“I don’t know, it looks pretty suspicious,” I heard the woman in seat 1A say. “Hmm,” her partner mused. “It looks more like a sandwich to me,” I heard, as I glanced down and saw something missing from my armful of jumbled belongings. I fought my way back to the front of the plane to claim my soft-shell crab po’boy before we took off from Louis Armstrong International Airport—or were prevented from doing so by a suspicious but delicious package.
The sandwich was with me because, as a traveler, I have a motto: “Never arrive at the airport hungry.” Given the options in most airports and the subsequent airplanes, the chances are about as good that the food will have any flavor or nutritional value as they are that you’ll have two empty seats in your row. But the demographics of the area around airports makes getting great food for your flight easier than you might think.
“What’s in it?” the woman working security at the New Orleans airport had quizzed me earlier. She nodded in approval when I told her, even cracking a smile when I affirmed that it was, in fact, from the nearby Check In, Check Out Deli (worth a visit, especially in crawfish season). Meanwhile, a couple at the next scanner was getting their souvenir hot sauce pulled from their luggage.
Airports are in the middle of nowhere. Like the noise of jet engines, poorer and immigrant populations have been pushed out of the center of the city to the edge of town. And the buffet of both down-home and international cuisine enthusiastically offered in local restaurants by the passionate cooks of those populations is exactly the antidote needed to the overpriced, bland food served by apathetic airport staff.
Ironically, you’ll find many of those same people live in the airport-adjacent communities and eat in the restaurants scattered nearby. Sit down while you wait for your lamb chop at Kabob Palace near Washington’s Reagan National Airport, and you’ll see everyone from rental-car clerks to in-the-know pilots digging into curry at the 24-hour spot.
“Airport food is improving,” cry the media, spurred on by press releases about chefs on TV being offered spaces in JFK or O’Hare. Having been on trips with the chefs being asked to do this, I can tell you: you are not eating their food. If you think it’s worth the money to eat at Marcus Samuelsson’s Uptown Brasserie in Terminal 4, by all means, spend the money.
Just don’t complain about your chunky bloody mary and cold food to me when I open my bag from El Taco Rico (or El Mesón, depending on the route I take) on a flight out of Austin. You might still smell the Somalian goat in my bag at Sea-Tac, picked up at Juba on the way in. I’ll even leave a few minutes early for SFO to make sure I don’t have a problem with the line at Shanghai Dumpling Shop before I drop off the rental car.
A little research and ten extra minutes on the way to the airport (ten minutes saved by avoiding the “chef’s-name-in-lights” restaurants once inside) will get you everywhere you need to be. Even if, sometimes, that isn’t a hole-in-the-wall international restaurant, but rather the In-N-Out that guards the entrance to LAX. Hey, that’s foreign food to us Northerners.