We Are Where We Eat: Road Food Edition

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.


6 thoughts on “We Are Where We Eat: Road Food Edition”

  1. Agreed on currywurst. Enjoyed both Chicago hot dogs and deep dish. Appreciated Katz’s, and if you say it’s the best I’ll take your word for it. In Billings, MT they make (or did) a pork chop sandwich…

  2. I think you’re right that there is no single food that defines Vegas, but there’s still a lot of good eating there. And a lot of it is nowhere near a casino. One of the better Thai restaurants you’ll find anywhere is Lotus of Siam. Truly authentic Tacos (sans the Bell) are at Tacos el Gordo and the Japanese food at Raku always gets raves. Las Vegas is a city of hybrids. So is the food. Next time, skip the egg salad. You won’t be sorry.

  3. For all the deserved glory of cheesesteaks, a better local sandwich is the roast pork, especially when ordered “italianne”, which means it comes on the hoagie roll with aged provolone cheese and either spiinach or broccoli rabe (both garlic-laden). Tony Luke makes a good one, but for better versions try John’s Roast Pork, just a few blocks away but off-the-beaten-path) or Tommy DiNic’s at the Reading Terminal Market, which Adam Richman on Travel Channel named “America’s Best Sandwich”. John’s makes a way better cheesesteak than Tony Luke, by the way. At Tommy’s, no cheesesteak, but killer Italian style brisket, pulled pork and meatball sandwiches.

    Also at the Reading Terminal Market, across from Tommy’s, is Hershel’s East Side Deli: they cure their own corned beef and pastrami on-site, and hand-carve just like Katz’s. Not quite as good as Katz’s, but not far behind.

  4. Langer’s Deli in Macarthur Park, west of downtown LA, makes an amazing patrami sandwich. Also the Reubin is good. You can take the light rail from downtown LA, stop is across the street. Best on the west coast for sure.

  5. In-N-Out Burger (1) is truly an ‘LA experience’-thing; (2) has excellent, excellent fresh-cut french fries; (3) is a very respectable company that pays and treats its employees well, and [perhaps accordingly], its customer service is as good as can be, anywhere…not just a fast-food place. HOWEVER…the burgers, to me, are bread-and-lettuce sandwiches with an inferior, somewhat tasteless patty. If you want a traditional hamburger sandwich with bread and actually want to taste beef flavor, go to The Habit, a similar chain from Santa Barbara that has expanded to LA, Vegas, Phoenix, and soon many other areas. The Habit (which also has some other sandwiches, like an albacore tuna one) would definitely be a good alternative to a questionable hotel eatery.

  6. What Steve Gossett said about Vegas (although there is the opinion that the “official city dish” is the buffet)

    My own trick for finding a restaurant in a new to me city is to ask locals “If you’d been away from here for a year, say in Timbuktu or the International Space Station, what’re the restaurants you’d go to your first days back?”.

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