Food / Poland / Slovakia / Travel / Ukraine

Point & Pay: Finding Great Local Food

Smoked Cheese Seller

Experimenting with local foods is one of the enjoyable novelties that makes travel fun, but most travelers encounter the same conundrum. If you find a restaurant with an English menu, it’s frequently a tourist trap with mediocre, overpriced food.

On the other hand, if you ferret out a cafe that locals prefer, even with a phrasebook, translating the menu can be frustrating. And there’s a good chance that a plateful of food will arrive which bears little resemblance to what you had in mind. First in Ukraine, then in Poland and Slovakia, we’ve solved this problem – the “Point & Pay” technique.

The basic system is to be able to see your food before ordering, then point, pay, and enjoy. Obviously the technique works well for street food, and at outdoor festivals. But for people who actually want to sit while they eat, there’s another option. In Kyiv, Wroclaw, Krakow and Bratislava we scoured the tourist books, and online reviews, and found cafeterias that cater to locals. All the restaurants we tried had good reviews, and were perfect places to sample a big variety of local cooking. It helps to do a bit of research in advance so you know what to look for, but being able to pick and choose exactly what you want is brilliant.

Kyiv Food

In Kyiv it was Chicken Kyiv, and three different varieties of varenyky (and as they say in Ukraine – a cold brewski).

Chimera Vegetarian Cafeteria

And because it can be difficult to get veggies on the road, in Krakow we discovered Chimera, a wonderful vegetarian buffet.

Krakow festival

We also stumbled into one of Krakow’s weekend festivals that really worked well for the Point & Pay approach. It was simple to decide the locals’ favorites. We just looked at the size of the crowd near the booth.

Smoked Cheese on Grill

This is Oscypek, a smoked sheep’s milk cheese from the Tatra Mountains. A little warm-up over charcoal, and it’s absolutely delicious.

Bijos in Krakow

Hunter’s stew, called Bigos is simmered for 2-3 days. The ingredients are cabbage or sauerkraut (or both) smoked sausage, and mushrooms. This is comfort food perfection and one of James’ personal favorites.

Sausage and Bacon Grilling

Lots of folks go for the sausage or slab of bacon. Cooked over charcoal with a few grilled onions, it makes the perfect food on a cool fall day. (This booth was for people concerned that blood was flowing too freely in their arteries.)

Pierogi Assortment

But, there’s one quintessential Polish food that thwarts the Point & Pay technique … pierogi. The problem is that most pierogi look the same on the outside, but can have all sorts of fillings. They can be stuffed with cheese and potato, meat, cabbage, mushroom,  apples, or strawberries. So far we’ve really enjoyed the pierogi, but it’s been a bit like opening Christmas gifts.

Slovak Beer

Finally, in Bratislava we headed to the Slovak Pub to try a couple of their national dishes – Bryndzové Halušky and Kotlíkový Guláš, all washed down with a couple of Zlatý Bažant (Golden Pheasant) beers. Fortunately, peering over the shoulders of students at a nearby table helped us Point & Pay. The Bryndzové Halušky is little potato dumplings with sheep’s milk cheese and bacon – truly a glorious comfort meal and one of Terri’s faves. And the Kotlíkový Guláš (kettle goulash) is to-die-for with its fiery, paprika-infused complexity.

Bratislava food

The Point & Pay technique may sound obvious, but in our experience, it isn’t that easy to find good quality local food on the street or in a cafeteria. It takes some research and trial and error, but so far in Ukraine, Poland, and Slovakia it’s been tasty and fun.

Smerf Ice Cream in Wroclaw

Oh, and of course there’s always room for a little blue Smurf ice cream!

Happy Heartburn,
James and Terri

59 thoughts on “Point & Pay: Finding Great Local Food

    • Thanks Dahlia. I absolutely love smoked cheese, and this is the best smoked cheese that I’ve eaten. And when it’s warmed over charcoal, it’s even better. The only problem is that it’s so smokey, that you wouldn’t want to put it in your luggage. Bummer, because when we left the area, no more smoked cheese. ~James

  1. Oh…my…In all honesty, I shook my head with pure envy as I read this. If I could create a food heaven, this would be it. All of my favorites. What an amazing spread. We must go here some day. I’ll need to fast for 40 weeks prior to going, but it would be worth it. Wow.
    The Bigos sounds particularly amazing as does the Bryndzové Halušky. I can only imagine how amazing it all was, thanks for allowing me to enjoy it vicariously!
    I also love the point & pay system. 😀 A brilliant system indeed!
    ~Andrea<3

    • Thanks Andrea. We must have similar tastes, because you’ve managed to pick our favorites as well. I must have had bigos 5 times, and it was always slightly different, and always good. It must be one of those time-honored dishes, and each chef has their own recipe (which probably goes back to what Mama cooked for them). ~James

    • I agree Linda. Most of the food we had in Poland (and Latvia for that matter) was designed to warm you from the inside, not keep you thin. But bigos … oh yeah. I’ll be looking for a recipe. And actually, our first encounter with really good local food at cafeterias was in Estonia and Latvia. There’s a chain restaurant that we discovered there that was great for experimentation. I can’t remember the name, but in Riga, it was on the top floor of a shopping mall in the center (you may know this place). We must have eaten there 3 days in a row, trying new stuff every day. It was the perfect “Point & Pay”. ~James

  2. I love this story! I am totally relating to the ‘Point & Pay’ experience. Fortunately, in Latin America, my Spanish eventually progressed to where I could converse about the food which was important when ordering empañadas. Like pierogis, they can contain surprises. In spite of the occasional food misadventure, I must say I have never had trouble finding a good brewski in any country. It sounds like your experience has been much the same. Our greatest food challenges arise from seeking vegetarian dishes. Now you have me thinking I should write about that. Thanks for the inspiration! – Mike
    PS – Great photos as usual!

    • Thanks Mike. I speak enough Spanish to get by as well, but some places aren’t so easy. In Kyiv, there was essentially NO English, so of course, everything was in Ukrainian. To add to the problem, the words were written in Cyrillic so we really had no clue. And believe me, like most places, there are some foods that you don’t want to try by mistake. In Kyiv, one of the local favorites is raw pig fat, dipped in chocolate. If there was ever an “acquired taste” this has to be it. And veggies are always a problem on the road. That’s one of the advantages of staying in apartments instead of hotels. ~James

  3. I loved this post 🙂 We too use this technique, and most of the time it means that you get to eat something wonderful. My favourite is still the Thai take-away in Iceland where the owners spoke only Thai and Icelandic but were able to give us a picture book. We ended up eating prawn balls in sweet and sour sauce on a beach in Eastern Iceland late at night. And it was heavenly.

    • Thanks for the comment Hayley, and for dropping by the blog. It’s funny about certain ethnic restaurant types. There seem to be Thai restaurants all over the world, and they always seem to be authentic. As proof, in addition to your Iceland story, there’s even a very good one on our tiny island on coastal Georgia (population 12,000). It also seems to be the same with Indian food. I’ve never been to an Indian restaurant in the world, that wasn’t authentic. I love your story of the Thai take-away in Iceland. Who would have guessed. In addition to good food, experiences like this create memories that last a lifetime. We have lots of these stories and frequently say, “Remember that time we had …” ~James

    • Joyce, it was really good. I especially liked the bigos (mostly cabbage, kraut, sausage, and mushrooms). It was stewed for days, and the flavor was wonderful. I’m working on a crockpot version. Love, JH

  4. Hey, James and Terri! This is your cousin Cindy; I’m back in B.G. now and staying at Mom and Dad’s ’til I find a place (and save some cash!). I’ve really enjoyed your travel notes; of course I’m just now getting to read them – I’ve been out of the “computer generation” for a while; again, no cash for lux’s. You two are doing what I’ve always wanted to do; I’m sooooo jealous! I’ve traveled a lot of places in the US, but my dream has always been to do exactly what you’re doing (I think it would be such a “humanitarian gesture” to finance your dear, sweet cousin a trip over to visit 🙂 ) Anyway, I’ve always worried about finding what I consider edible food in other countries and you’ve elevated my fears (I can be a bit picky). I was especially attracted to the bigos….and I KNEW there would be pierogi somewhere – love them! Luv, Cindy.

    • Hey Cindy. It’s great to hear from you, and thanks for dropping by the blog. Terri and I have had a lifetime of international travel and experimentation with ethnic foods, and while it’s fun to try new stuff, as one of my brothers-in-law says – “A man’s gotta eat.” So when traveling long term, it becomes more about experimentation and finding things that taste good. This is where the Point & Pay technique comes into play. And I have to say, that Ukraine, Poland, and Slovakia have perfected the art of comfort food. Thanks again for dropping by, and say hello to everyone. Love, J&T

    • Sally, you’re so right. Sneaking a look, and knowing what someone else thinks is good is like an “unsolicited testimonial”. And usually, food that looks good, tastes good as well. ~James

  5. Mmm, those mushrooms and sausages look right tasty! The point and pay technique works very well in rural China, too. Several times I’ve walked into the kitchen and pointed at the ingredients, and then had them served up in a stir fry. Delicious – especially in Yunnan after I conveyed that spicy was just fine!

    • Stir fries are wonderful Kathy. I traveled a bit in China, and became totally addicted. The variety of ingredients and tastes are limitless. I fell in love with a fiery, Sichuan cooking sauce that I used in everything. And then there’s the old reliable 5 spice powder. ~James

  6. Sort of got hung up on your comment to Mike about raw pig fat dipped in chocolate… One wouldn’t want to make that mistake! As for hunter stew it is one of my favorites as well… Had one last year made out of a bear that was interested in eating us. –Curt

    • I have a great post idea for you Curt. And of all the people I know, you’re the only one that could write this post: “How to Meet, and Eat A Bear”. Seriously, you and these bear stories are too funny. Better the than me brother! BTW, the Slovak version of hunter’s stew that we had used pork and beef. How was the bear stew? And don’t say it tasted like chicken. ~James

      • lol, I do have a thing for bears, James. Or maybe, it is bears have a thing for me. The bear stew was delicious. I also ate bear steaks and bear meatballs, and bear heart. There is a lot of meat on a bear. This guy was quite the marauder until a neighbor did him in because he had a child and the bear was coming around in the day. He actually came up on our porch and turned over my Webber Grill. –Curt

    • Thanks Steve. I’m sure that like us, you’re a big fan of exotic ethnic food. But I have to say, that most of the food we’ve had in Ukraine, Poland, and Slovakia is comfort food all the way. And man, it’s been great. ~James

  7. We totally thought those cheeses in Krakow were bread rolls. We pointed, paid, and spent a long time after that making friends with cheese-lovers (and folks with spare bread). Good times.

    We have also used point and pay with menus but you do have to be prepared to occasionally be served something like pig offal soup. Actually, it amazing that doesn’t happen more often.

    • That’s funny about the smoked cheese Bronwyn, at first we thought it was bread as well. I really love this smoked cheese. We bought some to take home, and warmed it a bit in the panini maker in our apartment, and it was delish (and the dark beer didn’t hurt the flavor either). You’re right about menu Point & Pay, but somehow, pictures of food are never as representative as the real food. And unless it’s chicken or fish, all cooked meat looks pretty much the same. In my experience, China is the place where you REALLY need to know what’s in the dish. ~James

      • I’m not talking pictures of food. I’m talking about pointing at random text and smiling confidently as if you absolutely know exactly what you’re ordering (bonus points if you know the local phrase for “Please bring this.”).

        Like I said, I’m amazed it doesn’t go wrong more often (even in places like China). You’d think it would. (It’s one of my favourite travel games 🙂 .)

        I don’t know how often you’d beat cheese panini with dark beer, though. I’m guessing rarely.

      • You’re a brave woman Bronwyn. I mean, pointing at random foreign words, which frequently are written in an unknown alphabet … I’m just sayin’. In my youth, I would try about anything – until I had fish stomach. Then I started paying more attention. ~James

      • Bronwyn, you and your husband are the only other poor sods that I know (other than Terri) who were unlucky enough to have fish stomach. And when I had it, it was not a trick, but was considered a treat. I spent quite a bit of time in China on business. As a part of our business negotiations, each side would periodically hold banquets for the entire group. When the Chinese side hosted it was a big affair, and as special foreigners, we were served special delicacies – which always put me in a delicate position. In order not to offend anyone, I pretty much had to sample whatever was served. It sounds like you have an adventurous palate, so you can imagine the kind of stuff we had. The only thing that got me through these banquets were multiple toasts and copious amounts of Mao Tai. Anesthetized taste buds were the best thing. ~James

      • Alright, so perhaps I truly did order the fish stomach (Thailand) after all.

        I do sort of know what you mean about Chinese banquets (from our stint as English teachers in China) but I can’t imagine the pressure of having to keep up etiquette for the purposes of big business. Thank goodness for alcohol!

  8. I am not too familiar with Polish food, but it all, particularly the smoked cheese, looks fabulous! The point and pay sounds a bit like the kilo restaurants in Rio where you pay by weight.

    • Other than pierogis, we didn’t know much about Polish food either Madhu. But after experimenting, we found some wonderful tastes. Most of what we had fit in the comfort food category, and was pretty hardy stuff. Which, given Poland’s history, I can understand. The smoked cheese was really delicious. It’s the smokiest flavor I’ve ever had, and it’ truly unique. The bigos also was really good. It would be a cold-day delight to come home to. ~James

  9. I am hungry just reading this post. All the food you have photographed looks yummy. The pierogi is something of a holiday tradition of friends in Sedona and one we always looked forward to participating in. The point and pay system is one we practiced during our time in Mexico, along with checking out where the locals ate.

    • The Point & Pay technique works like a charm in E. Europe. Actually, we discovered a few really nice cafeterias in Estonia and Latvia. For some reason, in the US, many buffets are “Big Can Buffets” and the food quality is not so great. But this doesn’t seem to be the case in Eastern Europe. It really is the perfect way to sample good local food … and you pay by weight (weight of the food, not your weight – LOL). ~James

  10. Glad you found Chimera! I’ve eaten there a few times 🙂 The smoked cheese I tried at Zakopane in the Tatry Mountains. I’m reserving judgement on the Bigos. I wasn’t very fussed, but there are numerous variations so maybe I got the wrong one. On the other hand, I haven’t found any pierogi yet that I don’t like, but it does help if you know if it’s sweet or savoury.
    Happy eating 🙂 (sounds like it was! IS, in fact!)

    • Chimera was delightful Jo. We aren’t vegetarians, but we do try and eat our veggies, and on the road this can be tough to do. Chimera was the perfect solution. Not only was the food good, the cafe had such a cozy, light, and airy feel to it. It almost felt like eating on a friend’s patio. Re: the cheese. I fell in love with it. I’d love to see how they smoke it. Do you have any photos (or a post) from your trip to the mountains? ~James

    • Ruth, you would have loved this place. I’m not a vegetarian, so I’m not terribly knowledgeable, but this place was interesting because it had some unusual dishes, and they looked wonderful (point, point, point). It was also a nice, enclosed patio, it was light and airy, and inexpensive as well. If there were more restaurants like this in the US, I would definitely go to them. ~James

  11. Love the title of this post – I think you’ve coined a new phrase! Very funny that some of the polish treats were surprises – it would be lovely to know at least if it were sweet or savory, otherwise how would you know if you should order a beer or a coffee? All of the food looks amazing.

    • Actually, when I’m in a new place and have no clue, the process is point, smile, nod, and pay – but that was too long for the title. LOL. Even though some of the pierogi were surprises, none were bad. The confusing thing was that a number of the pierogis were served with a white sauce – sometimes sweet, sometimes savory. It was the classic having your dessert first. ~James

  12. OK, I *must* know… what does Smurf-flavored ice cream taste like? 🙂 Although I’ve been known to engage in a few food charades in an effort to determine if a dish is vegetarian, most of the time it’s Point & Pay… and Mr. M gets the “Christmas surprises” that turn out to have meat! It looks like you two have done quite well eating your way through Eastern Europe! 🙂

    • The Smurf ice cream turned out to be a Point & Pay surprise – in a not so good way. We weren’t exactly sure, but we think the flavor was bubble gum, which wouldn’t have been my first choice. And Miranda, your food charades should be called the “Point & Pantomime” technique. Tell me, which is your best animal noise? ~James

  13. Looks as though you two are enjoying a grand culinary tour! The Oscypek in particular sounds divine. (At first I thought it was a bread roll – something that’s off limits to me with gluten – but I was delighted to learn that it’s instead cheese. Bon Appétit! 🙂

    • Tricia, if you enjoy smoked cheese, this is the stuff for you. When we lived in Amsterdam, I developed a taste for smoked gouda, but for smokiness, oscypek far exceeds the gouda. And I still dream of oscypek paninis. ~James

  14. This is a great technique! I am a very picky eater, so I am always looking for ways to get something simple that doesn’t look too “weird.” My fallback when I have no idea what the menu says? There is ALWAYS rice! 🙂

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