Food Matters: How to Sniff Out Good Food, Wherever You Go
HEAD WEST, EAT DOWNVALLEY
Carbondale’s 5Point Film Festival celebrates its 12th season on April 25-28, offering an excellent opportunity to voyage past the roundabout. Which means food-scouting galore. Where to find grub:
Find these tiny kitchens on wheels parked around the Carbondale Recreation and Community Center: The Little Pink Food Truck out of Grand Junction on Thursday; Slow Groovin’ BBQ from Marble and Main Street’s own Tonic Juicery all weekend.
Many area businesses will host parties post-screenings, including Batch at Roaring Fork Beer Company (Thursday) and Carbondale Beer Works (Friday at 9:30 p.m.). The Way Home holds an official 5Point costume blowout—“Big Air. Big Hair”—on Saturday from 10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., sponsored by Outdoor Research and featuring DJ beats, a late-night bar menu, and drinks by Tin Cup and Buckel Family Wine. ($10; free for passholders)
THE HOMESTEAD BAR & GRILL
5Point PR maven Sarah-Jane Johnson also suggests scoping this recently relaunched restaurant, located at River Valley Ranch Golf and now open year-round now instead of seasonally.
“It’s the best patio view of Sopris in Carbondale,” Johnson says. “I hear the brunch bloody mary bar is good—all local, Colorado craft spirits.”
I’m down to the last three bites of the most scrumptious rice ball I’ve ever eaten when I notice something funny: Many strands of the brown rice seem … stretched. As I peer closer into the onigiri — the specialty of a quaint breakfast café in Tokyo’s Asakusa district — I also see that the snack is dotted with dozens of minuscule black specks.
Suddenly I realize what that mysterious briny, zesty flavor and subtle crunch is: dozens of teeny-tiny tadpole-like fish mixed in with the rice.
Instantly I summon a terrifying food memory that has haunted me since grade school: Finding live moth larvae squirming inside a half-eaten vanilla sugar wafer during school lunch. (Thanks, Mom!) That single experience may be why I generally pass on caviar and anything resembling small bugs today.
Yet here in Japan, wonked out on jet lag and wide-eyed from waking up in a totally foreign land, I pause. And smile. The chewy, pseudo-lemony rice, contrasted with savory miso-mushroom soup and refreshingly cold matcha tea (that morning’s “breakfast set” special), is so unusual and alluring that I can’t help but crush the rest of it.
This is how I overcome a lifelong food aversion — and it’s all thanks to Yelp.
Usually I consume online reviews with many grains of salt. However, comments for Misojyu, located a few blocks from the ancient Sensō-ji Buddhist temple, are unanimously positive. Plus, I learn that the owners speak English as well as Japanese, so ordering is easy. Taking a chance ends up paying off as one of the best meals I eat during a three-night whirlwind in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Since acquiring a side gig at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in February 2018, I’ve covered thousands of miles, and I’ve eaten exceptionally well on each stop. Here’s how I seek out great food, wherever the path leads me.
JOIN A TOUR
The fastest way to experience loads of local culture in just a few hours, I’ve found, is to hop on a tour. My favorites have been through Airbnb, which in January 2017 expanded to offering “Experiences” led by locals in addition to home stays. (I wrote about Australia adventures last year in my column “Tour De Course,” published June 7, 2018.) Do this on the first or second night in a city to gather intel from the guide (and fellow travelers), and have vetted venues to explore for the remainder of your trip.
In Tokyo I meet eight other people from the U.S., Canada, South Africa and South Korea at 6 p.m. on a bustling street corner for “Shinjuku Life After 5 — Foods & Drinks.” This turns out to be a prime example of how an event’s title only tells a smidgen of the story; Kioka’s description offers a deeper glimpse into what will happen for the next three hours.
“I will take you to the best izakaya (Japanese restaurants and bars) or standing bar or chicken skewer bar in Shinjuku … locals patronize these places,” he writes. “Then we will walk you through the red-light district, called Kabukichō in Japanese, one of the biggest areas here, and witness the actual nightlife of Japan.” The tour ends in Shinjuku’s famed bar district, home to “over 200 bars, an area famous for its time-period subcultures.”
For $32 and the cost of a few extra drinks (cherry blossom cocktails! Coedo craft beer!), we sampled marinated tuna (maguro zuke) with fresh wasabi; grilled chicken meatballs (tsukune) with egg-yolk infused soy sauce; and scallops (hotate). My least favorite, shimmered giblets (motsu nikomi), was a palate opener that I definitely would not have ordered on my own. Later, at the Ryoma “standing bar” in Kabukichō, we sampled an array of skewered, tempura-fried treats, including wagyu beef, lotus root (renkon), cheese (chi-zu), and quail egg (uzura tamago), washed down with shikuwasa sour, a beverage infused with a Japanese lime that boasts intense citrus flavor.
It’s possible I wouldn’t have found Tokyo’s landmark alley, Omoide Yokocho, or known how to navigate among those 200 bars in the Golden Gai without an expert shepherd. Kioka even sent us a list of our many stops with links, including favorite ramen joints, parks for peak cherry blossom viewing, and useful Japanese phrases. Verdict: It was delicious (oishi katta desu).
ASK A LOCAL
Whether an Uber driver, lodging host, hostel operator, or random guy on public transit, the people who live in a place know all. While chatting up a bouncer at a breezy dive bar in Ocean Beach, my travel pal and I learned that the owners of OB Noodle House (one of the most popular eateries in the ’hood, as evidenced by online reviews yet best solidified with an emphatic in-person recommendation) recently launched Skrewball peanut butter whiskey. Yep, that’s right, and while the booze is served in a shot glass rimmed with salt and sugar, an OB Noodle House cocktail — such as Peanut Butter & Jealous, with raspberry liqueur — offers the ultimate expression. The more you know!
USE YOUR EYES
Look for locals, and read the room. We almost skipped House of Xian Dumpling in San Francisco’s Chinatown in favor of the more, ahem, elegant eatery next door. Almost. Once we cracked open the door and found the frills-free space crowded with Asian diners, however, our enthusiasm got a boost. Tender pork-scallion potstickers sealed the deal.
The best souvenirs, in my humble opinion, are experiential. Find the edible variety, then, at the usual suspects: supermarkets, farmers’ markets, corner bodegas, and specialty shops. In Mexico, that might mean scouting indigenous corn husks for tamales. In San Francisco, my friend and I followed the scent of sourdough. On a Sunday last spring in Sydney, I chanced upon the Carriageworks, where I sampled fresh vegetables, bone broth, baked goods, artisanal cheese and regional wine in the cavernous former factory-turned arts center. Vendors will be able to offer suggestions on how to use obscure ingredients, too.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to bring back any pre-packaged onigiri — Japan’s OG fast food — which crowd shelves at every 7-Eleven. But I did score a 5-pound bag of short grain brown rice that has pushed my homecooked Asian food to the next level.
CROWDSOURCE — ’CAUSE WHY NOT?
Occasionally I’ll throw out a query on social media, seeking fresh ideas. One colleague suggests hanging out at hostels for the best recommendations — for anything, food included. Flock to the most coveted milk-crate seats set out beside food carts. Follow food bloggers.
“Food off the beaten path is pretty much the purpose of my entire journey coming up,” texts a veteran globetrotter of 40-plus years.
What’s your process? I ask.
“Turn left,” he replies. “When road ends, turn next.”
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