Whether it’s freshly baked bánh mì trứng (omelette baguettes) served with chilli sauce from a Vietnamese street stall or a steaming bowl of moqueca baiana (seafood stew) from Brazil’s north-eastern state of Bahia, discovering local food is one of the most satisfying pleasures travel has to offer.
But all too often, the delicacies we’ve read about and want to relish remain frustratingly out of reach.
A modern arsenal of food apps and restaurant reviews make things easier, but sometimes we want to just walk the streets and find somewhere great spontaneously.
Instead, we arrive late and end up in a restaurant that’s over-priced and lacklustre. A place the locals wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Wasted meal on day one of a holiday? Worst. feeling. ever.
Luckily, Los Angeles-based chef and seasoned international eater, Louis Tikaram, is here to help. Louis has made a name for himself with West Hollywood hot spot the E.P. Asian Eating House, where he puts a Chinese, Fijian and Vietnamese spin on Californian produce.
Now he’s shared his golden rules with Forbes.com for finding the best food in any city – no matter where you are in the world.
Here are a few of our favourite nuggets:
Local food: grill fellow travellers and residents
Above: Louis’ food-truck find in Austin, Texas
In order to unearth those neighbourhood gems, it stands to reason that you need to get talking to local residents. A rule of thumb when you arrive somewhere is to quiz anyone you meet on where’s the best food in town.
Whether it’s your concierge, your Airbnb host, the man behind the bar downstairs or the old lady at the fruit stall, ask each of them where to eat to build a clear picture of what your destination has to offer.
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Louis also recommends putting word out before you travel somewhere, to collate insider tips from people who’ve already been. Ideally, these will also be people who know you well, and know what you like.
“Number one when I travel is recommendations,” says Louis. “It doesn’t matter where I’m going, I always put it out there. Usually I’ll base a trip around the recommendations of people I know. And that was my most recent trip to Austin. That was going to Istanbul. The next one I really want to go to is Sri Lanka. I’ve heard so many things from people who have been there. So that’s where I always start. And always locals as well.”
Local food: move outside the city centre
Naturally, anywhere in the centre of a city is likely to a rip-off, and less authentic than places that require a little more hunting down.
Take Venice, the jewel of Italy, and famed for its fine dining scene. But fail to break off from the tourist trail, and you could easily be on the receiving end of a plateful of microwaved “pasta” for 22 euros.
“Discover restaurants on the outside of the city center – get out of the main part town,” Louis advises. “When you head out there you really find the traditional neighborhood places, usually half the price and usually a little bit more adventurous and richer in tradition, and not really catering to tourists.”
Local food: eat regional
Above: A feast unfolds at The Fiji Orchard in the city of Lautoka
Often, the best food and drink on offer is the kind that has been produced right there on your doorstep. So, it makes sense to eat as locally as you can. Of course, we’ve all had moments when we’ve caved to spaghetti after weeks of backpacking in south-east Asia, but cuisine varies so much from place to place – even within the same country – that it’s worth savouring that difference. And closer to home likely means greater authenticity and taste, too.
Research what your area’s regional specialities are, and make a beeline for the places that offer them in droves. “Stick to the region,” says Louis. “For instance, if I’m in Northern Thailand, I always just eat Northern Thai Isaan-style food. I’ll look at menus and I won’t bother going somewhere if it’s not specific to that region.”
Local food: look for places that you’d be happy to spend time in
For a brilliant meal abroad, Louis suggests really getting to know a place – rather than summoning the bill after an hour. A sign of a great restaurant, he believes, is a spot where you’d be happy to wile away three or four hours just chatting, eating and drinking on repeat.
Not only does this help you to get under the skin of a new city, it also means you have a go-to hangout beyond your hotel or rented apartment. Travelling can be exhausting, and it’s great to spy out an adoptive home-from-home where you can simply… be.
“I really enjoy that when I’m travelling because when you find a cool spot, it can be a gamble to leave and try to find another spot,” says Louis.
“Plus I like to continue to try things on the menu while I’m there to get the real scoop on what the restaurant has to offer. So that’s one of my favourite things, to graze through the menu and hang out there and chat, and meet the people and the servers and then ask them their favourite places to eat. I like to get in a relationship rather than just get in and out.”