Eating alone has always been something of a mental hurdle for me, especially in countries where I don’t speak the language.
On some of my travels, I am so intimidated by the elusiveness and efficiency of local eateries that I end up going back to the same tourist-packed restaurants more than once. It’s not a shining moment for me. But sometimes, necessity takes precedent over experience.
This, however, wasn’t a problem when I went to Mexico.
In Mexico, I found most people to be friendly, and that eating was a social activity. Even without a guidebook or a “10 Best Tacos in Mexico City” blog post, it’s not hard to find a delicious place to chow down. And once I started to push past my fear of looking foolish or eating something outside my typical diet, I was immediately rewarded. I got more authentic food, interactions, and prices.
In just a few days, seeking out local eateries became the activity I structured my days around.
The best way to pick up on the tastiest digs in town is to use your instincts and follow the locals. Don’t worry if you can’t speak the language well and there’s no English translation for your meal – there are a lot of benefits to eating local.
1. I got into great conversations.
I don’t speak Spanish well (though I try), and I often worry that by not speaking the language, I’ll frustrate and annoy the locals. But more often than not, when I head to local places, the people are patient and helpful.
In Oaxaca, I wandered around the main food market for several minutes before stopping at a vendor near the back of the hall. They clearly weren’t used to having many solo female travelers drop by for lunch, and their curiosity and friendliness spun into one of my most memorable meals.
We spoke through hand gestures and my broken Spanish, the older gentlemen next to me teased me into trying the (super) hot sauce, one of the chefs offered to spirit me away when he found out I was traveling alone, and the matriarchal owner of the restaurant asked me about food in New York (I assured her it wasn’t all hamburgers and french fries, and that her Mexican food was far superior to anything we had back home, and she went back into the kitchen looking very pleased).
2. Sometimes, someone else paid for my meal.
I stopped in a happening taco joint on my way back from the Archaeology Museum, in a neighborhood that was more residential than commercial. I scooted myself through the line, getting a few sidelong glances from the regulars as I babbled my way through ordering. Inside was standing room only, but I found space on a bench outside the shop.
A man who had been in line ahead of me wandered out to find some free space and glanced over at me, wielding my bulky Nikon camera to take pictures before devouring my lunch. He asked where I was from and we chatted as we ate. I asked him how we paid for our tacos and he pointed back inside.
“Just one?” he asked and I nodded.
I followed him inside, where he settled up with one of the staff. When I tried to pay, he waved his finger to stop me. I thanked him profusely and he even gave me a few more travel tips before we parted ways.
3. I ate the best food.
One of the best tacos I had in Mexico City was eaten while sitting on a tiny plastic stool on a busy street corner. It wasn’t from a storefront or even a stand – it was from a guy who had holed up in a small space against a wall and surrounded himself with bowls full of delicious fillings. Honestly, I probably would have passed him by, but I was attracted by the crowd around him.
As I walked up, I scrambled for any of the high school Spanish that I could remember.
He looked at me skeptically, clearly aware that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and pointed to a bowl of shredded chicken in a green sauce. I nodded vigorously and hastily accepted my taco before hustling out of the way of the locals and plopping down on the only free stool.
I had been skeptical myself about the concept of ordering food from a man who had clearly schlepped all his ingredients in from some unknown kitchen, ready to dole out tacos at a busy intersection. But the complexity of the just-spicy-enough sauce had me devouring my meal in record time.
My only regret was that I didn’t go back for seconds.
4. I got local prices.
Busy local joints are priced for their customers’ cost of living, not what they think they can get out of tourists. In Mexico City I regularly paid ten to fifteen pesos for a taco – less than $1 USD.
5. I practiced my language skills.
After learning please and thank you in the local language, I always try to learn how to order food.
In Montreal, I felt comfortable ordering in French, but any follow up questions left me floundering. In Russia, I did a lot of apologetic smiling and pointing. But in Mexico, after just one week I was able to approach a vendor without any anxiety and smoothly order my meal. I still struggled with the minute details, but each time I ate I got more confident in my Spanish language skills.
Even when I became a repeat customer at a bakery where the owner spoke both Spanish and English, I stuck to my limited Spanish. One of my proudest moments was being able to order coffee and answer all of the barista’s questions, only in Spanish.
When I travel, I’ll still sometimes sit down at a fancier restaurant, complete with English menus. No one can eat street tacos all the time. But by braving the language barrier, the unknown food, and the sometimes confused glances of the regulars and staff, I’ve had tasty and memorable meals.
Mexico will go down in my records as all about the food, and that taco I pounded on the corner of Calle Argentina and Calle Colombia will be the gold standard for many years to come.
How has eating locally impacted you while traveling? Share in the comments!
Images courtesy of Amy Butler.
Uhhh, this post is making me miss all that delicious Mexican food! Oh how I miss a good & cheap street taco! I love your perspective here and definitely agree. Eating local in Mexico can be such a great way to meet locals and get local prices with what turns out to be some of the best food! 🙂
Those street tacos put all previous tacos to shame. 🙂 Mexico was a great place to pursue local food — culture is so focused on food already, and everyone was so proud to share their dishes with me.
I love the idea of eating at eateries frequented by locals, but am always concerned about safety and health. What precautions do you take to avoid Monteczuma’s Revenge and other digestive disturbances, or worse?
Great question! There are two big precautions I take. One, I stay away from tap water, ICE (that got me in Cambodia, I’m afraid), and raw vegetables and fruits without a peel. If the water is iffy, anything washed in it will be as well. It’s hard to avoid fresh fruits and vegetables completely, but I try to minimize them. This means, unfortunately, that in some countries it is better to stick to touristy or Western restaurants.
Two, make sure your own hands are clean. Always wash/disinfect your hands before eating something. Even if the majority of your meal is fork and knife, there might be bread or something you have to grab with your hands. Make sure the germs you’ve collected throughout the day don’t make it into your system.
There are a couple other things too… I try to eat at local meal times, so that food is freshly prepared. I scope out how the food is being cooked beforehand, if possible. Does the work station look clean? Are the cooks wearing gloves? Does the same person take money and then cook my food, without washing their hands? And I often have a beer or a glass of wine with my meal. I heard the alcohol helps kill bacteria — but that may just be a handy superstition. 🙂
In the end, there’s often an element of risk no matter where you eat, whether it’s McDonald’s or a taco truck, because other countries just don’t have the same standards, but we do what we can to minimize the risk. Jodi from Legal Nomads also has some great tips about eating local and staying healthy. Bon appetite!