How to eat like a local wherever you go.
At some point during a long road trip, we’ve all hit that wall: If we see one more french fry or burger we’re going to lose it. And I love a good burger combo under normal circumstances. For weeks on end, though, it gets a bit much—especially when traveling as a family and attempting to keep everyone happy and healthy.
Early in my pre-internet road-tripping days, I toted along a dog-eared copy of Jane and Michael Stern’s epic road-food tome Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A., which appealed to both my professional background in anthropology/history and my love for local foodways. My husband and I have visited all 50 states and enjoy nothing more than figuring out where to get Basque food in western Nevada, Czech kolaches in central Texas, the best clam rolls in coastal Massachusetts and heaping wurst and kraut platters alongside beer by the stein in southern Ohio. As the years have gone by, we’ve added two (now teenaged) sons to family expeditions, making things both more fun and inevitably extra-complicated with four opinions and two generations involved.
Fortunately, finding fantastic local fare is easier than ever using nothing more than a smartphone, a gregarious nature and a bit of advance research. Here’s how we keep our family eating even better than we do at home while we’re on the road.
It seems like every time we gear up for another road trip, someone’s encouraging me to try out this or that phone app geared toward travel, food trucks, restaurants or outdoor activities. Erynn Montgomery, a Utah-based professional travel agent, mother of four girls ages of 4-13, and the adventurous mind behind the popular travelling-with-kids website tropicofcandycorn.com has mixed feelings about using apps to find restaurants. “There’s so much more information about travel, but, with that, the information is also less reliable,” she says. Montgomery notes that several popular apps are sponsored—meaning clients pay to have their restaurants, lodging and activities appear higher in search results. In actuality, “Some of the restaurants are really awful,” she warns.
Indeed, relying on apps can be a mixed bag, but in general they’re a helpful starting point. Bookmarking features on Yelp, Google and TVFoodMaps (showing where dozens of food and travel shows have filmed episodes) can help locate eats on-the-go. Trip Advisor is a popular sponsored-site option, especially for its reviewer forums. My globe-trotting friend Drew Burchenal says that app, “can be helpful in challenging foreign locales. Sometimes you’ve had enough curry and just want a sandwich.” Although it can have a high-end emphasis, Zagat is great for finding fine dining and local culinary icons. I agree with my friend in Massachusetts, Giles Parker, who especially recommends TVFoodMaps for families, as it gives a wide variety of options from food trucks to fine dining. My kids inevitably get a huge kick out of going somewhere they’ve seen on an episode of Bizarre Food or Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover. I’ve also found the road trip feature pretty helpful, as it provides a route with a 10- or 25-mile corridor of dining options to encourage getting off the interstate and exploring.
The lodging website airbnb.com has hundreds of useful city guides contributed by local bloggers such as “dog-friendly hangouts in San Francisco,” “iconic restaurants in Detroit” or “vegan eats in Sydney, Australia.” Blogger-and reader-driven websites like seriouseats.com and chowhound.com have great geographic-oriented search engines and knowledgeable online forums about regional food favorites. Or, drop the name of the city or state you’re visiting into the search bar at foodie magazine websites like Bon Appetit and Food & Wine. For Utah eats, check right here at Devour. My favorite for digging deep into the culinary history of regions all over the world is Saveur magazine, which has a very solid search engine for regional and city names linked to meticulously researched and fascinating food articles. City and state departments of tourism usually have dining recommendations readily available, as well.
Getting the Local Scoop
The bane of existence for my introvert friends (and my husband, who would rather bathe in acid than ask for directions), talking to a local truly is the best way to find out where great eats can be found. Erynn Montgomery says the obvious people to ask are the ones whose job it is to help visitors. “The front desk at the hotel or concierge are the first step,” she says. Or, when roughing it, a campground host or at the ranger station can offer suggestions, too. If staying in an Airbnb or VRBO rental, I ask the owners where they suggest going and inevitably receive a thorough list with lots of great options at every price point. Montgomery says sometimes it’s easiest to find restaurants, especially internationally, by explaining what you like to eat rather than rattling off restrictions. Ask leading questions like, “We’d like to find a great fish taco place,” in California or “What’s your favorite spot in the neighborhood for pizza?” in Rome.
Since we’re often camping in our pop-up trailer on long road trips, my favorite spots to recharge and do some road-eats research are public libraries. On a three-week camping road trip through western Canada last summer, my boys needed to check in with summer schoolwork at least once a week, and public libraries saved our bacon, with plenty of power outlets for laptops, sometimes free Wi-Fi, a quiet environment to study and clean restrooms to tidy up. And librarians are the hands-down masters of information technology. Although I overheard one appalled librarian tell another, “Those poor American children have to do homework all summer,” they were beyond helpful everywhere we stopped. Incredibly knowledgeable about their own region’s cultural food history, librarians over the years have helped us find everything from classic steakhouses to coastal seafood shacks and a bounty of farmers markets (and it’s always nice to leave a donation in the building fund drop box for the privilege of relying on other people’s taxes). Also remember that people in small towns are used to traveling far distances for shopping and stocking up; locals might be able to suggest great food in their town and the next one 70 miles down the road.
Keep It Fresh
Sometimes the biggest challenge on the road is the temptation to eat local comfort favorites all day, which can tend to be as heavy as they are delicious—country fried steak, chile rellenos, bratwurst, fried chicken and craft beers, for example. At county fairs and ballparks, everything barbequed or deep-fried on a stick. Yes, more of that, please. Our own family aims for a “two out of three” philosophy for eating on the road: We try to eat local nosh for two meals of the day and something healthy from the cooler for one meal. When the “hangry” hits, we snack.
Erynn Montgomery’s tip? Pack healthy and protein-packed snacks that are hard to find at gas station stops: non-messy fruit and veggies (carrot sticks, grapes, clementines), good cheese and crackers, protein powders, nut butters and fruit-nut or protein bars. “If you’re used to eating healthy at home, it’s easy to sell kids on the idea that the occasional junk food splurge is a treat, not an expectation,” she says. To keep the anticipation going, Montgomery has each of her kids write their initials in sidewalk chalk on one of the vehicle tires like four points on the compass. When they stop for gas on a long road trip, the child with initials closest to the pavement gets $5 to buy treats to share with all four siblings. They call it their family “Wheel of Fortune.”
Both Montgomery and I agree that hitting up farmers markets is one of the best ways to stock up on the freshest local fixins. “My kids will try foods they’d never pick out at home when they see them at a market,” Montgomery says. I’m also a fan of visiting local wineries and breweries to supplement our booze stash along the way. We pack an extra box of gallon-sized freezer bags to store roadside-market game jerky, local cheese and fruit stand cherries. There’s nothing worse than digging in the cooler looking for sliced turkey for a sandwich and coming up with a waterlogged indeterminate mess in a grocery deli bag. And instead of smash-sensitive pre-sliced bread, use tortillas, pita pockets or fresh crusty baguettes for building sandwiches.
Here’s to eating local on the road this summer and beyond!