Road Eats Secrets: How to Find the Best Local Food When You're On the Road

How do you find the best places to eat out when you're on the road? Today's post is an effort to share our thoughts on finding the best road foods, based on our experiences as veteran road trippers. I'll then open it up to readers to share their secrets.

Laura and I both have a long history of monster road trips. We both took cross-country trips in our early 20s (thank you, Jack Kerouac); I've repeatedly driven from New Jersey to Dallas to visit my sister and her family there; we've driven from New Jersey to Prince Edward Island, Canada (a 14-hour monster of a drive that we did in one day on our return); and we've done thousand-mile-plus road trips in both Chile and New Zealand.

And in one of our favorite vacations ever, Laura and I flew to Albuquerque, NM, rented a really cheap P.O.S. car, and put 1,200 punishing miles on it during a week of sightseeing all over the Four Corners region. That trip, by the way, single-handedly caused Alamo Rent-a-Car to ditch the slogan "All the Miles are Free."

I can therefore say--with a fair degree of authority--that finding interesting and good quality food on the road is frustrating, takes up precious travel time, and is generally more difficult than it should be.

But it makes logical sense that it would be difficult, right? If you were a local restaurant, would you be out near the interstate in a location where not a single one of your customers lives? (For the business-challenged of you out there: Um, no. You wouldn't.) And if you were a small, family-owned local restaurant, would it be likely that you could afford the cost of an enormous billboard out on the interstate to lure in drivers from out of town?

No, no and no. Billboards and easy-on/off locations are costly. Thus, they are almost always the calling cards of national restaurant chains and other high-volume restaurants. And this yields our first Road Eats Secret:

Road Eats Secret #1: If it's on a highway billboard, don't bother.

I'll take this secret one step further. The entire national highway system in the USA pretty much misdirects every honest attempt at finding good local eats. Heck, you could even argue that superhighways devastated thousands of local towns across the country. After all, communities with the "good fortune" of being located too near the highway evolved into glorified exits adorned with gas stations, fast food joints and heavy truck traffic. And those communities too far from the highway often died away, stranded from the primary tourist routes.

Look, our national highway system is in many ways the envy of the world. It makes it easy to drive and ship goods cheaply and (relatively) efficiently all over the country. However, it's also one of the all-time worst examples of the law of unintended consequences. Why? Because I can guarantee beyond a shadow of a doubt that good old President Eisenhower, when he championed the building of a massive network of interstate highways, had absolutely no idea what the word "Generica" would eventually come to mean.

All of this brings us to our second Road Eats Secret:

Road Eats Secret #2: Get off the superhighway and onto secondary roads.

Face it: the center lane of a six lane highway just isn't that great a vantage point for seeing America. Instead, get off the superhighway and get onto the secondary roads, and you'll find real restaurants in real places where real people eat--and most importantly, you'll experience the amazingly diverse range of local foods that make traveling across the USA such an unforgettable experience.

Bake in an extra hour or two to arrive at your destination, and dedicate that time to a more leisurely drive on some interesting side roads. And rather than eating at one of 15,000 identical Ruby Tuesdays or Olive Gardens, enjoy a slower meal at a locally-owned place that advertises with a tiny little sign on the side of the road. That's how to really find the wide range of foods out there in the grand old US of A.

Of course, the other key advantage of getting off the superhighways and getting down into real towns and communities across the country is this: it puts you in closer contact with local people. Which brings us to our third and most obvious Road Eats Secret:

Road Eats Secret #3: Ask a local.

The fastest way to the heart of any town's best restaurants isn't through some impersonal billboard, it's through the help of local people who actually know what's good in their community. And it may sound like a tautology, but everybody lives someplace, and therefore every place has locals. All you have to do is ask them where to eat! It really is that simple.

However, there's an important wrinkle to asking locals, which brings us to our fourth and final Road Eats Secret:

Road Eats Secret #4: Ask locals in the right way.

What exactly do I mean by asking in the right way? I'll explain with a not-so-hypothetical example: Let's say you're visiting South Texas and you're looking for a great local tex-mex joint. The thing is, you're an obvious northerner, mainly because your accent, white sneakers, fanny pack and T-shirt saying "Remember the Alamo!" collectively conspire to give you away.

Further, let's say you ask the nice young man working the front desk of your motel to suggest a good tex-mex place. This nice young man can't help but see you're from the north, and as such, he doesn't want to send you to his favorite tex-mex joint, because he's worried the food there would burn a hole through your gastrointestinal tract. This would make him feel bad, and it would mean that he wasn't performing his customer service duties to the best of his ability.

Therefore, this nice, considerate local person will recommend a joint in town that's more suitable for tourists. Sure, the food's not as spicy, and it's not a place he would go to, but hey, it's what people from "away" are more likely to want.

Here's the problem. You don't want that place. You actually want to go to the tex-mex joint that's gonna burn a hole through your GI tract. And that's why you have to word your question a bit carefully when you ask for a local restaurant recommendation. Instead of asking, "Can you recommend a good [insert name of cuisine] restaurant?" you have to ask "What is your personal favorite tex-mex restaurant in town?"

It's simple, and a touch ironic. You don't actually want what he thinks you want, you literally want what he wants for himself.

Whenever we're traveling in the southern states, for example, we always ask this question: "What's your personal favorite BBQ place that's relatively close by?" Then we ask for directions. Easy. And if we ask two or three different locals and hear the same restaurant named more than once, we know we're going to be in for a world-class meal.

We have never missed with this strategy.

Readers, what tips did I miss? What secrets do you rely on to find great local food?

I'd like to thank reader Galnoir for spurring my thinking on this post.

Oh, and one other thing: If my math is right, this is CK's 500th post. I can hardly believe it. Let me thank you, readers, for taking the time to participate in what I'm doing here. Thanks for sharing in the conversation!

Related Posts:
Ten Rules for the Modern Restaurant-Goer
A Short Guide to Common Nicaraguan Foods
Cheap Eats in Honolulu: Nine Inexpensive Restaurants You Should Check Out in Waikiki
How Do You Define Truly Great Restaurant Service?

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Julia said...

You make an interesting suggestion about building in an hour or two to travel on the smaller local roads. I've done a lot of driving this summer, and limit my stops for gas and bathrooms. I usually just pack a "picnic" for the car... filling up on local foods from my starting point.

Katie Mack said...

I have also used Yelp, or a similar application, using the map function to find the restaurant furthest from the highway (within reason) with the highest number of stars. The further you get from the highway, the better the food!

Sarah said...

I second the Yelp idea. That and Trip Advisor have given me a lot of good places to eat.

The other thing is-- be willing to take a chance. Some places just look weird, but often turn out awesome. And remember, when it comes to traveling-- it's either a good time or a good story!

chacha1 said...

DH and I travel more by road than any other way. We love back roads for their scenery, slower pace, and lack of OTR trucks - and also for the "triple-Ds" one finds.

We drove almost entirely around the Big Island of Hawaii on our honeymoon and found not only the best plate of tuna sashimi we've ever had, but the best banana cream pie. At opposite ends of the island. :-)

Daniel said...

Great insights so far. Love Katie's idea of picking restaurants a good distance from the highway, and I couldn't agree more with Sarah's philosophy of taking chances. I've had some of my best meals at some surprisingly dodgy-looking places.

Keep the ideas coming!


Laura said...

GREAT tips! I travel four days a week, so these are phenomenal :0

Little Les said...

It there is good local food to be had, we can always find it. Here are our top methods:

1. We make extensive use of Jane & Michael Stern's books, "Goodfood" and "Roadfood", and their website.

2. We ask people we know who have lived in or traveled to the location. (we know a lot of people who have been to a lot of places!)

3. If there is a university in the area, there will always be good restaurants nearby.

4. We have actually followed locals around a few blocks to see where they go to eat.

Daniel said...

Little Les, those are excellent tips. Thank you for sharing!