Forgive me, since this has nothing to do with anything that’s helpful to anyone professionally. But it may change your life when you travel. It may be that the rest of the traveling world has known about this since time immemorial, but this was an epiphany for me: you can design your own menu at bad restaurants.
Cities and large towns tend to have plenty of restaurants that serve the local population and consequently serve food that is both (1) good and (2) what locals want to eat. Those are the two core qualities you’re probably looking for as a traveler. The problem arises in small towns and villages where you might find yourself en route to some tourist destination. Right now, for example, I’m in Yuksom, Sikkim, which is the jumping off point for some great Himalayan treks. It’s small enough that the population can’t support an eatery catering to locals, so the only joints are selling to travelers.
That is a recipe for disaster.
What you end up with is the classic “backpacker’s” menu, the definitive feature of which is the banana pancake. These black holes cater to the the least common denominator of the perceived Western and Israeli palate. Full of boring carbs and blandness, it’s a foodie’s worst nightmare. Example:
Buy your own ingredients! Why this had never occurred to me I will never know. The other night we sat at the only local eatery, which featured one (bad) vegetable dish on the 6-page menu. I asked the owner if he had bindi (okra) – he did not. But I remembered seeing a vegetable stand down the street. Five minutes and $.87 later, I came back with a bag of veggies. With only the very basic perimeters of “no oil, no salt,” we got back some lovely, spiced veggies. For the hassle of cooking our bag of veggies we were billed $1.58.
The following night we took this to the 102-level and bought our veggies in advance so we could wash them ahead of time. (I wasn’t sure how much TLC the staff would want to devote to the surprise prep).
You can see the sort of set up that this type of eatery has – here’s a look at the main station’s mise en place.
You’re breaking the cook’s flow by asking him to prep your veggies (or whatever), so expect to pay some sort of premium. But if you’re at this sort of joint, that’s probably not going to break your bank.
Here’s a look at the results. I’m not saying this is James Beard territory. But if the other options are chow-main or faux pizza, this is high living indeed.
A related nuclear option is to take over the kitchen altogether. I’ve attempted this only once on this trip, after being served a grease-bomb of an omelette in a tiny tea hut. Since Jules is militantly opposed to grease, I politely asked the cook to step aside and just did the omelette myself. Wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was an improvement. I’d recommend trying this only in pretty small or not busy spots. But I know view taking over the kitchen as a legitimate option to lousy food.
Never except the reality with which you’re presented. If the restaurant doesn’t have what you want, go buy if for them, pay them to cook it, or do it yourself.