies
You’ll often read that you should talk to local experts. If you happen to have hired a native guide who can take you to find the best momo, kitfo or Hainanese chicken rice, then, of course, use him or her. But…
Aside perhaps from the concierge at your hotel, most of those others are pretty useless, on the take or psychopathically convinced that you need to eat at the nearest Hard Rock Café, and all of the above.
If you think about it for a moment, you should realize that the people best-suited to street life and every part of every street and people who practically live on the streets.
Cabbies almost always take their meals together in restaurants where experience has taught them they get the best food for the best price. Shop employees always know the best places for a cheap nearby lunch.
And while you may consider it a bit iffy, strippers, escorts and ‘working girls’ have never steered me wrong when it comes to finding a good meal in a strange town at two in the morning.
Rule No. 5: Look for Crowds
This may sound obvious, but when you see people lined up outside an eatery, you know you’ve found a decent meal. Exceptions being places like Las Vegas where people are jostling to get to the bar for ‘free’ disgusting watery drinks.
When I say crowds, I don’t mean smelly backpackers trying to get a cheap meal or business travelers mobbing some wannabe ‘American-style steakhouse roadhouse.’ They also tend to hang around places they’ve read about on the Internet; secret noodle shops or hot tapas bars, because they read the place was the Next Big Thing.
Better is to look for locals and places where the bodies are packed so tightly that they’re jammed up against the windows and spilling out the door. A busy restaurant bodes well for you when you’re tired and hungry.
Rule No. 6: Always drink the Snake Wine
One time while researching Vietnamese restaurants in the Denver, Colorado region, I did indeed find the right neighborhood and all the right places.
Many cities today have areas that are designated as ‘Little Saigon,’ and as I wandered about, trying to talk to street people and followed the crowds, I found the perfect place. It had it all. The atmosphere, great food, a storied history…and best of all, a charmingly weird owner who told me about his problems with organized crime. In a nutshell: a food writer’s dream.
Still, for some reason, I couldn’t quite get a handle on the place. I tried and tried to describe it, but nothing ever seemed to work quite right. I went back again and again. I went a third and a fourth time. Over the course of a month, I think I dined there almost every day, comfortably seated in the luxe-gone-shabby dining room, but I just didn’t feel I’d grasped the true feeling of this restaurant.
But then, late one evening, I sat at my table eating my bun bo Hue and soft-shell crabs while the rest of the dining room emptied around me. I glanced around to see the bar had filled with laughing servers and skinny dudes in short-sleeve dishwasher jackets with grill scars on their arms. The entire staff was finishing up its day by hanging out and having a couple of drinks.
The owner was right in there too. And, of course, having seen me haunting his place night after night, he must have begun to think of me as a regular because at that point he came to my table and, as he opened a fresh beer for me and asked how I enjoyed my dinner. Then he invited me to join everyone at the bar.
I spent the next half hour hanging at the bar with the cooks and the entire crew. We laughed and talked and I had a great time.
I tried to get into the conversation which wasn’t easy to follow being carried out in broken English and Vietnamese. I admitted I’d never been to Vietnam and one of the cooks told me what when I did go, I’d have to visit a certain town and street where some relative of his lived and would show me around to all the best places for banh me and vit roti.
By now I was having a great time. The owner went behind the bar. He reached up to a high shelf and brought down a bottle filled with a yellowish liquid. I clearly saw that in the bottom lay curled a whole snake. Okay, not a big snake, but still…yes, it was a snake.
Out same shot glasses accompanied by plenty of laughter, but it was laughter with a harder edge from the earlier merrymaking. The owner poured, not just for me, but for himself and everyone present. He spilled a bit on the bar, and it smelled like death. I thought of some industrial solvent intended for stripping rust from boats.
He held up his glass as if in a toast. ‘Snake wine’ he said. Then he waited for me to raise my glass.
As the nurse always says as she prepares to give you an injection, “This will sting just a little”,
Hey, I had to do it. Everyone else did the same. A great deal of cheering and laughing followed this. That quickly became less humorous not by me alone but by nearly everyone as plenty of coughing and swearing followed the laughter. I later found that the bottle was Vietnamese moonshine (plus the snake) that burns like pure ethanol going down and tastes like liquid fire with a little snake seasoning thrown in.
A relative in Vietnam had sent this particular bottle of snake wine from Vietnam. They consider it something special, and it’s not shared, but we were all having such a good time.
The lesson to be taken home from this little episode is that you should always drink the snake wine. That means to accept whatever is offered to you and you must always eat or drink it all. And most importantly: you must always express your thanks when you’re done.
In Mexico, one beverage comes with a worm in the bottom. Eat that damned worm! It won’t kill you. If you’re facing a pig’s head or grilled mouse or an unmarked jug of liquid, remember, this is what you wanted. It doesn’t matter if you’re a card-carrying vegan, a Mormon or simply a timid eater on a low sodium diet, just do it!
Pick up your fork and dig in. Let your hosts know it’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted because, after all, this is what you’ve been waiting for and hoping for in all those strange meals and strange places, isn’t it?
Best of all, it’s an instance of honest contact, of camaraderie over a dinner and being accepted as a brined. Food, in this moment, is the way people speak and communicate despite language barriers.Just one taste, one plate, one glass of good old snake wine all say the same thing: ‘This is who we are, and this is what we love. We’re glad you finally showed up to share it with us.’