cheap food, Indian food, thali, channa bhatura, moti mahal
In a Nutshell: If you eat where the locals eat when travelling and eat at hole in the wall restaurants of various ethnic backgrounds that are full of people of that ethnicity in your own city, chances are you'll enjoy some great food at a great price with a chance to practice another language.

Eat where the locals eat.

Veggie thali at Moti Mahal
Anytime I travelled outside North America before the days of mobile phones, even if the Lonely Planet guide book recommended a restaurant, the rule was always to eat where the locals eat. If you saw a restaurant full of tourists, you knew not to eat there. After Steve Jobs invented the neck bender, we all started to look at Yelp or Instagram or some other app to find the best meal possible. I remain a firm believer in going where the locals are. 

On a trip to Greece, my girlfriend and I saw this work first hand. We were on the island of Santorini at the town up north called Oia, where the restaurants were very nice as was the view, but with cruise ships docking nearby, it was clearly a place full of tourists.
“This thali for $9 is one of the best and most authentic Indian meals you can have in Toronto... it's better than what you get at many more expensive Indian restaurants”
​​We asked the guy working at the local music shop where the locals go to hear some live music and have a drink. He happily gave us some very haphazard directions  with the scratchings of a map on a piece of paper directing us to a big X somewhere in the middle of the island away from all tourist destinations. I set out in the rental (a stick shift, it's handy to know how to drive stick shift as most European car rentals are standard. Driving standard also comes in handy if you are ​​​​​​​​ buying a car , as you can usually buy a stick shift cheaper than an automatic.) and followed the scratchy map. My memory is that it was  _ _ _ _   Kafe (four letters, no not a swear word, just four letters for the cafe's name and I can't remember what those first four letters were). A little later that evening we arrived where one scratchy line of the map met the other scratchy line of the map and got to where we thought the big X should be and saw nothing. I popped into a local grocery store and the woman there didn't speak English, and I didn't speak Greek, but clearly we were both pretty good at charades, and the scratchy map helped, she "told me" to go down the road 1km. I hopped in the car and drove about 1km and by the time I had gotten to a gas station without seeing the place, we decided to pop into the gas station and ask them for directions. The guys at the gas station charade-told-us to go back in the other direction 400 metres. I set the trip odometer on the rental car to zero and started driving. When it hit 400 metres, we both got out of the car and looked around.

There it was...  _ _ _ _  Kafe! (What was it called, oh my memory...)

We went inside and using some very broken Greek from my travel book I was able to figure out that the live music would start in about an hour or so. We were the only non-locals in the place. It was definitely not a tourist destination. A few 'parakalo's and a few 'efharisto's and we ordered some drinks. Then an appetizer plate of grilled veggies was put in front of us that we hadn't ordered. It was on the house! They were just happy to have a couple of tourists who ventured this far out to come to their place and I'm guessing they were happy that we were trying to speak what little Greek we could.

A few grateful 'efharisto's came emanating from us as we eagerly awaited the music. A little while later, a few guys assembled at the front of the Kafe, one with a mandolin, one with an accordion, one with a guitar, and one with an amazing voice that to my ear sounded heavily influenced by both Greek and Middle Eastern notes. It was beautiful and the crowd of locals was joining in to sing along to many of the songs. It was awesome! Something we never would have experienced staying in the more popular tourist destinations. Going where the locals go resulted in a unique experience and a chance to be a part of what real life is on Santorini.

This brings me to my point of eating where the locals eat. It's a tried, tested and true method I've used when travelling abroad. And even today Yelp and Instagram won't help you find those places. I just looked, couldn't find that place on Santorini.

But what about when you aren't travelling. What about when you're in your own town. Where do you eat then? I still say eat where the 'locals' eat. But this time 'locals' takes on a slightly different meaning.  

For example, I'm of Indian descent. I was born in Canada, but my parents were both born in India. So I know a thing or two about what Indian home cooking tastes like. Particularly North Indian home cooking. And more particularly Punjabi food. So when I go to Little India (Gerard Street in Toronto), I walk past the places with the white linen table cloths that all the non-Indians are usually eating at and I go to a place called Moti Mahal. It's not a fancy place, it definitely qualifies as "a hole in the wall" type place. But the place has delicious food! And it's cheap! That photo at the top of this article is from Moti Mahal and it's what I usually get. A veggie thali with a bhatura (the fried dough bread), and my selection in that picture is the channa masala, saag paneer and malai kofta. It comes with the pickles and rice pilau. All that tasty food for $9 and it's where all the "locals" are eating. This thali for $9 is one of the best and most authentic Indian meals you can have in Toronto... it's better than what you get at many more expensive Indian restaurants. Every now and then you see some adventurous non-Indians in Moti Mahal. But usually the non-Indians stick to the linen table cloth joints on Gerard Street. They don't know what they're missing.

Now I've been to finer dining Indian restaurants and they're good too. But I'd rather go there on a rare special occassion. I don't know, maybe for me buying a single dish for $11 that my mom usually makes seems like too much. To get what I had in that thali at a fine dining Indian restaurant, I'd be paying at least $11 for saag paneer, $11 for malai kofta, $10 for channa masala (I can hear my Dad saying "WHAT??!!" already), $13 for the rice pilau and $3 for the bhatura. That's $48 before tax and tip. Or $61 after tax and tip. Now sure ordering that amount of individual dishes gives you a lot more volume than a thali, so you could easily feed two with that order, and maybe even three people if you aren't all too hungry, you might need another bhatura though. But even with three people eating at the fine dining restaurant you've paid $34 more than you would have buying 3 thalis at Moti Mahal. And I can't say for sure that the food would be any better. 

So next time you're looking for an Indian meal, walk past the linen table restaurants and look for the crowded hole in the wall that is overflowing with Indian people. That's where you want to eat. Your taste buds and your wallet will thank you! 

I do this myself for non-Indian places. I spent some time teaching at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. In the mornings on the campus, there was always this guy with a cart making what could best be described as savoury crepes that he would crack an egg over and spread around and cook, add some spicey and sweet sauce to it with a few other fixings and fold it all up into a hand held egg crepe bunch of goodness. Me and the guys I was teaching with started calling it the 'Egg McMuffin'.
Greece, Santorini, Oia
Oia, Santorini at dusk
Jian bing, egg mcmuffin, chinatown, Dundas street west, Chinese food
On any given morning in Beijing, as we were getting ready for the day you would hear, "You guys want to get the egg mcmuffin this morning?", always followed by a resounding "Yup!". 

Well I've been thinking about that Beijing 'Egg McMuffin' for years. I had first had it in May of 1999 in Beijing and I had last had it in May of 2000 in Beijing. Then one day this year (2017) I was walking along Dundas Street West in Toronto's Chinatown and there it was! There was this woman making the 'egg mcmuffin' just like the guy in Beijing back 17 years ago. She had a cart with a round hot griddle and was making it exactly the same way. Now there were no linen tablecloths to be found, this was real street food right smack dab in the heart of Chinatown on Dundas Street West.

Some broken Mandarin that's full of cobwebs inside my brain got dusted off and tumbled out of my mouth. I ordered one (yige) and she laughed appreciatively at my sad attempt at speaking Mandarin. She made me a piping hot fresh jian bing (they were definitely not called egg mcmuffins and they definitely tasted way better too!) and I handed her $5 and I gave her a very happy "xie xie ni!".

It was delicious!

It was almost worth the 17 year wait... I was instantly transported back to Beijing circa 1999!

I've been back to her shop. She has since upgraded from the street cart to a more permanent downstairs shop. When I go, I try to speak a little Mandarin with her and she tries to speak a little English with me. It's nice. I've been there a couple of times now and have always been the only non-Chinese person when I'm at her shop... I hope that changes. It still tastes delicious... I hope that doesn't change.

Like I said, some of the tastiest food is found where the "locals" are. So go eat where the locals eat. And it's a delicious tasty filling breakfast for only $5! Who needs the $30 brunch? She's at 442 Dundas Street West, in Toronto's Chinatown. Look down the stairs, she's in the basement location. 

A lot of people spend a lot of money eating at fancy places. I've eaten at fancy places and if I'm honest my joy from a fancy meal is no greater than and often pales in comparison to the joy from eating really delicious food at a 'hole in the wall' or more authentic place. 

Honorable mention just because they are top of mind, now that it's getting cold outside, is a really authentic Korean place, Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu in Koreatown in Toronto. You get four little appetizer snacks, pickled daikon, kimchee, sweet soybeans and sprouted soy beans I think, then a massive bowl of piping and bubbling hot tofu soup of your liking (I always pick the veggie one at regular spicey level which is that redness level you see in the picture there) and you crack an egg into the hot soup and give it a stir. It also comes with a big side of purple-ish rice. All that for about $9 last time I was there and a complimentary mug of green tea as well. 
Beijing Egg McMuffin aka Jian Bing
soon tofu, Korean food
Buk Chang Dong Soon Tofu
It's delicious and a favourite place to go on a wet winter day. Nothing like spicey hot soup to warm you up! Non-locals seem to have caught on to this place already. Good on ya! (Broken Australian just came out.) It's a healthy mix of "locals" and non-Korean folk filling up this shop! Word is definitely out on this one.

A side note here, everywhere I've travelled I've tried to learn as much of the language as possible. As a result I've been able to get around and interact with people from many different countries. And for me, enjoying travelling is about meeting people, gaining a new perspective and making new friends. Seeing a place through the eyes of someone who lives there, makes for a much richer experience.

As long as you get over your fear of having to speak perfectly, most people all over the world will appreciate that you are at least trying to speak their language. In Beijing with my terrible Mandarin I was able to bargain and direct taxis, though my attempts at ordering vegetarian food turned out to be an epic fail. I was pretty functional in Japanese when I lived in Japan for a year which made travelling there a lot of fun especially in the more rural areas. A recent trip to Belgium was made easier as my high school French started pushing to the front of my brain as it rose from the depths, where it had lain dormant since 1988. Trips to Spain, Chile, Mexico and Venezuela have been made easier for having spent time on various Spanish language books and apps like Duolingo. And trips to India help to remove the rust from the Hindi I learned growing up but don't speak as often anymore on a day to day basis. India is a great place to get many different perpsectives. So learn languages! Even if it's just a few phrases. It helps when you travel and it helps when you go to really authentic places to eat in your own town, where quite often you have people who speak English and another language. Also it gives you a chance to practice another language, so why not give it a shot?

Back to the main point, great authentic meals at these and many more places can be enjoyed for about $9 or less. Why not skip the expensive restaurant, save some money and enjoy 'a hole in the wall' you haven't tried before and interact in another language?


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Lessons Learned:
  • eat where the locals eat when travelling
  • eat where the "locals" eat when in your own town
  • try to find _ _ _ _  Kafe if you're in Santorini (argh...what was that place called???)
  • maybe cut back on fancy expensive meals... cheaper meals are often just as, if not more, enjoyable!
  • the bill at 'a hole in the wall' is way more enjoyable than the bill at a fancy restaurant
  • have a thali!
  • have a jian bing!
  • have some soon tofu!
  • ​learn and speak as much of another language as you can
  • ​enjoy!
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