Eat some crappy food while traveling

An ode to the cheap, subpar meals that keep us fed away from home.

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Grocery store pasta salad display
Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group (Getty Images)

There is a fast-food chain in Montreal that sells some of the worst pad thai I’ve ever had. I know this because, despite only visiting the city once or twice a year, there’s always a night when I’m too tired to care and end up shoving the too-sweet noodles into my mouth under the cover of a hotel duvet. Admittedly I should know better, particularly in a city where food of any kind is taken very, very seriously. But if I’m being honest, there’s a part of me that looks forward to this banal ritual. It has started to feel like an important part of my time in the city. I think anyone who loves traveling should not only accept but embrace the occasional crappy meal as part of the cultural experience.

Yeah, I said it. Celebrate terrible meals.

When my life as a digital nomad came to a screeching halt in March of 2020, I spent a lot of time fantasizing about the food I was missing from around the world. But to my surprise it wasn’t always the stuff served in historic institutions, or in the most meaningful way, that stood out. After flipping through my culinary highlight reel one too many times, I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about buying oversized bags of sauerkraut at Warsaw grocery stores and eating them as pungent meals for one. Or pursuing the grab-and-go salads at Amsterdam’s ubiquitous Albert Heijn markets. Even my dreams of London felt sponsored by impossible-to-chew Pret a Manger baguettes.

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It was more than just memories. Connecting to those flavors, as benign as some of them might be, felt like connecting to the person I left behind when I was forced to stop traveling. I might seem disproportionally upset that I’m still months away from a layover at Keflavik Airport, where I can grab a brown-bread sandwich—but if you’d tasted these overpriced, under-appreciated tributes to Icelandic normalcy, perhaps you’d understand. (Ditto for the country’s inexplicable addiction to hot dog stands.)

Yes, living like a local, the goal of many travelers, can (and should) mean seeking out the most rewarding food experiences. There are the wonderful hole-in-the-wall places, like where I spent two euros on a telephone-book-sized slice of warm spanakopita and perhaps peaked as a human in the process. Local living can also mean splashing out on hyper-specific dining experiences, like when I tucked into a seven-course VR-assisted meal in Tokyo that was equal parts culinary delight and dinner theater. And tourists should always aim for the holy grail: food handmade by locals with hearts big enough to share. Beer mixed with Matcha, pierogis bursting with fresh cherries, intricate pasta dishes made with freshly foraged herbs—I’ve made some of my best friends around the world simply by saying, “Sure, I’ll have a second helping.”

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But on the flipside, living like a true local—existing as though you pay rent in that city—doesn’t always mean putting your taste buds first. Sometimes it can mean treating food like fuel, in service of simply getting to your next adventure. And that’s where things get interesting. Launch your own investigation of what “utilitarian food” looks like when you’re away from home. How does a different country’s average eat compare to yours?

We all love walking through a grocery store to absorb cultural nuances (and load up on hard-to-find chocolates), don’t we? Cool—now take that quest and apply it to the city’s bodegas, gas stations, and fast food joints that are just a bit different than what you might be used to. Not only does this approach help your travel budget bottom line, but you might just find yourself quelling a curiosity you never knew you had. Am I upset that I’ve been to Chicago many times without experiencing the food theatrics of Alinea, its finest restaurant? Well, yeah, sure—that’s an oversight. But I’m equally upset that I have thus far neglected to order a Veggie Whopper at Hungry Jack’s, Australia’s answer to Burger King.

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A large part of travel comes down to a desire to see, do, and eat the stuff you can’t get at home So, go ahead, book the table and eat the meal of your dreams, particularly if your time in a location is limited. But if part of you longs to move past novelty and understand a city for all that it is, the solution can be as simple as getting cheap peanut sauce on your hands.