Favorite travel experiences: finding cheap and delicious food in unexpected places.
There we were, spending currencies void of English characters, enjoying the payoff after scrimping and saving at home to afford meals of whimsy in oddball settings on foreign soil. (Well, foreign asphalt on a side street in the concrete-jungle of Skopje, Macedonia.) Yes, we’ve been blessed with the opportunity to savor Michelin Star meals on our travels, but sometimes we find the most satisfaction in feast from a hole in the wall kitchen with a menu of foreign letters and surprisingly wallet-friendly numbers.
Ted left a 1,000 bill to cover the tab…and received 500 in change. I’ll spare you the trip to xe.com to figure out the exchange rate between US dollars and the Macedonian denar.
The total cost for drinks and a filling lunch for two: $10.06. Including tip.
How did we find the spot? We settled into our apartment in Skopje then walked the neighborhood in search of a meal, ready to follow the number one rule of finding cheap and delicious food as travelers:
Look for a humble exterior and a crowd of locals.
The odd jumble of umbrellas and chairs didn’t disappoint. Nary a single word of English floated through the air, and all the smilers and smokers and young fellows and retirees looked genuinely satisfied with their heaping plates of food.
We ended up returning three times more during our stay in Skopje, making friends with this funny fellow (even though we couldn’t exchange a single word of the other’s language). He’d hustle and bustle, taking orders in and bringing food out; he’d scowl and shuffle, then, if we caught him at a good moment, he’d slip in a smile.
Number two trick of cheap and delicious food on the road: when you don’t speak the language, learn to order appetizing dishes by scoping out the neighboring tables.
Play the pointing game: “I’ll have what (s)he’s having.”
A friendly fellow eating chicken and breadsticks gave his smile and a thumbs up. We pointed, ordered, and weren’t let down.
Two beers (decent brew for the heat and the price), fresh tomato and cucumber salad smothered in cheese, mouthwatering chicken bites, and seriously the best bread sticks in recent memory.*
(*The breadsticks: truthfully a side to the generous portion of fried liver and onions also ordered at the thumbs up recommendation of one who spoke enough English to indicate “meat” but not enough to convey “organ.” Try as we might, we couldn’t bring ourselves to feel the joy of liver – though the onions did a nice jump on the tastebuds. Factor the dish in, though, and we actually had two beers, one salad, one patter of chicken, one platter of beef liver, and a whole pile of breadsticks — for six pennies more than an Alexander Hamilton. P.S. semi-related fun fact, since we’re talking money: the only other non-president on U.S. currency appears on the $100 bill.)
Trick number three to cheap and delicious food on the road: take pictures!
Once you’ve played the “I’ll have what (s)he’s having” game, capture a visual queuing card to make re-ordering easy. I snapped photos of the breadsticks and chicken on my iPhone so I could pull a repeat the next day. (Um, and the next. Though by that time, they were laughing at us for our predictability.)
Good thing I took a picture of the restaurant sign, too. I can’t pronounce the words, but if you’re ever in Skopje, I can tell you to check for a splash of yellow and red and the little blue #46 somewhere near the corner of Vasil Stefanovski and Petar Pop Arsav just north of Mitropolit Teodosij Gologanov…
Should you locate the corner collection of umbrellas and Macedonians shooting the breeze, you’ll have earned the well-deserved prize of a $10.00 lunch for two.
Fourth and final note about eating cheap: sometimes the best-deal meals come from the classic grocery store + kitchen combination.
We’d been traveling overland through Eastern Europe, making stops both short and long in cities like Kotor, Budva, and Skopje on our way toward Thessaloniki and our flight to Beirut. We intentionally made time for the four-day stop over in Macedonia, not so much to see sights as to rest during another stint at an Airbnb apartment and enjoy downtime with a kitchen and a cushy couch. (Oh, the comforts of home!)
Luckily for us, the neighborhood store was a short walk down the street (and an even shorter bike-ride; pretty spiffy that our apartment rental came with transport!).
The grocery selection and store layout were the nicest we’d encountered in ages, and we absolutely splurged on all things chocolate, fruit, and home-cooked Italian (craving comfort foods is an international phenomenon). Not once did we second guess adding to the cart; if it sounded good, in it went. At the end of the spree, we walked through the check-out line and braced for the worst.
My little Moleskine budget book in hand, I wrote the number of denar and did a double-take as I checked the currency exchange. The damage: $19.46.
Dinner that night, three meals the following day, and breakfast the morning after: $1.94 per person, per meal for home cooked goodness (and, yes, more than a few of our friend Tony’s favorite fudge-filled surprises).
Now that’s cheap and delicious food on the road…
Our Skopje apartment rental was our ninth Airbnb stay since using the vacation rental service on a trip to Vancouver, British Columbia back in 2010. We’ve now rented in North America, South America, Western Europe, and Eastern Europe, and I’ve already been busy perusing listings in Africa and Asia… If you haven’t yet used Airbnb, check it out! It’s great for foreign vacations and local weekend getaways. P.S. If you’re thinking of eventually booking a trip, please consider using this link; you’ll essentially be putting $25.00 into our travel fund…a.k.a, the equivalent of 4.97 restaurant meals or 12.88 home-cooked meals in Macedonia.
This post is part of a series on our “Choose Your Own Adventure” travel through Eastern Europe: Croatia through Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, and Cyprus on to Lebanon. Otherwise known as “junior high geography songs come to life.”