I have a nose.
Well, if it’s not a nose, then it’s a stick – like a divining rod.
I can find a restaurant in the most unlikely of places. And by “restaurant,” I mean “unique cultural food experience.” It could be a hole in the wall, it could be a street stall, it could be a nameless signless eatery known only to the locals. I can find these places.
I don’t ever read guidebooks, or check websites to see what other people say are the best joints. I don’t want to eat where everyone else eats. I don’t want to sit down at a table with a bunch of tourists clutching their Lonely Planets or their Rough Guides or their iPhones with their Yelp apps. I want to eat at the places that would never get to Trip Advisor. I want to discover places.
For me, that’s part of the road food experience.
I have a knack for it. It’s like a radar. And my radar spins at revolutions that are in direct proportion to however hungry I am. So if I’m starving, I’m highly attuned. I’m like a truffle dog in a forest of oaks. I’m like a great white shark sniffing blood in the water. I’m a heat seeking missile zig-zagging a jet. I’m relentless, because I know the perfect place is there, somewhere nearby, if only I can find it. And when I find it I will have a profound food experience that will be remembered for decades.
Or at least until I’m hungry again.
You should not be with me when I’m like this. I’m not much fun to be around. Because like a sniffer dog in an airport checking a flight from Columbia, I go nuts. I know there’s booty to be found, I just don’t quite know where to look first.
So what happens is I walk down lanes and I cross streets oblivious to traffic and to my health and safety, I hurry into cul de sacs, only to retreat when I haven’t found my anticipated restaurant, then I walk down more lanes and I get more and more agitated the more I look, because I just know the perfect food experience is somewhere close by – I just have to find it. And invariably I do.
I operate by certain rules. Here are my top 20 –
- You do not find a good restaurant on a main road. Period.
- You do not find a good restaurant in the main plaza or square. Don’t waste your time even looking.
- You do not find a good restaurant anywhere near a tourist attraction.
- Any restaurant that displays a menu outside with pictures of its food should be avoided at all costs.
- Any restaurant that accepts Diners Club should be avoided at all costs.
- Any restaurant that has a menu with a calorie count should be avoided at all costs. In fact, you should run from the premises screaming.
- Any restaurant that has a tout outside should be avoided at all costs. A restaurant is not a strip show.
- Any restaurant that has a brochure at the local Tourist Information Office, or is featured in the free guide booklet, should be firebombed.
- Avoid seafood restaurants in the desert.
- Avoid steakhouses by the beach.
- Do not eat in restaurants that have good views.
- Do not eat in restaurants that revolve.
- Do not eat in restaurants that offer high chairs for kiddies.
- Do not eat in restaurants that offer discounts to Senior Citizens.
- Do not eat in restaurants that offer you a bib.
- Do not eat in restaurants where the other diners look like you.
- Do not eat In a restaurant where you can see the food alive before you eat it.
- Do not eat in a restaurant that is empty.
- Sorry – NEVER eat in a restaurant that is empty.
- And never eat in a restaurant that offers you a menu in English, unless you’re in England.
Here’s what I do. If I lob into a town or village where I’ve never been before, I first go to the main square, then I radiate out from there. I explore all the back alleys and lanes. I look for those dingy little joints that barely have any signage. The good restaurants don’t have to advertise. The locals know where they are.
If it’s lunchtime I look out for people obviously heading to lunch. I follow them. This has taken me to some spectacular places I never would have found any other way. It’s also got me into some heated confrontations with folk who thought I was stalking them.
If I’m driving, I always look for a place that has trucks parked out front. Truckers always know the best places to eat. I judge a restaurant not by its online reviews, but by its carpark. If its carpark is full, that’s recommendation enough for me.
Another thing I do is I ask at the reception desk at my hotel. I ask: Where’s a good place to eat? And they tell me. And then I say – No, I don’t want to go there – because they’ll want to send me to some safe tourist place that everyone goes to. I ask: Where do YOU eat when you want a good feed?
Ah, they say, you wouldn’t want to eat there… And then I know I’m onto something special! I find out where they eat, and that’s where I go. Sometimes I have to really prise this information out of them, because they’re too frightened or shy to tell me.
Oh no, they say – you wouldn’t like it. It’s too rough and noisy. Or… You wouldn’t like the food. It’s very particular to this this area.
Ah, I say, my eyes lighting up… tell me where this place is. And invariably I have a great meal in a restaurant that’s not in any of the guide books.
That’s how I found Pedro’s Frangos.
Pedro’s Frangos was recommended to me by the lass on the front desk of Porto’s Grande Hotel de Paris. As an aside, I love the delicious anomaly of a hotel in Porto, in Portugal, being called The Grande Hotel de Paris.
There’s something wickedly skewed and brazenly geographically challenged about that, which I find attractive. It’s like the hotel somehow got lost during construction. It took a wrong turn at the Arc de Triomphe.
Here is the public phone booth in the Grande Hotel de Paris –
Here’s another tip about finding a good restaurant – if you ask at the reception desk of your hotel, as I’ve suggested, don’t ask the Concierge, if your hotel has a Concierge that is. And don’t ask the manager. Ask the lowliest desk clerk or porter. The Concierge and the Manager will always point you towards the fancy tourist joints. If they’re not getting a kickback, it’s professional pride. They’ll always want you to have the best eating experience in their town or city.
That’s not what you’re after. You’re after a genuine cultural experience.
So I asked the porter at the Grande Hotel de Paris, in Porto, and he directed me to Pedro’s Frangos. Actually it’s Pedro dos Frangos. Frangos in Portuguese is “chicken,” and this is one of the best grilled chicken places in Porto.
I liked Pedros as soon as I walked up. Firstly, it was in the backblocks up a small alley. Tick. Then I saw it was full of locals, at 5:30pm. Tick. They grilled their chicken by the shopfront window. Tick. When I walked in I was ignored. Tick. It was so crowded downstairs I had to walk upstairs. Tick. There was no-one who spoke English. Tick.
This was getting too good to be true.
I sat down upstairs and all I saw was frango on the menu. That’s all I wanted. I could get a full frango, grilled Pedro’s special way, with chips and salad for β¬8.50. Tick Tick Tick. This place was getting so many ticks it was like a clock on speed.
Pedro dos Frangos was a wonderful road food experience. It was great finding the place, it was great knowing that I was connected with the real people of Porto eating what they ate, oh and yes, the chicken was fabulous.
The restaurant was full of families – parents who’d taken their children out to dinner. And workers who were having a quick meal before heading home. There were a couple of student looking types, in the early stages of a romance it seemed. Everyone was enjoying their meal. Their Pedros Frangos.
It was the kind of cultural food experience I’d been searching for in Porto.
I got up to walk downstairs to pay the bill. And as I was walking down the stairs, I noticed a bunch of people coming up. They were obviously tourists, they were chatting excitedly, and there must have been a dozen of them. I stood to the side to let them go by – and I noticed that several were clutching a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Portugal.
If you want to know where Pedro dos Frangos is in Porto, look it up on Trip Advisor. It’s #51 of top restaurants there, evidently…