Two years ago when I started travelling, I was focused on museums, history and whatever else my trusty guidebook said was important. I spent most of my time on the tourist trail.
It was good. It was interesting. But I wasn’t getting the real feel for the place. I remembered each city by what I saw, not what I experienced.
Eventually, that turned into hanging out with new friends through CouchSurfing and I would remember the cities by what I did.
Now, I remember them by what I eat.
Somewhere along the line, I found that I love trying new foods.
I don’t remember being a particularly adventurous eater when I was younger (I didn’t even like fresh tomatoes until I was 25).
Now, I have hákarl, Icelandic fermented shark, in my fridge and the idea of saffron gelato gets me excited.
The only meal in 20 months in Europe that I couldn’t finish was a serving of tartare (raw meat – basically uncooked meatloaf) in France. Everything else was fine.
I tried liver in Ireland, tripe soup in Turkey and heart, tongue and brain (in one meal – the restaurant didn’t have one full serving of any of them) in Albania.
Not much scares me.
I really enjoy this new found pleasure and it has changed the way I travel.
Instead of museums morning, afternoon and evening, I plan where and when I can try unique foods and then I plan my day.
If there’s a great pizzaria in Naples, I want to be there right when it opens for lunch and I don’t want to have breakfast before (go with an empty stomach to da Michele Pizzaria in Naples or you’ll regret it).
Recommended gelataria? I only eat lunch for the excuse of getting dessert and I hope for sweltering temperatures so I have a legitimate reason to want something cold.
If someone recommends a dish, drink or restaurant to me, I will eat it.
My recent trip to Portland, San Francisco and Sacramento left me with more memories of plates than places.
Each day, my friends recommended something new. Whether it was for breakfast, dinner or dessert, I got to try them all.
In the end, I was very happy. And pleasantly full.
My trip began in Portland, Oregon. After introducing my friend to hákarl, he returned the foodie favour and suggested three things to me.
The first was Voodoo Doughnut. This crazy gothic bakery makes doughnuts that go beyond words.
Their signature doughnut is a ‘Voodoo Dude’, a clever doughnut shaped like a gingerbread man with a pretzel stick in the heart (like a Voodoo doll) and filled with raspberry jelly (blood).
Their creative concoctions lead to amazing discoveries like their famous Bacon Maple Bar. So delicious even my grandma went back with me for seconds on our return back through Portland.
My second food stop was a pod of food trucks downtown. So good I went twice. My second day I elected for the most popular truck in the pod.
After ordering, I was informed by other customers that it was the best food in town and apparently the only place where you can get Khao Man Gai (Chicken and Rice with ginger and garlic) in Portland. It was amazing.
If you make it to Portland, go to SW 10th & Alder Street food truck pod and head for Nong’s Khao Man Gai. You can’t miss it. It’s the one with the line.
The best was saved for last. We headed for Tanuki Izakaya for dinner.
The restaurant has only about 12 seats total and no reservations taken. No children allowed. No sushi served. No picky eaters permitted.
This place looks like a dive bar and serves Japanese bar food at Japanese bar food prices.
Want some spicy cinnamon tea quail eggs? That’s $4.
Oh, and they have basically whatever sake you could ever want.
During our 4 hour dinner of the Omakase (chef’s choice), we dined on several tapas-sized plates including barbequed fresh water eel, spiced duck hearts, oysters with kimchi shave ice and pork cheek udon noodle soup.
Everything was phenomenal and you know it’s a good meal when the alcohol (sake in our case) makes up half the bill.
Sorry – you don’t get any pictures of Tanuki. It was too delicious to pause for a photo. Seriously. Just go there and check it out.
They have some ‘normal’-ish food, too, but don’t bother going there if you’re not adventurous. A be sure you’re skilled with chopsticks – they only have one fork.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco led me to my Italian friend. With Italian friends living abroad, it’s good to trust their recommendations on anything Italian.
We went for pizza one night and, of course, it was delicious. I wouldn’t expect anything less from an Italian’s recommendations. But it was the ice cream we really wanted.
Bi-Rite Creamery was our first stop for ice cream. I had three scoops, one of malted vanilla with cookie bits, one balsamic strawberry and one salted caramel. My friend tried honey lavander, earl grey tea and grapefruit sorbet.
After meeting up with other friends, we returned to share another scoop of lavender and try ricanela, cinnamon gelato with snikerdoodle cookie bits on top. Yum!
Later, we walked to Humphry Slocombe and tried samples of secret breakfast (cornflakes and bourbon), Jesus juice (red wine and coke – also known as Kalimotxo in Basque Country) and olive oil gelato.
While Humphry Slocombe had more interesting and unique flavors, we both thought that Bi-Rite had better quality gelato.
Regardless, both should be visited and mulitple samples should be enjoyed!
Onward to Sacramento. While it’s the capital of California, it’s not as lively as San Francisco or even Portland.
But there is a Turkish restaurant! My friend and I met in Istanbul in winter 2009, so going to The Anatolian Table for Turkish food just seemed obvious.
When the owner discovered we had both spent quite a bit of time in Istanbul (6 weeks for me, 6 months for my friend) and spoke a little Turkish, we were brought food we didn’t order and offered some things that weren’t on the menu.
We shared a plate of mantı, Turkish dumplings and it was delicious.
The perfect way to finish my time in California and get excited about my return to Europe.
I can’t imagine this trip happening any other way.
It was focused on food, but it was a total accident (I promise).
There is just too much good food in the world. I’m not going to waste it eating at McDonald’s (gross) or Olive Garden (shudder). I have to eat somewhere, so I might as well eat good food.
Everything I had was from local restaurants, not geared toward tourists, and from people who really care about giving quality, tasty food to their customers.
If I went back to Portland, San Francisco and Sacramento, I’m definitely going back to these places. And trying some new ones, of course, on their recommendation!