101 Foodie Hacks: A Cheat Sheet for Finding the Best Meals Abroad

101 Foodie Hacks: A Cheat Sheet for Finding the Best Meals Abroad

When you’re outside your comfort zone, tracking down great food can be a challenge. If you’re a true food lover, landing a disastrous meal can be devastating, and a run of bad meals can seriously impair your trip. 

Fear not Foodies, this is THE exhaustive guide to finding the very best food in every town.

Follow these 101 Foodie Hacks for finding the very best meals overseas:

DOING YOUR RESEARCH

1) Ask a local where they went for dinner yesterday. Don’t just ask for recommendations, ask the locals where they go.

2) Be clear that you want traditional fare. Make it known you don’t want the slightest whiff of tourist food.

3) Use the local lingo. You’re more likely to get an authentic list of eateries.

4) Join the line. If locals are gathering for it, like the hummus at Ali Caravan in Tel Aviv, it’s bound to be good.

5) Don’t limit yourself to one resource. Use the web, guidebooks, blogs and people.

6) Ask your friends, family and other travelers. If you know someone who has been there, ask them for their food tips.

7) Traditional listings are a good start. Try Zagat and the Michelin Guide as well as travel guides like Fodor’s and Lonely Planet.

8) Beware of print guides’ age. Check the book’s copyright date and supplement with other newer sources.

9) Recommendations can turn a good restaurant bad. Higher prices and compromised menus can follow as tourists flock to a recommended place.

10) Search local listings and expat sites. Look beyond guides at home, e.g., City Weekend, China for expats, and local Time Out guides.

11) Read food blogs and forums for honesty. Blogs by locals, e.g., Parlafood (Rome), and food forums like Chowhound are good sources.

12) Use a Restaurant’s Facebook and Twitter pages. See up-to-date feedback and reviews.

13) Ensure a reviewer shares your dining style. Advice from a Pizza Hut connoisseur is unlikely to help.

14) Reviews on top sites require caution. Be vigilant for gushing reviews with perfect grammar; they might be paid for (Yelp, Trip Advisor).

Go where the locals go. Photo by iMorpheus.

PICKING A LOCATION

15) Avoid tourist spots. Obvious but fundamental. Exception: Jules Verne restaurant, Eiffel Tower, 2nd floor.

16) Smell the air. Fresh food smells inviting. Overused frying oil doesn’t.

17) Hit the docks for seafood. Get it as fresh as it comes.

18) Find markets for meat. Devour cured meat straight from a stall.

19) Locate dairies for cheese. Tasting and buying amidst the scent of fresh curd is incomparable.  

20) Search for ethnic communities. Tap into cuisines beyond a country’s national dish, e.g., Bangladeshi curry, Brick Lane, London.

21) Don’t just order the scenery. Views are stunning but make sure the food will hit the same heights.

22) Backstreet dining is often best. Off the tourist track and more affordable to locals usually equals more authentic.

23) Try up-and-coming areas. New chefs need to start somewhere.

Head to the docks for fish. Photo by Paul Keller.

CHOOSING A RESTAURANT

24) Dine in pensions. There is nothing more local than eating with a family in a guesthouse—common in Europe and Latin America.

25) Listen to the lingo. If the chatter is in English, it is less likely to be a local haunt.

26) Head to family bistros for the real deal. Check for photos, names above the door and other signs of a family connection.

27) Avoid waiters working as touts. If they want tourists, they’ll cater to tourists.

28) Scan the tables and smiles. Look around to get a sense of the food and client satisfaction before you commit.

29) Don’t judge a restaurant by its exterior. Grungy outsides can have delicious food.

30) Don’t be tricked into a chain. Foreign chains are less familiar, e.g., Old Chang Kee, Singapore. Identify them before you go.

31) Glass showcased dishes out front scream tourism. Run.

32) Beware plastic chairs at fine dining prices. Profit maximization like this spells low concern for customers.

33) Crowds don’t equal quality. The tipping effect can explain large numbers—one customer draws two more, then four, and so on.

34) Search for signs of repeat customers. Customers familiar with the waiting staff can indicate food worth going back for.

35) Look for couples. Families and groups often choose by convenience. Couples are usually more discerning.

36) Observe the delivery vans. If it lacks a brand, you’re probably safe.

Wander the back streets. Photo by  Paul Keller.

CHECKING THE MENU

37) No menu is a good sign. Places without menus indicate dishes are decided daily based on local food availability.

38) Written only in the local lingo is positive. Suggests authentic food served to locals.

39) Beware Westernized plates. Fajitas (Mexico) and spaghetti with meatballs (Italy) are not common dishes in the country. They are there to please the tourists.

40) Look for fewer dishes. A focus on one cuisine holds more promise than a one-stop shop.

41) Seek out certified origin foods. European PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) indicates a food’s authentic nature.

42) Understand regional variations. France has around 30 different food regions. Find out what is local in the area where you’re visiting.

43) Avoid menus laminated, in seven languages, with flags. The complete opposite of a local menu and designed entirely with tourists in mind.

44) Beware retro menus. If the chef is still churning out duck a-l’orange, his skills are probably as dated.

45) Go off menu at your peril. If it’s not on the menu, the chef didn’t intend to cook it.

Local menus are a good sign. Photo by acameronhuff.

ORDERING

46) Don’t think too hard about foreign food. Tripe can be tasty, and so can innards. Let your taste buds decide.

47) Follow the menu order. Pasta is a first course in Italy. Follow local form.

48) Ask what the waiter likes. Personal opinion counts, ask the person taking your order what their favorites are.

49) Ask about portion size. Tapas portions differ to Chinese rice servings. Find out local practice to fill up on the best stuff.

50) A wait is usually worth it. Fresh cooked food takes time.

51) Head straight to the regional specialties. You can have a Caesar salad anywhere.

52) Know your cheese. More than a sandwich filler, cheese is a whole course in France; it can also define a dish elsewhere, e.g., Feta salad in Feta, Greece.

53) Find fish BBQs by the sea. Locate coastal restaurants, pick your own fish and see it grilled. Try Gili Islands, Indonesia.

54) Sample a starter. Get an indication of food quality before committing to a full meal.

55) Don’t be afraid to leave. If something puts you off, be polite, pay for what you’ve had and move on.

56) Go for the slow cook. If a dish needs to be ordered a day in advance, it’s likely to have a lot of love go into its cooking.

57) Watch out for gimmicks. Vapors, foams, eating in the dark, listening to the sea. Nice only if they enhance and don’t distract from the food.

58) Don’t rule out all fast food. It can form a fundamental part of a country’s cuisine—hot dog and fries in Santiago are a staple to be tried.

Know your cheese. Photo by cwbuecheler.

FINE DINING

59) Head to Europe. Of The 50 Best Restaurants in the World (San Pellegrino Awards, 2011) 33 were located in Europe.

60) Visit just after stars are awarded. A Michelin star can be gained or lost in a year or two.

61) Don’t be drawn in by the air of finery. White linen, fancy waiters and high prices are easy. Will the food be of the same standard?

62) Make sure the chef behind the hype is in the kitchen. Not always guaranteed so check before you go.

63) Book in advance. Popular with visitors and locals alike, fine dining spots can be hard to get into with waiting lists as long as a year.

64) Seek out small, changing menus. Indicates a focus on seasonal produce and customer satisfaction.

65) Check for a good wine list. Food and wine pairing is crucial and a high quality, broad range is important.

66) Look for top shelf liquors. Aperitifs and digestives are also an integral part of the fine dining experience, so ensure their presence.

67) Check the décor for attention to detail. If it’s amiss out front, ask yourself about the quality of the kitchen.

68) An A-List clientele doesn’t always equal A-List food. Focus on the food list, not the guest list.

69) See if you can see the kitchen. An open kitchen is a sign of confident cooking.

Focus on fine dining not just an air of finery. Photo by jlastras.

 BESIDES DINNER

70) Establish which is the biggest meal of the day. Restaurants focus on the main mealtime, which is lunch in Spain and France.

71) Afternoon tea—another chance to eat. Not just an English tradition, afternoon tea is also popular in some old colonial cities in Asia.

72) Redefine breakfast. Pho in Vietnam and Pork Dumplings in China are traditional breakfasts and tastier than toast.

73) Market picnics offer premium produce. You don’t need a table and chairs to eat well.

74) Make the most of midnight snacks. Pad Thai in Bangkok after a night of drinking can be delicious if you find where the locals go.

75) Align eating times.  Dinner can be as late as midnight in some countries. Sample Tapas as a prelude in Spain, just like the locals.

76) Don’t settle for less on transport.  Plan long journeys with picnics but check out the local options, e.g., India’s train food is impressive.

77) Look for festivals. From grape harvests in Hunter Valley to white truffle season in Piedmont, get in on local food festival action.

Redefine breakfast with Pho. Photo by ayesamson.

SWEET TREATS

78) If the main course wasn’t good, don’t do dessert. Many chefs focus on savory courses. If that wasn’t good, then the desserts are unlikely to be better.

79) Revolving cake stands are good. You can see what’s being offered, if it looks homemade and if it’s been there for weeks.

80) Street sweets can be better than restaurant offers. Gelato from a street vendor in Verona is hard to beat.

81) Sample chocolate in your main course. Oaxaca’s mole sauces are world renowned for good reason.

82) Leave Italian desserts to the Italians. Tiramisu is a ubiquitous staple too commonly served by places with little interest in desserts.

83) Eat where the dessert experts are. Patisseries and cafes often attract those skilled in sugar.

84) Eat fruit like the natives. Fruit salads in restaurants are dull but mango peppered with chili off the street in Mexico is divine.

85) Try real chocolate. If you’re in a cocoa producing country, sample the chocolate at source. Try Gianduja Chocolate Tasting, Ecuador.

Enjoy fruit like the locals. Photo by akaalias.

STREET FOOD & MARKETS

86) Beware savvy vendors. Avoid high prices and gimmicks, which capitalize on increased street food popularity (touristy signage is also a warning sign).

87) Only buy fast-moving Paella.  Big pans of paella and other big dishes are only fresh if they’re selling quickly.

88) Find backpacker hangouts. Backpackers and local food (which is usually cheaper) go hand in hand.

89) Go to the local university. Students are also a draw for cheap, local food. Sellers will locate themselves near campuses.

90) Be cautious with artisan products and shops. Often designed for tourists with increased prices and lower authenticity.

91) Buy dirty food. Pristinely clean fruit and vegetables have probably been groomed for tourist buyers.

92) Look for low lighting.  Halogen bulbs over beautiful produce spell tourist market, e.g., El Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid. Pretty but not so local.

93) Don’t let germ phobia put you off.  The vast majority of hawker stalls are safe and offer some of the best food you’re likely to find.

Don’t be scared of germs. Photo by Augapfel.

FOOD OUTINGS

94) Visit vineyards for real vino. Straight from the cellar door will guarantee a great sample of the local grape.

95) Get olive oil off the press. Not just for cooking, get to the presses in the Mediterranean to sample oils in their purest form.

96) Get up early for bread baking. Take a baking bread course to feast on a delicious breakfast.

97) Pluck it and eat it. Find fruit and vegetable farms that allow pickers onsite.

98) Cook for yourself.  A homemade meal will ensure you’re well fed. For something different, try Victorian Period cooking in England.  

99) Stay on a farm. On-site meals include the local produce (in season).  Try an avocado farm in Guatemala.

100) Get your coffee fresh from the bean.  Coffee plantations serve up some of the finest brews around.  

101) Hike to a tea plantation. Tea in the mountains provides a refreshing cup after a long walk. Try the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.

Sample wine in situ. Photo by ComùnicaTI.

With this list in hand, you should be able to spot a bad meal a mile off and take your appetite elsewhere.

What are your food hacks? Where in the world was your most memorable meal? Let me know in the comments below.

If you liked this, you might also like: 35 Signs You’re a Travafoodaholic.

Main image: Chinese feast by Wootang01.

 

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Jo F

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Comments (19)

  1. Angela Thursday - 23 / 02 / 2012 Reply
    Fantastic advice. Man, I'm going to use so many of these as starting points for finding good food here in Buenos Aires. The food is great here, but you do need to know how to choose. One thing I'd say here is "when in the plaza, go for a beer and the atmosphere, skip the food. It's always overpriced and awful." Too bad though. This is almost universal, but definitely true of particularly touristy places. Cheers and thanks!
  2. Alexa Meisler Friday - 24 / 02 / 2012 Reply
    These are great tips! I definitely want food that is non touristy so your advice for asking the locals is probably the best one for me. Thank you for sharing!
  3. Jesse Ramsey Tuesday - 28 / 02 / 2012 Reply
    Ask a local where they went for dinner yesterday - genius! Great tips, especially the street food ones - dirty is good although it's difficult for us sanitation obsessed North Americans to get our head round this.
  4. Jo Fitzsimons Wednesday - 29 / 02 / 2012 Reply
    I think street food has got to be top of my list - it doesn't come much more authentic or fresh.
  5. Kurt Thursday - 01 / 03 / 2012 Reply
    Very good and extensive list of advice. Reminds me of those mobile food trucks that tweet their locations and get everyone on a scavenger hunt for great deals N meals. I think a lot of this advice can be applied to those. My favorite meal overseas has to be Irish Chips. Love em!
  6. Krista Tuesday - 20 / 03 / 2012 Reply
    Terrific list! My default is to ask store clerks where they go for lunch. Tends to be more local and budget-friendly!
  7. Mary @ Green Global Travel Thursday - 03 / 05 / 2012 Reply
    Great comprehensive list. You would think some of these would be common sense, but when traveling, tired, hungry & discombobulated we tend to forget them. Eating locally not provides the freshest, best tasting, most authentic experience it also is more environmentally friendly! Win-Win!
  8. Laura Wednesday - 01 / 08 / 2012 Reply
    Great tips! I'm all about no. 51, looking for regional specialties--it's the topic of my website Eat Your World (eatyourworld.com), where we cover local foods from different cities around the globe. Happy eating, everyone!
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