We Are Where We Eat: Road Food Edition
By Robert McGarvey
For me a thrill of travel is eating what the locals eat and, in just about every town I visit, I seek out a place that is said to define the city and its people. A plus: usually this food is modestly priced and, additionally, it means not eating at hotel restaurants.
But it also means savoring special moments.
The idea crystalized in my brain some years ago in Berlin. It was a freezing, rainy, windy day and yet there I was at a currywurst stand around Alexanderplatz and I was nibbling on the hot dog chunks, sipping beer, and marveling that – despite the appearances – this was actually a lot of fun. I was also gaining insight into a foundational part of the Berlin psyche.
All in a few bits of a hot dog.
I have had currywurst elsewhere. Manhattan, for instance. It’s even occasionally available in Phoenix, where I live. Can’t recommend it. In Berlin currywurst is about life. Elsewhere it is just an odd presentation of a hot dog.
I have set out to find such foods in other towns. I admit some cities have baffled me – I have no idea what food defines Las Vegas for instance and in that town I am more likely to grab an egg salad and a black coffee at Starbucks than to take a seat in a real restaurant.
In Houston I am apt to step into Which Wich, not necessarily because I am that big a fan but because I have no idea what else there is to eat.
I have had much better luck in other towns tho and these are eateries that require no reservations (don’t accept them) and only cost a few bucks.
Here are other foods that I savor and that define their city.
Pastrami at Katz’s. Katz’s sells other sandwiches and many places in New York sell pastrami but the only sandwich that works for me is Katz’s minimalist interpretation: meat, mustard, good rye. No tomato slices, no lettuce, definitely no ketchup, and of course no horseradish.
Eat at Katz’s and it is 100 years of Lower East Side tradition.
Bad deli is on every street corner in New York. Katz’s is the real deal.
Bianco’s Pizza. If you are in downtown Phoenix and you don’t stop in for a pie (no slices, whole pies only), I don’t know what can be said about you.
Chris Bianco only makes a few kinds of pie, and there isn’t much more on the very limited menu, but to me the extraordinary excellence of Bianco’s pie is a metaphor for what’s quirky and unexpected about Phoenix itself.
Phoenix, like most other new cities in America, has a lot of really mediocre food. Bianco’s pizza is anything but.
Philly cheesesteak. Tony Luke’s is a better sandwich, not much doubt about that, but for sheer convenience you can’t top a stop in South Philly with Geno’s on one side, Pat’s on the other and, no, I won’t take sides in that fight. I will say, tho, you have to order it with and of course also with whiz.
Is it hyped? Yeah. But, you know, it also is a pleasant lunch and with each bite you know you are in Philadelphia.
Lou Malnati’s Chicago. Honestly there is Chicago food I much prefer. Between us, I am fan of Chi style hot dogs – I prefer the “dragged through the garden” style as opposed to the minimalist New York style – and I am also a big fan of Chi style Italian beef sandwiches. But if you want to eat the quintessential Chicago food, go with the deep dish pizza which, incidentally, actually has a thin crust (there just are lots and lots of toppings). For my money the best in town is Malnatti’s. Put in your order, drink a beer and wait. Your pie will be up.
In and Out, Los Angeles. Basically within a toss of LAX, this In and Out is the go-to for LA travelers who have been away from their burger fix too long. The menu is simple, even the secret menu is short, the prices are modest. But to me, this is the best fast food burger out there and make mine protein style, animal style.
Theoretically this is a fast walk from LAX, accessible during a layover and know this: yes there have been improvements in airport food but the stuff remains overpriced and not very good. Get out of the airport and enjoy real food.