The Secret of Finding A Great Restaurant While Traveling

While visiting my parents in Detroit this weekend, I'd planned to dine at Slows BBQ, a trendy smokehouse that's earned praise from Bon Appetit and been credited by The New York Times with spearheading the city's cultural resurgence. But since my planning consisted entirely of checking the address and showing up when I wanted to eat (early, since my dining party had tickets to a 7:30 p.m. show), I never did sample the restaurant's famed baby back ribs.

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Confronted at 4:45 p.m. with a two-hour table wait, we had to quickly scrounge for a replacement dinner in a neighborhood none of us knew well. We each latched onto different strategies: My mother advocated making a run for Greektown, where we'd have our pick of indistinguishable gryo joints. My father called up TripAdvisor ratings on his phone. And I asked a manager for suggestions.

I'm always surprised how few travelers bother to consult food and beverage professionals for restaurant recommendations. There's nobody who knows the local food scene better than a restaurant worker -- or is more passionate about other people eating well.

The manager at Slows referred me to El Barzon, asking whether I liked Mexican and Italian food. I said I did, but imagined my parents would lean toward Italian. Turns out we had no choice: El Barzon serves both, which I told my appointed concierge sounded like a very bad idea. "I know," he said. "Trust me." We did, and wound up with a magnificent meal.

I won't waste too much space on El Barzon, since very few Dallasites are likely to hop a plane to eat goat chops and housemade cavatelli. The improbable restaurant's the creation of a Puebla, Mexico, native who cooked in metro Detroit's top Italian kitchen and finally decided to open his own eatery. The cuisine isn't Mex-Ital: The Mexican menu's on the left, the Italian menu's on the right, and everything we tried was terrific. Tucked down a side street that was primarily residential before most of its buildings were abandoned, El Barazon's the sort of place visitors would never discover independently.

More than a decade ago, The New York Times ran a travel essay about the rewards of hitting up someone who looks like you for restaurant suggestions -- an exercise that usually produces more self-introspection than memorable meals. But I heartily endorse the principle of looking beyond online sources and taking advice from a city's most competent culinary experts. While I still haven't eaten at Slows, the manager's knowledge and enthusiasm -- prerequisites for the best dining experiences -- have made me one of the restaurant's many fans. (Although when I find myself back in the D, it might be hard to resist making a return trip to El Barzon.)

Follow City of Ate on Twitter: @cityofate.

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