Chapter: Sobremesa in Southeast Asia | Choosing a Great Restaurant or Street Food Stall

We're in Southeast Asia again, a land that beckons us time and time again with its delicately floral scents of frangipani, wafts of fish sauce and vinegar rising from searing worn woks, or sweet condensed milk cans set upon roadside beverage stands.

Since leaving Denver three months ago, we've also hit northern areas of Asia including: South Korea and Japan. Heading south, we spent a month in various regions of Thailand, three (of the 17,000+) islands of Indonesia, Bali, Lombok, and Java, and now recalibrating for a few weeks in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Any time you are navigating a new city, especially traipsing through a hot, humid, metropolitan area such as the streets of Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, it is easy to get fatigued, anxious, dehydrated, and downright h-angry; falling victim to eating at recognizable chains, ducking into a 7-11 or mall food court, or worst of all - and my biggest pet peeve - eating somewhere which you will later regret. You may not always have a vetted local guide nearby, or Google maps pin drop to guide you in the right direction, so I've complied these surefire hints for finding gastronomical success at street food vendors or family-run restaurants; some will be great, some will be just fine, but you can guarantee that you're supporting the local supply chain, and spreading tourist dollars in effective ways. 

1) The English Menu Misnomer

I've read and heard from many that you should never eat at a restaurant with an English menu because it will surly be inauthentic and a tourist trap nonetheless. I have found otherwise; while it is a telltale turn-off to see four-language menus such as one would find on Las Ramblas of Barcelona, when in Asia, generally the universal tourist language - after the country's native written menus - is English. I've had more than a handful of terrible experiences with fully Korean, Japanese and Indonesian menus (where there where no pictures and also no means of communicating to the waitstaff). Pointing, asking in our decoded phrasebook word lists was to no avail, as we were then served (large portion) dishes containing ingredients we would have avoided otherwise, such as tripe, heaps of mayonnaise, raw meat, or blood, and paid more than budgeted for. I like to think of it as the "omakase rule" -- I'd only rightly choose the chef's choice for a special occasion meal at a reputable renowned establishment, otherwise I want to be in control of price points, chosen product, etc.

In short, seeing an English menu eases ordering for both parties (since it should be side by side to their language), clears the fog, and adds piece of mind, as well as clarity to the final bill. One exception,  if the English menu they hand you is toast, hamburgers, and hot dogs, I would turn around immediately.

Look for: Photos and comprehensible menu descriptions, and subsequently fresh dishes of those photos on your neighbors' tables.

2) The Restaurant Could Pass for a Home, or Likely Is

The adage of 'home-cooking is the best kind' is very often the case in Southeast Asia and beyond as families make their living off of generations of recipes. Or perhaps you've stumbled upon a young entrepreneur who has recently launched their own restaurant concept; in both situations you should get the sensation that you've been invited into someone's home and that you're being shown their craft, rather than you're being serviced for turnover or payout -- even if you're sitting on a plastic chair on the curb! Sure, there are restaurants that offer superb Western style service, tablecloths, two forks, and fancy cocktails that suit many higher budget travelers, however my personal experience has found that unless you're splurging for a one-of-a-kind experience (like Etxebarri, or Alinea), you really can't go wrong with a family-run restaurant. The gap between the latter, i.e. $ and mid-range $$$ isn't so overwhelming that you shouldn't side with the little guy, while also saving your wallet from unnecessary damage.

Look for: Signs of a family business, such as babies and toddlers playing in the corner of the restaurant, or a woman reading a paper who signals to a daughter (waitress) upon your arrival, or even the very clear sign of stairs leading to their residence

3) You Can See the Kitchen and Its Processes

The kitchen is the nucleus of a restaurant, and more often than not SEA locations offer this in plain sight from the street: giant caldrons of steaming broth, dim sum steamers, freshly cut noodles, meat and vegetables hang in glass and metal-trimmed carts showcasing the chef's market finds or the restaurant's specialty. More points if you can see some portion of the meal preparation, that is to say, fresh dumplings being hand-folded, non-packaged ramen noodles, or maybe the clue rests in the constant influx of wet-market produce that apprentices and runners bring in at the chef's command (e.g. "we're out of purple basil -- go grab more!").

Clearly another element of this is to check for hygienic surfaces and utensils. The pride that one takes in ensuring that their condiment packs are clean and ready for use is a hint of attention to detail and the quality of the meal to come. In Thailand for example: sugar, chili-vinegar, chili pepper flakes, fish sauce, or in Korea: sesame oil, rice vinegars, fermented soybean and chili pastes, are not sticky to the touch, speckled with imperfections, or crawling with ants/bugs. If the above is true - i.e. you are eating in a home establishment -- you can bet this will be high on their list.

4) Ratio: Local to Tourists

This is a tough debate as I firmly believe it's quite subjective. Yes, a general rule of thumb is find the places where the locals eat, such as dining at a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles full of Thai people in Thai-town. Although nowadays this may be skewed by a No Reservations episode (a la Lunch Lady in Saigon), or a Michelin star. To me, this also greatly depends on population vs. tourist numbers: for example, is it a popular gastronomic destination? Has a celebrity chef or reporter or an American President eaten here? Would they?

Look for: fresh ingredients, a line (? - see questions above about population/city size and consider eating times of local schedule), Michelin or Routard guide stickers on exterior, or paper-clippings that show how proud the chef is that their meal/shop has been featured.

Locals dining a quick soba noodle dish at Tsukiji Market, Tokyo. 

5) Accurate Pricing (prices as of September 2015)

It's true that you can eat on various monetary budgets in Asia -- whether it be USD $1.25 dehydrated ramen pork noodle bowls or $80-$120 per person Michelin starred restaurants in financial centers. The important factor is when to realize that there are justified price adjustments, that the elevated dish price point is based on quality of ingredients and preparation, as opposed to simple rip-offs, tourists traps, or "scene" upgrades. We've also collectively been taught as a society that food is way cheaper then it should be; be it because of sacrifices put forth by agriculturists, restaurant owners, or the supply chain itself. A good starting point is to know the average price of meals and particular go-to dishes of the country you're visiting (e.g. gado-gado, the unofficial Indonesian dish of rice cubes, vegetables, and peanut sauce sold almost everywhere should not cost more than USD $3.00); and yes, sometimes that takes a quick survey of the law of the land, wandering through street food stall areas or simple restaurants. Another example, in Chiang Mai, Thailand we learned during our first night on the town that a night market soup option went for 40 Thai baht, or USD $1.12, and 50-55 baht for prawn or seafood options. When we settled on an option another evening priced at 100 baht - it first made us wonder why the difference?, and if we'd fallen into a unnecessary up-charge. Turns out the increase was due to some of the above mentioned factors -- handmade noodles and superior quality and sized prawns. We just needed to do a little investigation to what was coming out of the kitchen to make the connection as to why we would want or should pay more. It turned out to be a great decision.

6) The Tea Game

For me, knowing a fantastic local find also falls on spotting adequate local customs. In Japan we knew that more authentic restaurants that followed traditional practices would bring us a fresh ::hot:: towel to clean our hands, and quickly bring or give access to free tea. This free tea trend is also widely available in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, and so forth with varying degrees of hygiene and tea strength to the point at times that it's so universal it's not listed on the standard menu. Mostly, guests simple get up and walk themselves to the cooler (for cold tea) or thermos to pour their own, or use a plastic/metal/ceramic mug and jug strategically left on the table. Environmentally speaking, this is something I started to seek out because it usually also meant that no plastic water bottles or straws were given to us. Some restaurants may incur a minimal fee for this access to tea; but think of it more like 'house wine' options at Italian restaurants, it is always cheaper.

Look for: a sports-sized thermos in the corner with buffet-style stacked cups to the side, or learn how to say "tea" in the language where you're visiting; in Vietnam for example it is 'tra' pronounced 'cha,' on a hot summer's day 'tra da' or iced tea will be great! In Hoi An, central Vietnam we particularly loved 'tra sam dua da' at Bale Well, a unique iced green tea with pandan leaves, that was priced around 4,000 dong each glass, or USD $0.18.

7) Dirty Floors 

Incredibly important, even contradictory to what I said above about hygiene and cleanliness -- but hear me out. Washed silverware; check, visible (clean) rag for cleaning the countertops; check, dirty floor; check. Wait, wait, what? Yes, a dirty floor! One of which is made of earth perhaps, or is spotted with green onion ends (i.e. recently cut fresh ingredients), or wrinkled paper napkins to show the recent wave of eaters.

Look for: the napkins! as well as a broom in the corner -- a good shop will intermittently sweep up these piles to make new guests feel comfortable.

8) You Found the Venue, You Were Not Led There

In the United States or Europe it may be customary to listen to taxi drivers when you want to find an economical and local food option. I personally disagree and haven't found success with this tactic in Southeast Asia, or my last travels through Mexico. I'm not saying that all taxi drivers are corrupt and thus will lead you to tourist traps, but I have learned overall that they are so accustomed to this question - if you do have a language in common - that they ultimately take you to a place that they think you will like: 1) they don't want to upset you, e.g. offer you a meal that is too spicy, too grimy, too local and 2) they often consider that your budget is different than theirs, and thus you wouldn't enjoy the same delicious, economical meal that they would, such as the $1 soup. In certain severe cases they work with their cousins' or friends' restaurants, and get a commission if they drop you - and you eat - at the location they determine you'll enjoy.

The opinions of tuk-tuk drivers are especially out. Avoid!

Look for: great spots you discover using the tips above and below -- as well as avoiding copycats; places in Vietnam for instance will straight-up copy the name of a popular, well rated restaurant, some 3-4 doors down, serving the exact same menu, confusing tourists while often charging more for an inferior product.

9) Fusion is Out

Thai iced tea in Bali? Pisco Sour in Hong Kong? Tried and true emigration and immigration such as Chinese food in Singapore or Malaysia aside, in general fusion restaurant trends are a complete wash and I highly recommend sticking to the food of the region or neighborhood.

To be noted, the hipster movement is alive and well -- globally -- so you may find an outstanding bacon & waffle combination in Indonesia (like we did at Locavore To Go), but red flags are 'Thai, Malay and Hamburgers" or something like "Milkshakes and Fried Rice."

Look for: menus with a single theme -- generally, great restaurants specialize in 1-2 things, a la oyster omelette in Taiwan, or green tea in Kyoto.

10) The Fallacy of TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Other Review Sites

The digital age is full of people giving their opinions -- look at me here giving mine! However, review sites should be taken with a grain of salt. Everyone has subjective taste, and their experiences are uniquely their own, thus leading to how, why, and what they review or say. Researching a reviewer, on top of researching a listing, is a lot of work, yet it can give you greater insight into trusting someone's theories. Did they only leave one review? Was their review of X in August predated to a review of T.G.I.Friday's in September? If the latter is a place you'd never dine, then logically ignore their comment of restaurant X.

Ultimately, you'll be the best judge of what you like, what environment you find "casual," or what pricing you find "$$" or "$$$." Run through the above, and you'll never put the blame on a person, website, or guidebook ever again. Plus you'll be able to chalk-up the bad ones as learning experiences, making the great ones that much more special.

Look for: Consistent reviews -- yes, Andrew Zimmern gave it a gold star, but so did a Japanese newspaper, a Korean travel mag, and your Facebook friend from college. If it's new on the map -- for instance in Asia we found that many countries were slow to adapt to Google reviews, but TripAdvisor was well documented -- than you may need to check multiple resources. Moreover, we most frequented places that "felt good," see below for more on that.

11) Trust

Good old conviction. It's not the gut kind - while that's certainly important too, it's the humanity type that I'm talking about -- the one which sends your brain and heart a grand feeling about the people that you're soon to be trusting with your wallet and gastrointestinal system.

For instance, Thai people in particular are incredibly interactive and friendly. That's their sales tactic, if you will -- lure the tourist/guest in with outstanding customer attention. Most people fall immediately for this, after all a smile goes straight to our soft spots, but keep in mind that the really good places will also smell good, and may be sooo busy that they won't have time to romanticize your experience, although I'm sure they will give you a smile or two regardless. But what I mean is, the elderly Japanese man might not welcome you with open arms, but if you trust his craftsmanship, if you get a sixth-sense that he's dedicated his life to _______, you can likely guarantee that you'll enjoy his meal.

12) Innovation Trumps the Above

There is an emerging class of middle-income citizens, dreamers, and entrepreneurs that I've seen more constant in Southeast Asia than ever before. It's predominantly a young generation -- not expat run, as previous decades, nor the indigenous shopkeepers of old, or even the middle-aged franchise boomers -- but endemic young people who have been abroad, or maybe have not, and are now establishing in their cities high caliber restaurants, coffee shops, food stalls, or cocktail bars that could easily fit-in to the world's highest rated Zagat guides, cozying-up to Brooklyn storefronts, or Parisian cafe patios. You'll know you've spotted one by the minimalist decor, unique lighting, signage, and most likely the entrepreneur themselves at the helm of the La Marzocco espresso machine, cashier, or wok. They are changing the landscape, and proving the Generational Y theory of 'you can do/become whatever you want.'

Look for: "cool" logos that have a 21st century design-type, refurbished spaces highlighting original floor tiles, reclaimed wood, or concrete bar slabs.

Ponganes Espresso in Chiang Mai, Thailand is a new coffee shop & roaster that fits the 'innovative' category; straying from old ways and introducing residents and tourists to third wave coffee. 

Ristr8to a popular Chiang Mai roaster & coffee company has recently opened its 3rd location in the city; just driving by on motorbike you get that sense that something good lies inside. 

Hope you enjoyed this chapter on how to find and eat great food at small vendors and local restaurants in Southeast Asia! The absolute must-remember piece of advice is; do what speaks to you.


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