How to eat like a local: Go for the 'dodgy' restaurant

J. Cruz is not the kind of place you'll find in a Michelin restaurant guide. It's safe to say that the only stars you're likely to find around here would be washed-up football stars drowning their misery in saturated fats and beer.

There's nothing glamorous about this little restaurant in the back streets of Valparaiso, Chile. J. Cruz is the ultimate locals' haunt, a place that serves pretty much only one dish, chorrillana, a pile of fried potatoes covered in meat and gravy, and such liquid delights as "terremoto", or earthquake, a cocktail of white wine, grenadine, pineapple syrup and ice-cream served in a pint glass.

It ain't pretty, J-Cruz. The restaurant is set down an alley with a small sign out the front. The tables inside are covered with plastic tablecloths. The walls are lined with glass cabinets filled with what kind people might call bric-a-brac, and what everyone else would call crap. Figurines, old cups and glasses, bits of jewellery – that kind of thing.

One of the owners walks around all night playing the guitar and singing Chilean folk songs. He does this not for tips, and not for atmosphere, but because he really likes playing the guitar and singing Chilean folk songs.

His wife seems to be the only waitress. You can only guess at who's out back in the kitchen knocking up the chorrillanas.

Choose the scariest, weirdest looking place you can find and head on in.

But don't be fooled: this is my kind of restaurant. I love it. From the moment I walked into J. Cruz I was smitten, in love with the sheer character of the place, the authenticity that oozes from the walls. There's nothing mocked up or pretentious. This place in the real deal.

And it's dodgy as hell.

You may enjoy fine dining, and you may like to splash out on some of the good things in culinary life. That's fine. But there's absolutely no match, when you're travelling, for a dodgy restaurant.

I've had some of the best meals of my life in dodgy restaurants. The dirty places. The weird places. The ones that look like they probably should have been shut down for health reasons a good four of five years ago. In fact maybe they were officially shut down four or five years ago.


I'm talking places like the yakiniku restaurant in Kyoto where you have to hang your jacket in a bag to prevent it from stinking like smoke for the next month or so. Salarymen crowded around the laminated benchtops that night to scoff bean sprouts and fresh-cooked beef while the whole restaurant gradually filled up with clouds of reeking smoke.

I'm talking about the noodle joint in Luang Prabang that had wooden chairs on a dirt floor patrolled by an army of cats. The chef looked like he was dripping sweat into the bubbling stock pot. Best soup in the city.

I'm talking about the street stand in Mexico City that served tacos al pastor – pork meat marinated in pineapple juice and wrapped in tortillas. It was either going to produce culinary perfection or a rapid transit to the nearest hospital. Fortunately, it was the former.

I'm talking about the thali restaurant in Kochi that served lunch on a banana leaf and seated all diners on the floor. The eating utensils were fingers. The food was amazing.

Everyone should go to dodgy restaurants when they travel. Choose the scariest, weirdest looking place you can find and head on in. Order something you've never tried before. Maybe something you've never heard of before.

This is kind of place where you'll meet people. This is where everyone will want to know what the tourist is doing in their midst. This is where you'll be embraced and told what to eat and how it should be ordered.

This is the kind of place where you'll find the food that all the locals love. Nothing will be fancified for tourists or toned down for the foreign palate. It'll be the real deal, unadulterated and unrefined. It might occasionally be horrible, but it will always be authentic.

Dodgy restaurants are restaurants you can relax in. These are places free of stuffiness or pretension. You might be sitting on a plastic stool, you might be sitting on the floor, you might even be sitting on a street corner – but you'll always be made to feel comfortable.

Dodgy restaurants are places you have to take a chance on, but that risk will usually be rewarded. You'll have stories to tell. You'll have interesting, authentic local food. You'll have new friends. You'll have an experience under your belt.

And if you're really lucky, you might even have a terremoto at J. Cruz.

Have you had a great meal or experience at a "dodgy" restaurant?