How to Find the Most Authentic Restaurants to Show How Cultured You Are
By Angelica Lai
Traditional food is all the rage now. To help you achieve peak foodie wisdom, I traveled extensively in search of what makes a restaurant authentic. I dined in charming hole-in-the-walls, stood in delightfully long lines of people waiting for ube ice cream, and practiced my Google-fu while figuring out how to pronounce exotic menu items—all to guide you on your own cultural journey.
After reading this, you too will know how to discover a true chicken yassa or bánh mì sandwich. (Side note: Isn’t it cool how some countries openly embraced French culinary traditions? A baguette-inspired dish in Vietnam! Maybe colonization wasn’t so bad after all.)
Here are the tell-tale signs that you’re at an authentic restaurant. Because if it isn’t authentic, is it even real food?
Look at the restaurant’s clientele. How many Hispanic families do you see at the taqueria? Are there crowds of Asians in line at the tteokbokki stand? A real authentic restaurant will have people of that background eating there. (Be sure to ask them “where they’re from” just to be sure.) And if you feel like you kind of stand out, you’re about to embark on a gripping food adventure.
Inhale deeply. Does that smell wafting past your nose remind you of someone else’s childhood? Perhaps you remember the weird kids in your elementary school cafeteria and the strong fishy odor coming from their lunches. Sure, you gave them dirty looks and wondered why they wouldn’t just eat normal food. But that was then, and this is now. And now you have so much more appreciation for their ethnic fare—plus you’re bringing them plenty of business!
Peek into the kitchen. Who is doing the cooking? The most genuine-tasting meals are made by people from that country. Look for an Italian family rolling and cutting the pasta by hand or for an abuela (the older, the better) slapping out tortillas. Bonus if the food is made using traditional methods, like over an open fire or primitive cookstove. There’s something quite quaint about seeing people labor over glowing flames and surrounded by coal smoke or biomass fumes.
Demand to have the more authentic menu. Sometimes restaurants will give you an Anglicized menu that is tailored to Western tastes. Tell them you feel insulted and deserve to be treated the same as everyone else. Who are they to tell you what you should or shouldn’t eat?
The menu you want will have no pronunciations or translations included. Try to order something you don’t know how to say, like tzatziki, and say it loudly and proudly. If you can’t understand any of the words, for instance ropa vieja or 夫妻肺片, simply choose something at random. Trust me, your gastronomic courage will be rewarded. Tasting the suspicious-looking chicken feet at a dim sum place was one of the bravest and most thrilling things I had ever done. As I chewed on the skin and cartilage, parts normal people throw away, I was instantly transported to a poor Chinese farming village. I could practically see the straw hats dotting the rice fields.
Plus, using an authentic menu will make you feel more like an insider, and it’s such a good way to pick up a new language. (Did you know that “chai tea” and “naan bread” are redundant? I make a point now to tell Starbucks baristas, “I’d like a chai not a chai tea, please.”) And if you’re really curious, be sure to ask the server to explain all the items in the menu. What are they there for if not to accommodate you?
Research whether the restaurant uses authentic ingredients. The rice for the waakye should be grown and parboiled in Ghana, and a true Japanese restaurant will import pure artisan soy sauce fermented in 100-year-old barrels. (Just make sure the restaurant doesn’t overcharge you. Authentic food should be cheap. Why spend $15 on a halo-halo when I could get a cup for 60 PHP, or a little over $1, in Manila?)
You’ll learn so much about various ingredients on your culinary journey. For instance, my mind was blown when I learned quinoa was Peruvian and Bolivian and not meditated into existence by a yogi chef on the west side of L.A.!
Take time to find the true roots of your food. Once, during my own foodie pilgrimage, I wanted to taste the Mexican churro in its truest form, so naturally I visited a Chinese bakery. My thinking was, if Mexican churros were influenced by the Spanish, who heard about it from Portuguese merchants, who tasted fried strips in China, but the art of deep frying was truly developed in Japan, but primitive forms of fried dough were consumed in China after the invention of the pottery, then wasn’t the Mexican churro quintessentially . . . Chinese?
But at the Chinese bakery, the bakery assistant did not understand me when I asked for a churro. So, I said the word once more, this time louder, slower, and really rolling the rr’s.
She gave me a shrug and was about to wave the next customer over when I hastily Googled and pulled up a picture of a churro covered in cinnamon sugar.
“Youtiao!” she yelled to the kitchen. A minute later, a worker stepped out with trays of pastries on his head and limbs. I looked into his tired eyes as he handed me a hot and oily bag. I almost felt bad for him when the manager shouted at him to work faster, but I knew how lucky he was to be working here in the U.S.
I opened the bag, excited that my moment had finally come. The churro looked like two long deep-fried sticks of dough joined together. There was no dusting of cinnamon-sugar, no star-shaped tip. So this was the churro in its original form, I thought. I sent a photo to the people I knew would appreciate it most: my two Mexican friends.
I would not have made such a discovery if it weren’t for my pursuit of authenticity. Authenticity connects me to the community around me. It gives me a sense of culture when I feel like I have none.
I hope you also decide to patronize as many authentic eateries as possible. If you need more recommendations, don’t be afraid to ask those you know. My Venezuelan co-worker is one of my go-to people for all foods South American. Sometimes he says he’s not an authority on other South American countries, but I know he’s only joking.
And if you end up loving the arepas you try, watch how the grandmas make it through as many shop windows as possible. Take notes. Record their process. In the end, you can share your knowledge and cultivate appreciation by opening an arepas truck of your own (Pro tip: Be sure to charge extra because you worked so hard to master this difficult and unusual recipe. Someone should be rewarded for all the blood, sweat, and tears.) You’ll even sleep a little better at night knowing you’re spreading diversity.
Angelica Lai is a writer and editor who has a soft spot for food puns. Her writing has been featured on The Belladonna, Points in Case, Paper Darts, and the book collection Six Words Fresh Off the Boat.