The Best Way to Tour a City Is Through Its Grocery Store

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I had just landed in Bogotá and was thrilled for this vacation: I was visiting Paula, a friend who was working at the embassy there, and you don’t get better guides than that. I stood on her high-rise balcony and took in the sweeping vista of the city cradled by a neck pillow of mountains. “What should we do?” I asked. “Let’s make a memory.” Paula lit up. She knew just the place. We walked a few blocks away and dipped into a grocery store. “Why are we stopping here?” I asked. She spread her arms, ta-da style. “This is where you want to be,” she said.

I thought it was a prank. But then I saw a pile of tomates de arbol — tree tomatoes — and my curiosity was piqued. I passed the dragonfruit and picked up a waxy green thing. “What’s this?” I asked. Now she thought I was the one pranking her. “That,” she said calmly, “is an avocado, mi amigo.” I turned it in my hand, studied its conspicuous lack of reptilian rind, and looked back at her. “No, seriously. What is it?” She laughed. Grocery-store laughs are pretty much the best kind. Top ten, easy. There’s something intoxicating about a burst of laughter piercing what is otherwise a space for errands and drudgery. Was being an adult in a foreign grocery store the grown-up version of being a kid in a candy store? The citrus tang of lulos! Feijoas! Borojos! Carambolas! Moras! Nísperos! Maracuyas! Guanabanas! Zapotes! Uchuvas! Pivas! Ciruelas! Chontoduras! I learned more in that grocery store than I did the next day at the Museum of Gold.

The secret museum in every city is a grocery store. It’s where you can grab and squeeze and not-at-all-weirdly smell indigenous produce. The fishmonger runs an aquarium. The butcher is a zookeeper. But groceries also hoard the culture’s guilty pleasures — its Netflix-and-chill snacks are in its potato-chip flavors (my native London favorite was a packet of sea-salt-and-Chardonnay-wine-vinegar crisps, and Marmite ones always hit the spot, too). Its childhoods are in its confections (I loved Icelandic Prince Polo chocolate bars, which are actually imported from Poland). I am constantly on the lookout for jars of gently tart zarour jam, so freely available in my mother’s hometown of Bethlehem, in Israeli-occupied Palestine. It’s the last tree that still bears fruit in her abandoned childhood home.

Grocery stores have the gritty, hustling authenticity of a bodega or street cart with the propriety and promise of Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. And they offer a tourist-free paradise for people-watching, especially the kind of locals tourists never meet — parents, the elderly, 9-to-5ers, paycheck-to-paycheck poor. Restaurants and hotels and cruise ships and airports are fine places for food, sure, but they are always best-foot-forward posh and consequently fairly performative and predictable. I don’t want to go all the way to Shanghai to eat a Caesar salad or a pork chop.

“What do you think it is?” I asked my friend Ross as we explored a grocery store in Tel Aviv. He shrugged. “I’m from Ohio, man,” he said. “I can’t read this Hebrew packaging without the vowels.” It was a bottle full of whitish liquid — presumably not milk, which was shelved elsewhere — and covered in exclamation points. An energy drink? A meal replacement? We bought it. But were we about to make an adventure out of drinking Israeli Slim-Fast? Is Israeli Four Loko a thing? Adventurism trumped illiteracy. For me, the bottle may as well have read, as did Alice’s in the rabbit hole, “Drink Me.” We took sips. Our best guess was that it was a banana milkshake. When Kroger is your Petra, the place of elusive treasures, a casual errand can turn into Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Nesquik.

It helps to speak the language, of course. “Do you have ice cream?” I asked the grocery-store clerk, in Spanish, in Havana’s Plaza del Cristo. She nodded and pointed to ice-cream-sandwich-type things in a freezer. “I’m sorry,” I explained. “I will try to ask again in a different way. Where can I get that ice cream?” I asked, pointing to a kid’s pink cone. For some reason, literally every child in the grocery store was slurping on a cone of brazenly pink ice cream.

“Oh!” the clerk said. “For that you need the Ice Cream Man.” She explained that I had to go outside, around a corner, then look for an open door that led to a large, dark, empty room. And there I would find the ice cream. I did as I was instructed and, lo and behold, sitting on a folding chair by a soft-serve machine in the penumbra of the streetlight’s edge was a man, sitting alone in a cavernous, abandoned building, serving ice cream. He asked me how I knew of it. I explained. “Even people who speak Spanish,” he said in Spanish, “sometimes they come here, and the only Cubans they talk with are waiters and taxi drivers and police and maybe a shopkeeper. Are there people in America who are not waiters or taxi drivers or police or shopkeepers? They have something to say, too, no? This woman has told you a secret that no police officer or museum guide could tell you.”

Grocery stores can be political. In France, a 2016 law mandated that all expiring food be given to a food bank every night (stores can be fined $4,500 for each infraction). In Sydney, Harris Farm Markets flags “imperfect picks” of produce, deemed too misfit or lumpen or ugly for the premier shelves, with the mantra “Fill bellies not landfills.” At a recent check, it had given 44,7031 kilograms of produce a second chance. On the wall opposite the produce, shellfish were on sale with “This Week’s Special” printed tragicomically on red, six-pointed stars. The depachikas in Japan (basement-level food halls in department stores) are full-on treasure troves of culinary idiosyncrasies — savory bentos, tempura, katsu, pastries, mochis, and more — especially the ones under the Daimaru in the Umeda neighborhood of Osaka or under Takashimaya Times Square in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.

One travel trick I have is to run online searches using the local word for “awesome.” Two friends and I on a cross-country road trip in Spain recently typed “genial” into Yelp in Bilbao. We were looking for something cheaper than a Michelin star but just as good. “Wait,” I said. “This is weird. This one is a grocery store.” More Googling. A 62-year-old grocery store. ¿Como se dice “dafuq” en español? It was near other places we wanted to visit. So we thought: Sure, why not?

Casa Rufo, which opened in 1955, is small and largely wooden. Cans and bottles and boxes and plastic-wrapped groceries of all kinds fill the shelves — along with a deli counter of wild-meat cuts. There’s an upstairs balcony rimming the interior like Bruce Wayne’s pantry.

But there are also picnic tables and benches.

We asked for a table. “Would you like to sit in the back?” our host asked, then brought us to a restaurant tucked into the rear (it opened in 1995). We proceeded to have the absolute finest meal of my life, gasping in delight many many times. I called a well-traveled friend while still sitting at the table to tell him so he could hear the sincere joy in my voice. I told him he should have his 30th birthday at Casa Rufo. Grocers make the best chefs, it turns out.

And vice versa. In my own New York, I recently went on a grocery trip with three cooks from a prominent Michelin-starred restaurant in the city. We dove into the aromatic gastropedia of Chinatown’s misleadingly named New York Mart. We sought a pig’s head for some headcheese but were dismissed as hooligans intent on a sick prank. We should’ve tried an Italian joint. While the pig debacle unfolded, I stared at a large bucket of live frogs for sale and contemplated buying them all and setting them free in Prospect Park. I was dabbling in the idea of becoming a grocery freedom-fighter. Into what parallel universe had I crossed?

That’s what our everyday Safeways and Food Lions are: a parallel universe, a kind of universal secret garden, a reverse Chinatown, a distillation of local flavor and way of life. It so often feels like travel, taste buds as escape pods. Is there any better reminder that you’re in San Francisco than Rainbow, the meatless grocery store on Folsom in SoMa that has an aisle of 17 varied buckets of nut butters, seed butters, coconut butter, and ghee? Does Los Angeles have anything more escapist than the Spice Station in Silver Lake? The Clark Store is, adorably, the only store in Clark, Colorado. It’s likely the only combination grocery-library-post-office-liquor-store you’ll ever encounter.

Go to the hip restaurants, fancy hotels, and cool museums. See the sights. Then also check out Aisle 3. Life may be a movable feast, but, without fail, any trip will be richly rewarded if you stop and smell the groceries. Back in New York after months aways, I listened as my fruit-cart guy, Wahede, scolded me for posting too often to Facebook. I picked up some prickly red spheres on his cart. “What are these?” I asked. “That’s rambutan, man,” he said. “How can you travel the world so much and not know what rambutan is?” Exactly. I bought two bags.

The Best Way to Tour a City Is Through Its Grocery Store