MAD DOG: Rules for Eating on the Road
There's a reason foreign food is called foreign -- it's not like what you're accustomed to eating. To me eggs that have been buried in the ground for ten years or eel brains qualify as foreign food. Especially since I didn't know eels had brains as I understand them. But to someone in, say, Chiang Mai, Spam and Reese's Peanut Butter Puffs cereal probably seem at least as incomprehensible. Hell, they are to me too and I live here.But this doesn't mean eating while on the road has to be left up to fate, good fortune, and the gods of salmonella and Maalox. You just have to know where to look and what to order. Whether you're in another country or another state, finding a place to eat and choosing your meal can be a challenge. I'm here to make this a little less daunting. 1. Avoid restaurants filled with Americans, even in America. For that matter, avoid any place filled with tourists of any one nationality. Unless, of course, it's their country you're in. A roomful of Germans doesn't signify a great place to eat in Prague. It probably does mean overpriced gulas with more bread dumplings than meat. Go find a little shop that makes and sells chlebcky, the open-faced sandwiches that are as close to free as you can get and still have to fork over money. 2. Watch out for ethnic restaurants that don't have people of the same ethnicity working there. A Mexican restaurant in Paris shouldn't be staffed by Parisians wearing sombreros and serapes. Not unless you want a crepe disguised as a tortilla. Which brings us to....3. Make it a point to eat as much of the local food as possible. Don't order a hamburger in Katmandu, chicken salad in Sao Paulo, or a pizza in Singapore.4. If you point to something you've never seen before and the clerk or waitperson raises his or her eyebrows like you're completely insane for even thinking about ordering it, get it. As a matter of fact, get a couple of them. Chances are it's a local specialty and it will be wonderful.5. In the case of #4 above, don't under any circumstances ask what's in it. There are times when you should be grateful you don't understand the language.6. Restaurants that say they're the best usually aren't. In San Francisco every restaurant has a sign in the window proclaiming that it was voted Best Something-Or-Other in some weekly's poll sometime since the Great Earthquake of 1906. You'll have better luck trusting a place like the Clubhouse which has a sign that says "We may have the best hamburger in town."7. Do trust a restaurant named Mama's. Not Mom's, but Mama's. That way you'll get great fried chicken livers in Memphis and incredible dirty rice in Lafayette, Louisiana, though it's true the rice may just taste better because you're eavesdropping on those two Cajun guys flirting with the girl behind the counter.7. Small windowless cinderblock restaurants with a full parking lot are almost a sure thing. Especially if they serve burritos, barbecue, or fried chicken.8. If the food is being cooked in a stall on the street and you have to fight your way to the front to get some, it will be worth the battle and wait. And it will be cheap.9. Never eat in a Chinese restaurant in Winslow, Arizona. Just trust me on this.10. Don't use the word cuisine to describe a country's cooking when the best meals you eat there aren't of local origin. For example: When in England, if you want good food, eat in Indian restaurants. Except, of course, if you enjoy bland, greasy, poorly prepared food. You'd think after a thousand years as a nation someone there would have learned to cook. When in England, if you don't like Indian food, consider going on a fast. If you don't, and you eat a lot of sausage rolls, fish and chips with mashed green peas (now there's a concept!), and Cornish pasties you should consider going on a detox fast as soon as you leave the country.11. The longer the line, the better the food.12. If it looks good, eat it. If it doesn't, pass it up.13. If they put it on the table, try it. If you don't like it, don't eat anymore.14. Drink the local liquor. Order wine in France, ouzo in Greece, and Old Milwaukee in....okay, there are exceptions to this rule. La Cecilia in Havana may make the worst margaritas on the face of the earth, but what did I expect in a country that makes and drinks rum? There's a handwritten testimonial by Ernest Hemingway on the wall of La Bodeguita del Medio, "My mojito en La Bodeguita. My daiquiris en el Florida." There's a reason for this.15. Don't ask why the Latin Quarter in Paris isn't called the Greek Quarter since it's filled with Greek restaurants. It just is.16. If you're not used to the currency, don't be afraid to pay for your meal by holding out a handful of the mysterious change and letting them take what they need. If you think they're taking too much just close your hand. If they look peeved, open it and let them take more, laughing as it its an American custom. Before you know it they'll expect this from everyone who comes in wearing green shorts and having a camera hanging around their neck. Think of it as helping your fellow traveler.17. Order any dish named after the city, region or country. For example, when in Havana make sure you eat a Cuban sandwich so you can try the real thing. Of course the difficulty here is that they'll call it a media noche, but if you try one of everything on the menu or see someone else with one and point, you'll get to taste it. Hey, if you want easy find the KFC.18. And finally, do make it a point to stop in a McDonald's in every city you go to, which at this point isn't difficult. Don't eat there, for God's sake -- use the bathrooms. They're always clean. And free.