I keep up religiously with Rick Steves, his company, his blog, his books, and his TV shows. I’ve been obsessed ever since two of my college friends and I took his book in hand as we explored Madrid and A Coruña, Spain for almost a month after our freshman year of college. His emphasis on experience, rather than expensive hotels or meals, has always aligned perfectly with how I feel about travel. If there’s something I want to experience in a place, I will pay almost any amount of money for it. But you would be hard-pressed to find me staying in a $500-a-night hotel or forking over hundreds of dollars for a Michelin star meal, and I work in the luxury travel industry.
Today, I came across an article on the Rick Steves website that set my heart aflutter; in it, he discusses his favorite European meals, usually in a neighborhood pub or hole-in-the-wall suggested by a friendly local. I couldn’t help but scan my memory for all my favorite meals I’ve had while traveling and reminisce about the good times and good company that accompanied those meals. You can read Rick Steves’ post here, and in the meantime, here are my absolute favorite meals I’ve had during my travels and the stories that come along with them.
Leitaria da Quinto do Paço, Porto, Portugal. I’m not even a little embarrassed that I only need to type in the letters “Lei…” before Google fills in the rest of the name of this small, but locally well-known Porto bakery. That’s how many times I’ve searched for the website just to look at pictures of the stocked bakery cases. I can only vaguely remember how we found out about Leitaria da Quinto do Paço, but all that matters now is that I’ll never ever forget enjoying mini eclairs, Portuguese coffee, and other sweet treats for mere pennies. My friend and I visited 4 times in 3 days and became fast friends with the congenial server who would see us coming from down the block and clear us off a table. One afternoon, we remarked to him that we needed to limit ourselves to one visit per day in order to maintain our figures– he quickly told us we were “perfect” and didn’t “even need to think about that.” After that, our visits were partly inspired by love of baked goods, partly inspired by love for the waiter. I even bought a sweatshirt to remember the bakery by, and every time I put it on, it takes me straight back to scurrying through the doors in the rain, welcomed in by the warmth and smell of freshly baked eclair shells. And the cute waiter.
Maka i Woda, Warsaw, Poland. I have told too many people at this point about my “best meal I’ve ever had” meal at Maka i Woda to leave it off this list. My friend and I planned a trip to Warsaw over Valentines Day weekend because there was a cheap, nonstop Ryanair flight from Madrid to Warsaw and we wanted to have a proper “galentines” getaway to the coldest place in Europe (or that’s how it felt). We had no idea what to expect, but I had the great fortune of having an old middle school friend who was from Warsaw and had spent substantial time there. She recommended this Italian restaurant that you’ll find hidden away off a busy street, serving handmade pizzas and pasta dishes along with a great selection of Polish beer. The raviolio (think one big ravioli) filled with homemade ricotta and topped with rich sage brown butter was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself in my life. That is the truth. Andrea and I wholeheartedly agreed that there was no better way to spend Valentines Day evening than with two cold beers, a big pizza, and a perfect raviolo.
Gure Toki, Bilbao, Spain. The same friend I traveled to Warsaw with was my partner-in-crime a few weeks earlier on a quick weekend trip to Bilbao. Though I’m still green with envy that I’ve never been to San Sebastian, which I’m told is one of the culinary capitals of Spain and the Basque Country, Bilbao gave me some of my fondest food-travel memories. Gure Toki, in particular, had some exceptionally delectable examples of Basque pinxos and the slightly-sparkling Basque white wine, txacoli. After a long bus ride from Madrid and stomachs growing steadily crankier, we decided to give the place a try. It felt like heaven, standing and pointing at each award-winning pinxo we wanted to try, my refreshing wine clasped tightly in my other hand. After running through pinxos with pulpo (octopus), tortilla española (Spanish omelette), and huevos de codorniz (quails’ eggs), we thudded happily over to the Guggenheim, but I think our minds stayed at Gure Toki.
Nagycsarnok (Great Market Hall), Budapest, Hungary. I’m the kind of person that will always find an excuse to eat fried dough, and trying the Hungarian classic lángos was an easy sell after Rick Steves and my Hungarian host, Sándor, both recommended I try one (or a few…) in the Great Market Hall in Budapest. Fried right in front of my eyes and slathered in fresh sour cream and grated cheese, that lángos may have been the difference between liking Budapest and loving Budapest. I wandered lazily through the market stalls, dough in hand, until every last bite was gone, and I’ll never forget starting off my amazing solo trip to Budapest with that savory, delicious breakfast. Yeah, I ate it for breakfast.
Trdelník, Prague, Czech Republic. I’ll be honest—I think it’s difficult to find non-touristy, authentic food in the central areas of Prague; a lot of what I’ve found is mediocre cuisine that costs an arm and a leg. If I’m missing an amazing, hidden gem that’s easily accessible to the average tourist in Prague, I am dying to hear where it is (leave me a comment!). But the one thing that will always bring back fond memories of Prague is the trdelník, or chimney-cakes as they’re sometimes called in English. These babies are wrapped around rods that rotate over heat, while their eagle-eyed makers brushed them with butter as they grow golden brown and crispy on the outside. After they come off the fire, they’re immediately rolled in cinnamon, sugar, and sometimes walnuts or almonds. After I broke my ankle in Prague on my first visit, I was bedridden and confined to my hostel; finally, my last full day in Prague, I decided enough was enough and hobbled gingerly around the city with a girl I’d met, until finally the smell of smoky trdelník stopped us in our tracks. I sat with Caroline and we enjoyed our just-sweet-enough treats before heading on our way. Four days later, I’d be in front of a doctor in Madrid telling me that all my walking in Prague meant that now I needed ankle surgery—but I still look back on that perfect chimney-cake with nothing but fondness. I would walk on that ankle again to have that afternoon (and that dessert) back.
It feels nearly impossible to only choose five places, but I could talk forever about every inspiring, memorable meal I’ve ever had while traveling—usually the meals I share with old or new friends, amiable locals, or even by myself end up being highlights of every trip I take. I think that anyone allowing you into their kitchen, to their dinner table (whether that’s a restaurant or someone’s home or anywhere in between) is one of the most genuine acts of goodwill you can experience. Do you have any memorable meal stories that changed the way you looked at a place you visited? I want to hear about them! Leave me a comment below.
Leitaria da Quinto do Paço, Praça Guilherme Gomes Fernandes 47, Porto, Portugal, +351 222.004.303, http://leitariaquintadopaco.pt/pt
Maka i Woda, Chmielna 13, Warsaw, Poland, +48 225.059.187
Gure Toki, Plaza Nueva 12, Bilbao, Spain, +34 944.158.037, http://www.guretoki.com
Nagycsarnok (Great Market Hall), Vámház krt. 1-3, Budapest, Hungary, +36 136.633.00