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.
In Kyiv it was Chicken Kyiv, and three different varieties of varenyky (and as they say in Ukraine – a cold brewski).
And because it can be difficult to get veggies on the road, in Krakow we discovered Chimera, a wonderful vegetarian buffet.
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.
This is Oscypek, a smoked sheep’s milk cheese from the Tatra Mountains. A little warm-up over charcoal, and it’s absolutely delicious.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Oh, and of course there’s always room for a little blue Smurf ice cream!
James and Terri