I love to sample new foods and I love to try things that are very local. Hojaldres, for instance, are Panama’s equivalent to fried dough and when served with breakfast make you feel like you are getting eggs at the fair.
There is a tendency for travelers to eat at places that look clean and have a nice ambiance. Occasionally those places are fun to visit because they offer high-end foods that appeal to the tourist’s tongue. But they are usually expensive and, in all honesty, don’t always offer the best food.
Little local joints typically don’t look the cleanest from the outside and in some cases look down right terrifying. I am fearless when it comes to trying new places to eat, but occasionally I have paid a very dear price for my bravery.
Once I stopped at a little restaurant in Mexican Rivera Maya, just south of Cancun. It consisted of two plastic tables sitting outside a tiny cement home. Two people were sitting there, but they had the appearance of being family. I figured it would be a great way to meet people and try something local at the same time so I took a seat at the red plastic table and ordered a bowl of seafood soup.
The soup looked so interesting. It had fish and squid and shrimp and clams along with yucca and carrots and potatoes and right in the middle of the bowl was an oyster still in the shell. Often soups in Central America have bits of things in them that require a little work to get at. An ear of corn that needs to be picked up and nibbled or a piece of pork that is still on the bone. So I happily attacked the large sea shell and ingested its contents.
To this day I do not know if it was the oyster inside the shell or the fact that a possibly unwashed shell was in my soup that had me running to the bathroom for the next 2 weeks. Either way, the results were less than desirable.
So how do you find good local food in a manner that you can be pretty sure won’t give you similar results?
Look for the crowd.
The locals don’t want to get sick any more than you do.
Places that don’t have a big turn over of customers have food lying around in less than ideal conditions and that makes for less than ideal conditions in your stomach. Local people know where to find the best deal with the best food for sure. But they also know where to find food that won’t make them sick.
Central America is a wonderfully free place with less regulations and rules to stop people from opening their own little businesses. And that is great because it allows for a small family to open up a eatery with a minimum of fuss. That does however mean that the kitchen may be a little less than sanitary or the food may be less than fresh.
So follow the locals. Go where you see the crowds. You can even stop at someone’s table and ask what they recommend on the menu. They will be excited you asked and feel honored to give their opinion.
When I lived in Mexico we used to go to a little seafood place in La Colonia (the poor part of a famous and dear-to-my-heart fishing village). It was packed most of the time. Again, there were red plastic tables. But this time there were people coming and going and talking and laughing and slurping soup everywhere.
The first time we sat down I leaned over and asked a handsome Mexican man wearing a nice button up shirt what was the best thing on the menu. He recommended the seafood soup. I’d already had some experience with sea food soup as I mentioned earlier.
But I was unafraid (well mostly unafraid) so I ordered a bowl. Again, I found a bowl with shrimp and fish and squid and clams and I think this one had octopus too. This time it was served over a huge mound of rice and topped with fresh slices of avocado and lime. I added a little hot sauce (it kills bacteria. I bet you thought the Mexicans just like their food hot) and dug in.
That little restaurant became my favorite La Colonia joint for the next year and a half and I got to know the owner, his brother, and many of the people who lived in the town just by stopping by to slurp down a bowl of soup.