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It happens to me all the time: I’m traveling somewhere new, and yet all I see around me are McDonald’s and Chili’s. I’m surrounded by national chain restaurants I could patronize at home, when all I want is to sample authentic, local food. Fortunately, I’ve learned a few tricks for finding the food trucks and farm-to-table restaurants I crave.
If you want to know where to find local cuisine while traveling (and even when you’re at home), read on!
Finding Food trucks and Farm-to-Table Restaurants
Go to the Source
Unless you’re in a foodie haven in which every other restaurant offers farm-to-table, organic fare, it may take effort to seek out local cuisine. The best place to start? At the source: in an agricultural area, seek out fruit or vegetable stands roadside, and ask for recommendations while making a purchase.
In wine country, many wineries double as farm-to-table restaurants, and large organic orchards and berry farms often supplement their profit by serving prepared dishes. If you’re visiting a coastal destination, go to the water.
You’ll find the freshest seafood vendors and dining right on the docks. Ask at the local fish market for the name of the establishment that buys from them and prepares it best. (Just make sure you make sustainable seafood choices.)
Go Online for Food Truck Information
Food trucks are nomadic by nature. You have to know where to go to find that talked-about food truck, and the location can change by the day. Cities often let food trucks use empty lots, parks, and parking lots; you’ll see them trucks circling like so many western wagons. Ask at your hotel or stop a local on the street to find the most popular and well-known food truck gathering places.
But if you’re in search of a particular vendor, most cities have sites such as Portland Oregon’s Food Trucks of Portland index, or Boston’s mobile food truck schedule, both of which list food truck vendors and location. Some even offer apps, or message boards where foodies can list “sightings.” Many food trucks notify customers of their locations via Twitter, so there are also plenty of Twitter lists and Twitter accounts dedicated to street food in certain cities.
If you do find yourself in the Twin Cities, there are fantastic food trucks there as well as superb sustainable restaurants in Minneapolis – St. Paul.
Go on Foot or on Wheels
A great way to see the lay of the land, talk to locals, and get to know a destination best is by foot or bicycle. A stroll through a downtown tourist or business district will often yield great food truck and local dining finds. Local store owners and tour operators will be happy to help point you in the direction of their local favorites, too.
Go to Tourist Bureaus or Visitor Centers
No need to seek out their brick and mortar locations, either (who has the time?). Google the city name + “twitter” to quickly find appropriate Twitter handles for tourist bureaus and others who will answer all your local cuisine questions. I’ve had luck with tweets such as “Love visiting #Seattle. Now, where to eat for farm-to-table fare?” Within seconds, answers are at my fingertips.
Reasons to Eat Locally
Sampling new foods is one my favorite parts of traveling. I love everything from hole-in-the-wall cafes to world-renowned restaurants to sketchy street stands. (If you haven’t noticed we have an entire category dedicated to food and restaurants.) This week we’re going to focus exclusively on food and travel. More specifically, we’ll be looking at anything that would meet the definition of green food — be it local, natural, or vegetarian. To start out I’ve got 3 reasons you should eat locally:
Local Food Tastes Better
Local food is fresher than food trucked in from other countries. The worst fresh mango in Belize is going to be better than the best grocery store mango in the U.S. 99% of the time. Even if it’s a food that you may not normally eat (like grasshoppers) it’s probably going to be better tasting than the hamburger from the McDonald’s up the road.
Local Food is Cheaper
Because locals need to be able to afford the food, regional specialties will also be affordable for the tourist. Also, when the food doesn’t have to be transported from a far away place, it will cost less.
Local Food Improves Your Travel Experience
photo credit: Rainer Zenz
Have you ever eaten head cheese? We ordered it in a small town in the Czech Republic, thinking it was some sort of cheese and not coagulated meat parts. It made for an unforgettable travel experience.
Sampling local dishes will give you insight into the culture and history of the area. Do they eat a lot of seafood? Spices? Beef? Even if you don’t read the history section of the guidebook, you can learn a lot just by trying local foods.
Ways to Eat Local Food
If you live to be 80 years old and eat 3 meals per day, you’ll eat over 87,000 meals in your lifetime. That’s a lot of food. Most of us are vaguely aware of the impact of food on the environment, but it’s not something we think about every day. It should be. Here are five simple ways to reduce your food’s environmental impact.
Dine Out Sustainability
When you go out to eat, choose restaurants that serve sustainable food. Check to see if everything from meats and cheeses to wines and produce come from local sources. Ask locals about their experience with the restaurant, check reviews online, and scour the restaurant’s website for more information. Some questions to investigate:
- Is the seafood sustainability sourced?
- Does the restaurant have relationships with local farms and producers?
- Are there organic options?
Grow Your Own Food
There’s something incredibly satisfying about walking out your back door to pick basil and cherry tomatoes for your homemade bruschetta. You’ll feel so self-sufficient. Backyard gardening can save you money, too. Organic produce is expensive to buy, but easy enough to grow. And trust me, heirloom tomatoes taste much better when they’re from your garden and cost a fraction of what they would cost at the farmer’s market. Getting started isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. And you can make great Avocado Smoothies as well. To grow your garden:
- Get vegetable starters from a local plant sale. This will require a small up-front investment, but will pay off later.
- Follow the instructions for planting and caring for your plants.
- In just a few short weeks or months, you’ll have a garden full of herbs, fruits, and vegetables to munch on.
image credit: jlz
Shop for Local Foods
The shorter distance your food has to travel, the better it is for the environment. Plus, you can rest easy knowing that your meat came from a cow that was treated well at a local farm.
And your squash will taste much fresher if it didn’t travel 3,000 miles to get to you. Shop at the farmer’s market or co-op to find a selection of delicious, local foods.
Take your commitment a step further and go organic and local. Eating organic foods doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing deal. Some organic food can be quite pricey and it’s fine to buy the organic version of one type of produce and the conventionally grown version of another. Environmental Working Group’s free Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce can help you decide which fruits and veggies you should prioritize and buy organic.
Eat In Season
If you eat primarily food that’s in season, you’ll significantly reduce your environmental impact. I’m the first to admit that I crave avocados and bananas in January and I think it’s fine to indulge on occasion. But unless you live in Central or South America, that avocado has to make a trip of thousands of miles to get to your plate. Just be aware of your food’s impact on the environment and make educated choices.
Farm-to-table restaurants, sustainable seafood, food trucks, organic foods, and sustainable dining guides… it is a lot of consider. However, each of us can lessen our environmental impact if we’re all just a bit more mindful of our eating habits. You will support the local economy and be eating healthier and cleaner too.