Eating Well in Asturias

How to Eat Well in Asturias – Or Anywhere Else

I could also call this “Jon’s Guide to Eating Well Away From Home“.

In my 25 year career as a cook and chef I worked in a dozen or more restaurants in multiple countries. During that time, and since, I have eaten in at least a thousand more around the world. I want to share with you my tips for dining well no matter where you go. This is especially important in Asturias, as there is quite a big internal tourist industry here and there are an enormous number of middling restaurants serving the most volume of food for the least outlay of cash. This is true all over Spain, but it is slightly trickier in Asturias as the “value restaurants” are aimed at tourists from other parts of Spain, making them slightly harder to pick out if you’ve just landed.

So here is my collected wisdom on how to eat well on foreign shores (or right around your own town). These ideas might be old hat to you. If so, wonderful! Please comment with what additional tips you have to share. If not, read on and learn a new, slower, less highlight-driven way to find good things to eat. If you do so, I promise you will learn something about the places you visit that you wouldn’t otherwise. Mostly because I am going to help you get lost in neighborhoods and wander (not quite aimlessly) in search of something fun and really tasty.

1) Don’t Listen To the Internet

Don’t listen to what they say, go see

Chinese Proverb

Online restaurant reviews are, in a word; useless. They are not an effective way to reduce your risk of having a sub-par experience. They do not provide objective information, even in aggregate. These reviews do not reduce search-time to find a place to eat, but instead create analysis paralysis. They are ineffective at mitigating buyer’s remorse from spending non-trivial amounts of money on a dining experience. Many of these review platforms are essentially organized crime shakedowns of restaurants, and you should not be supporting them. [zotpressInText item=”{2459245:FJA8FCPQ}”]

Additionally, it is worth noting that even if you look at the review sites, you probably are reading them wrong. At least as soon as you leave the United States. In the US, reviews tend to be very polarized. A 5 star review essentially means “this place meets my minimum standards”. A one star review means “this place does not meet my standards”. It is a very polarized system, like several things in the States (ahem). However, in most countries in Europe, a 3 star review means “this is perfectly acceptable and high quality”. A 4 star review means “something very impressive happened here during my visit”. And a 5 star review means something akin to “This is literally the best place I have ever eaten”. Different cultures, different internal rating systems. Impossible to know before you go.

While there are strategies that you could use to work around some of those limitations, there are far more effective (and fun) ways to find excellent places to dine in any city, in any country, at any budget. And more importantly, it helps you take food off of the tourist checklist of things I must do before I leave (wherever).

2) Eat Low or High

There are, in rough terms, three types of restaurants in the world.

Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.

Anthony Bourdain

There are the cheap and cheerful, unpretentious eateries that make up the vast majority of restaurants in the world. They may be purely utilitarian like the original food trucks of industrial America or stubbornly traditionalist like the brasseries of less fashionable Paris neighborhoods. They may be the one-dish wonders that make up the vast majority of street food stalls (and barbecue joints) around the world. This comprises what can be called the “low end”. People eat here primarily for maximum flavor per dollar. Menus were written in some bygone era and to change them might fall afoul of the historical preservation laws. This is the ordinary food that is a part of people’s daily lives.

Then there are the top restaurants (in the city, in the region, in the world). Whether you call them haute cuisine, fine dining, or cocina de autor, it all means the same thing – chefs that focus on technique and ingredient, innovate and iterate, and attempt to create an elegant experience for diners. This can be called the “high end”. People eat here primarily for maximum flavor per forkful. Menus are rarely static from season to season, week to week, or day to day. This is the spectacular food that is a part of important celebrations.

3) Avoid The middle

And, in the middle, a vast wasteland of imitation. The glitz and glamor of facsimile high end dining rooms paired with the worst (frozen) excesses of fast food. Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but my point stands. There is a vast chasm between the low end and the high end, and it is mostly full of not very good things. This is what I call “the middle”. People eat here primarily for maximum volume of food per dollar. Menus are huge and unwieldy, running to many pages. This is neither normal daily food, nor spectacular. It is a pastiche, and very hard to define properly. IT is, in a word, middling.

Which type of restaurant you choose is, of course, up to you. However, for maximum enjoyment (and speaking as someone who has cooked in and managed all three types), you are essentially wasting your money here. Obviously, if you are having an acute bout of homesickness on an extended tour of strange foreign places, a single meal at Hard Rock Cafe is not a bad thing, but I wouldn’t make a habit of going to a foreign country, eating only at their version of Hard Rock Cafe and then thinking you had experienced the culture.

4) Don’t Follow The Crowd

There is plenty of advice for Americans traveling abroad that basically boils down to “if a restaurant is full, that probably means everyone likes it. If the place is empty, that probably means nobody likes it.”

Please be a traveler, not a tourist. Try new things, meet new people, and look beyond what’s right in front of you. Those are the keys to understanding this amazing world we live in

Andrew Zimmern

This adage is wrong more often than it is right. There are a thousand reasons that a restaurant might be empty. The neighborhood might be more popular at a different time of day. Maybe you are early, or late for the local meal time. Particularly in Spain, normal American meal times are at the very beginning of service, so you will have the place mostly to yourself if you eat when it is normal for you (which you should).

There are other reasons. Perhaps the place caters to a very particular clientele. A bar-cafetería that gets most of it’s business from people in the surrounding offices taking a break at 10 am might relish the chance to cook a full meal for people who want more than a coffee and a slice of bread. I know of many such bars, and all of them are worth eating in.

The restaurant might be just starting out. Particularly once you hone your other meal finding skills, this will happen. And just like any other, restaurants have to start somewhere. They have to attract those first guests. Maybe those guests are you.

More importantly, the crowd loves the middle. Absolutely loves it. Nothing attracts a crowd like giant piles of mediocre food. I don’t know why. I have spent most of my adult life trying to figure out why, but it eludes me. Like trying to discover why the Mona Lisa has no eyebrows, or why people root for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But nothing attracts a crowd, like a crowd. All eating the same mediocre things…

So leave where the crowd is. Get away from the city center. Go in almost any direction other than towards the museum, the waterfront, the cathedral. If you need a landmark, head towards the hospital. I have yet to find a big city neighborhood that has a hospital that doesn’t also have great local comfort food and a good selection of bars with comfortable seats.

The outskirts of industrial parks, train stations that are not the main station in the city, and older neighborhoods facing a university are also fertile hunting grounds for down to earth cooking worth writing home about.

5) Follow Your Nose – And Your other senses too

The single most important thing to do is to learn to trust yourself. Your senses, your expectations, your level of adventurousness. The more you pay attention to your own reactions, the better your meals will be. Stop. Smell, look, listen. I promise you will eat well if you learn to do this.

Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe

Anatole France

I have more than once wandered around a neighborhood, slowly circling in on some wafted smell from somewhere. I have walked in the proverbial widening gyre seeking a smell that would pull me in one direction or another.

And often, on these wanderings I have seen a cook or two standing in an alley, smoking usually. Something about them makes me want to eat their food. Maybe it is the way they lean towards the door, awaiting, anticipating the sound of an order, or the ring of the bell above the door, or whatever other little sign means, in their world, it is time to do the thing.

Or perhaps I walk down a side street and overhear some particular symphony of dishes being stacked, wash water hissing, a chair scraping on a tile floor, and that particular low clangor that a kitchen in full swing has. Many times this is coming from a very nondescript doorway, sometimes without a sign of any kind. Something deep and primal is awakened by that collection of sounds, and I always always walk into that restaurant. Many times I find that there is not room for us in these hidden places, but with a few words it becomes obvious at what time on what day I should return. I always do. I am never disappointed.

You too should trust your senses. Go for a stroll, with the goal of eventually finding yourself eating something good. None of the advice here will help you if you wait until your children are starving and acting up, or your companions are 100% done with you dragging them up and down alleys all day. You have to hone your ability to add this kind of food radar into your daily walks through the places you are visiting.

6) Take Your Time

Why hurry over beautiful things? Why not linger and enjoy them?

Clara Schumann

Speaking of that, especially when traveling in Europe (and doubly so in southern Europe), you must take your time. You must develop what (to me as an American) seems like superhuman levels of forbearance. I have learned through hard experience that finding something good to eat, eating it, drinking a bit afterward, and finding your way to the next thing to do is the work of half a day (or more).

But, if you are willing to take your time in finding good things to eat, you will be more successful in finding great food to eat than you could ever be in hundreds of hours of scrolling through online reviews. If you are as well willing to eat slowly and enjoy the experience of being in a specific place eating a specific thing at a specific time, you will create indelible memories, and each one will hone your culinary senses for your next foray out to find a thing worth eating.

In Spain, you must additionally take your time after the meal. Here there is a tradition of sobremesa. Essentially it means that any good meal requires some time for reflection, relaxation, conversation, and chupitos – the after meal digestif or after coffee drinks the French call pousse-café. For a simple family meal allot 30 minutes for la sobremesa. At a group lunch, expect more like an hour. For a truly phenomenal meal during Summer or on a holiday, be prepared to spend the rest of the afternoon right where you are.

7) Eat What You Like

There is no accounting for taste

American Proverb

I always advise eating whatever is new and interesting on the menu wherever you go, but blindly pointing at things is not exactly the only way to go about it. It helps to know your own expectations and limits before hand. And it always helps to ask questions.

Taste is subjective. Doubly so taste buds. No one gets to tell you that you are wrong for not liking some local delicacy or the other. No one is having a more authentic or real or true experience than you because they want to shovel down rotted shark and you prefer a steak with birch butter.

Part of eating well is knowing your own limits, your own favorites, and your own weird antipathies. I personally loath raw tomato. The reasons for that are no one else’s business, but it makes a good example. I know better than to order a caprese salad or pasta alla crudaiola. My taste buds won’t have a good time if I do. It’s as simple as that. I do however, have a deep and abiding love for all things pickled, so I am apt to try pretty much any dish I run across that includes a pickled ingredient.

And the search for a really great version of a world cuisine staple like pizza, or an old favorite from home, will show you a whole new side to the place you are visiting. If you don’t believe me, let me take you to get some amazing Romanian comfort food in a small town in the mountains of Asturias, or show you the best place in the center of Castile y León for tacos al pastor.

Conclusion

So there you have it. My guide to finding and enjoying the best food you can, wherever you travel. That is the short version. I promise. Here is the ultra-condensed version:

  • Know yourself.
  • Trust yourself.
  • Get out of downtown.

Works Cited:

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For more note on my sources, Dive Deeper

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