If you are like me, whether you are traveling to a new city or relocating to a new country, one of your top priorities will be finding the best food in town. That does not necessarily mean high-end gourmet cuisine; those places are usually easy enough to find. To me, it means discovering great food at an affordable price. For example, traditional cuisine at neighborhood haunts, local street foods, hidden-gem restaurants, and authentic sources for regional ingredients.
I realize that, as a chef, food may be more important to me than to others. However, no matter where you are, you have to eat, right? Depending on your destination, finding affordable local food can be surprisingly overwhelming. You can certainly Google “best food in town near me” and take your chances. Or, you can try some of these tips that will help you find good, affordable food no matter where you are.
How to Find the Best Food in Town
Talk to Strangers
Talking to strangers can sometimes lead to the best memories. While traveling in Croatia, my husband and I began chatting with a man on the funicular in Zagreb, the shortest funicular in the world. He wound up inviting us to a wedding that night, and it was one of the highlights of our trip.
While going to a Croatian wedding was not our primary goal, getting information was. We were asking if he could suggest something for us to do that wasn’t very touristy. Ask the locals for recommendations and you will find almost anything.
If you’re not apt to flag someone down on the street for a recommendation, you will be in many situations where striking up a conversation is easy. For example, if you are waiting in line someplace, you can ask someone for a good place for lunch. Or ask if they have tried the café on the corner, or maybe where the best place is for the local dish. Maybe if you take a cab or rideshare, ask the driver. Do not pass up opportunities to learn from the locals.
Visit Local Food Markets
Local food markets can be your best source of regional ingredients from herbs and spices, to meats and cheeses. Usually frequented by locals, these markets offer staples for home meals, restaurateurs and chefs, and, of course, tourists. Ask the vendors about restaurants: they know what the chefs are buying.
Sometimes called farmer’s markets, depending on where you are, the market may be something that gets set up and torn down once a week or more. They may have food trucks or food vendors selling prepared foods and snacks. It will quickly become obvious which ones are the most popular.
Many cities have markets in permanent structures that bustle daily with locals eating a quick meal or grabbing what they need for dinner. If your city has one of these markets, go there as soon as you can! You may even find it has everything you need. For example, Mercato di Mezzo in Bologna, Italy has a great selection of regional products, prepared meals, and plenty of snacks. I could have easily spent all day there.
Some of these food markets are even famous for their street snacks, like the Taipei night markets which light up evenings in Taiwan’s capital. These have stalls that run into triple figures. With hundreds of food stalls to choose from, you can satiate yourself on local specialties pretty cheaply.
Buy from Street Food Vendors
It can be nice to have hundreds of street food options under one market roof. However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes you’ll find street food sold from mobile trucks or carts, like the ones in Mexico, Turkey, and Thailand. Or from the open, street-facing windows from more permanent stalls often seen in China and Japan. Wherever you are, there is probably some sort of street food that will make for a good meal, provide good value, and offer a good representation of regional fare.
They don’t have to be a food festival per se. While listening to music, dancing, or exploring arts and crafts, attending festivals gives a glimpse into the culture of its people. Yet it also usually offers insight into the food culture as well.
I spent a month in the South of Spain. It seemed every week one of the small towns was jubilantly celebrating the grape harvest with a Fiesta de la Vendimia. It felt like I attended them all. In between the traditional flamenco dances, I discovered a few foods I otherwise wouldn’t have, like Málaga grapes. They were plump, juicy, sweet green grapes like I never had before. Food stalls selling everything from home-baked goodies to restaurant meals can provide a wealth of information on what to eat in the area. And it’s a good place to talk to locals and possibly make a new friend.
Search for Group Meals
All over the world there are opportunities to pay to eat a home-cooked meal in a group setting. These are a little controversial depending on the city, but they are enjoyable and afford interaction with others who may be like-minded about good food. Another way to have a group meal is to take a food tour or cooking class if you can. Sometimes you can find tours at the local food markets. These will help you more quickly identify ingredients and the famous foods of the area.
Do Your Research
My website, Chef Denise, offers information about global foods: regional specialties, street foods, restaurant recommendations, and even some recipes for some of the dishes. And even I use other online sources when I write about food. For me, the most reliable is the Michelin Guide. Not for the three-star fancy fine dining, but for their Bib Gourmand recommendations. Some of the street food stalls at the Taipei night markets are even listed. These are places Michelin considers good value, pretty much the essence of the best food in town.
Whether you’re moving to a foreign country or traveling to a new city, finding the best food in town can be a fun adventure. Keep in mind that you may be exposed to things you are not used to consuming. If this is the case, and you’re not willing to eat something, you do not need to give a reason (no insulting words like gross or disgusting needed), just politely decline. But if you are feeling adventurous, try as many new foods as you can.
by Denise Macuk of Chef Denise