If you live in a
neighborhood like mine, you probably have a Panera Bread or a St. Louis Bread
company near by. From time to time, I
like to stop in there for a bagel or for some coffee. Well, last week in San Diego I was awake much
earlier than usual (West Coast time zone, you know) and I thought I’d take
advantage of the local bread company restaurant’s free internet access to get
some work done. It was 5:30am when I got
there and sadly, it was one dog-gone hour too early. I was looking forward to the smell of fresh
baked bread and freshly ground coffee, etc.
Instead, I found an enormous bakery truck. A truck?
Yes, sadly, a truck. It was
delivering their daily supply of bread and bagels. My dream was shattered, “Doesn’t anyone
bake, cook, or prepare their own food anymore?” I wanted to scream. What a sham, they don’t actually bake
anything on site; they just heat things up a little bit. For all I know, the smell of bread and yeast
was probably a chemical one, artificially invoked to give the building a homey
A long time ago, I learned
that food chains like Friday’s, Applebee’s, Red Lobster, etc don’t cook
anything either. They all deep fry and
reheat frozen food that is pre-prepared and shipped to them. Often they use the same suppliers so some
appetizers and entrees at one restaurant are exactly identical to those in
another different restaurant. Different
names and presentations are used, I’m sure, but you get the idea. If you travel long enough, you’ll taste them
So, how can you tell the
difference between a local restaurant with a chef who prepares creative, fresh,
local dishes from a cheap “House of frozen yuk” when you’re out on
the road? Here are a couple of tricks
to keep up your sleeve:
- Consider the
cuisine. It is extremely difficult to
“fake” good Mexican food (for example). Mexican cuisine tends to favor fresh lettuce,
tomatoes, avocados, etc. You can’t
freeze/ship/thaw guacamole and expect to get away with it for any length of
time. Glance inside for a fresh homemade
tortilla machine; if they don’t make their own, they aren’t very serious about
the rest of their ingredients. Sushi is
another food genre that demands freshness.
Look for local seafood restaurants that also offer sushi. If they go to the trouble to get fresh fish
for a sushi bar, they’ll have it to prepare for their main dining area as well.
- Make sure they’ve been
around for awhile (at least 5 years).
Eateries that stand the test of time are definitely doing something right. Ask the locals, “where did you mom take
you when you were little?” If you
can find a place like that still dishing out meals a generation later, you’ve
- Read the menu in the
window, but know what to look for. Read
the appetizers carefully, even if you don’t usually order them. If they describe a Jalapeno Popper (for
example) as, “Delicious cream cheese stuffed jalapenos, deep fried to a
golden brown,” then they haven’t really told you anything other than,
“we deep fry the frozen poppers you could buy at your local warehouse
store.” You want to see something
like, “Fresh jalapenos, stuffed with a variety of small dairy cheeses and
locally caught crab meat, wrapped in smoked bacon and covered with Panko
breadcrumbs and lightly pan-fried to a crunchy golden color.” A description like that wreaks of freshness,
flavor, local ingredients, etc, and couldn’t possibly be cost-effectively
frozen and pre-distributed!
- Don’t ask the concierge
for restaurant advice… he’s probably paid or tipped to bend customers toward a
newer place that may or may not be so good.
Ask the produce guy at the market; he’ll know which restaurants buy the
most fresh fruits and vegetables. Ask
other locals too, beat cops, mailmen, and fire fighters all know where to eat.
EXTRA: If you have questions for Ken regarding
business travel, hotels, airplanes, etc, please send an email! Your questions
will be recorded and Ken will answer the best ones in his Ask the
Expert podcast show.