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I travel to eat.
It's simple really. When I have time to travel, I go to places where I can eat. I can eat here in New Orleans, to be sure, but taking a trip offers an opportunity to eat something new - something different. It might be that I go somewhere that has familiar food, but even if there are recipes that I have cooked dozens of times, there are always variations that surprise me.
Food has shaped my worldview and it is the best way to get insight into a new culture. I am always looking for ways to create new dishes and that means being where the food is. For you, eating local, authentic food when you travel can really make your trip so much more fun. Don't settle for the familiar: look for something new and authentic. This can take a little more work but the effort pays off.
Not long ago I traveled to the Virgin Islands to get a look at what folks eat. The Caribbean is, in many ways, the intersection of Mediterranean, African, and New World cuisines. Sometimes when I am making a trip like this I plan where to eat ahead of time, because there are a few well-known restaurants that need to be experienced, but most often I prefer to rely on the locals as a guide. You can use guides like Trip Advisor or Yelp, but it does take some time to sort through whether the folks posting their reviews are local or tourists. Best to just go to the source.
The best place to start is when you first land at the airport. Ask anyone. I started with Emilie at the rental car counter. She seemed surprised that I was asking about her favorite restaurant and this is often the response that I get. People will want to tell you what they think you want to eat and it can take some convincing them that you really want to go where the locals eat. She suggested Glady's Café as her favorite place to eat. "Everybody eats there," she said.
Tourist destinations are full of familiar restaurants and that is a frustrating concept for me. On St. Thomas there are dozens and dozens of restaurants you know. Hooters, McDonalds, beer gardens... taco places and pizza joints abound. This is typical even in the most remote of destinations today, so finding something authentic is even more important to help your trip be genuine.
Glady's Café comes pretty close to what I expect a Sunday dinner might be in the islands. There weren't a lot of tourists in the restaurant (but the Hooter's we passed was packed). The menu is pretty simple and filled with curries, grilled fish, stews and jerk dishes, but with Goat Curry and Jerk Chicken on the menu everything else had to take a back seat. Both were offered with dirty rice, sweet potatoes and plantains.
With the order placed, there was time to inspect the hot sauces on the table. While I come from the center of the world for hot sauce, they are mostly similar and the variety on offer at Glady's is pretty good - oil and vinegar, mango, mustard, and tomato. This is a great example of getting something new and different that you can't get sitting at home.
The meal really lived up to the recommendations. The jerk chicken was complex with a great mix of flavors - peppers, cinnamon, nutmeg and garlic and a little bit of brown sugar. Spicy but mellow and, while great, to me the sides were just as interesting. The tomato rice and beans were great as were the roasted, sliced sweet potatoes. Best of all was the side of mixed veggies, including steamed cabbage, celery, carrots, broccoli and squash. Unadorned and fresh, they really completed the meal. The goat curry was equally good with a stew of slow cooked goat in a savory sauce that was rich without being greasy.
The hot sauces? All of them very good with fresh flavor that you can't get in a store bought hot sauce here but the mustard hot sauce was amazing and different. You can order Gladys' hot sauces online.
The other good local place was Cuzzin's. The jerk chicken was completely different than Glady's Café with chicken on the bone but skinless (very common we found). The spices were hotter but not overwhelming. Another good dish, but once again the sides really made the meal. Fungi is a cornmeal dish with okra and onions - sort of like fluffy polenta. It was delicious, but the boiled green bananas were really tasty. It's a simple recipe: boil unripe bananas in the skin and they end up firm and not too sweet, almost like a boiled potato. The Creole Shrimp was really fine with fresh, bright tomato flavor and plump, tender shrimp.
The other highlight came at a very disappointing restaurant suggested by almost everyone, Amalia Café (truthfully, there are not a lot of authentic, local restaurants). This is a nominally Spanish restaurant with a menu of Spanish tapas and local recipes, but there was just nothing we ordered that stood out except the Curried Lentil Soup. The Paella may well be the worst that I have ever had, but the soup was delicious and filling.
You don't have to go to the ends of the earth. I have these experiences when I go to Boston or San Francisco or New York. Don't settle for the familiar - ask a local where they eat.
Here are recipes that you can do at home so you don't have to travel to St. Thomas yourself, but the next time you travel, eat local, authentic food and stay out of the chain restaurants.