There’s a sketchy kebab shop slightly northwest of Pigalle metro station in Paris, at the corner of Boulevard de Clichy & Villa de Guelma. It doesn’t appear to have a name, just a KEBAB sign. Google still lists Boulangerie Pigalle at the location, but the street view image from May 2015 shows what’s really there. The menus list items they don’t actually make, like burgers and chicken cordon bleu. It’s in the middle of what appears to be Paris’ red light district, with adult stores and strip clubs lining the area for blocks in either direction. It’s not listed on Yelp and I couldn’t find the address when I search for it. This place isn’t exactly a tourist destination.
It was the best meal I ate the entire week.
Crepes are fantastic. Baguettes are wonderful. Croissants and madeleines and macarons are all sublime. I even enjoyed the escargot. I don’t have a single complaint about French cuisine. What made the kebab shop so great was how unexpected it was. It was the joy of discovery. In the midst of the wonderful bakeries, Parisian architecture, and assorted tourist delights we managed to stumble into a dive with great food in a foreign country.
Maybe it’s because I love seedy 24-hour or late-night joints; the kind of places drunks frequent when bars close. In England that was kebab shops or sometimes a chippy (take-away fish and chips). In Tucson and Las Vegas it was small local chains of Mexican food with the possessive tense of somebody’s name, like Nico’s, Filiberto’s, or Roberto’s. It doesn’t hurt that the “lower class” eateries have killer flavor and giant portions for the money.
Maybe it was the food. If I was limited to food from just one region of the world, Middle Eastern cuisine would be a strong contender. It tastes just like it appears on the map: between Greece and India, both of which I love. Kebabs in Afghanistan and shawarma in Saudi Arabia are among my favorite culinary memories. I’ve never been interested in falafel, but the hint of lime and texture at this place were great and upended my expectations. I’ve outgrown the stage of photographing my food for Facebook or Instagram (because I’m not a food blogger), but I almost wish I had just for an inventory of what was on the plate. Salad, rice, fries, suspiciously dark sausages, chicken… It was a great spread and very tasty.
But mostly I suspect it was the fun of discovering it by accident. I wrote about this a few years ago and I still believe that some of the best adventures are accidents. There’s no discovery if everything goes according to plan. By it’s very nature, a plan is an organized schedule of known elements. You have to wing it to discover something new. In the words of Friedrich Hayek, “The mind cannot foresee it’s own advance.”
In this case, it was simply a result of us abandoning plans for the sake of time constraints and chancing upon something good. No Yelp searches on a smartphone looking for reviewed places near my GPS location. Just plain, dumb luck. Our Big Bus tour route would take too long and make us late for an appointment elsewhere, so we hopped off to find food and a metro station.
“Adventure” usually conjures mental images of grander ventures, but nobody outside a Hollywood movie leaves the day-to-day and rafts down the Amazon River. Adventure begins with small steps, just outside one’s routine. A full tank of gas and turning down an unknown state highway of curiosity. A determination to discover how to find a landmark that’s long been seen but never visited. Trying a scary food, like Rocky Mountain oysters.
Foster an adventurous spirit. Go out there, take a chance, and discover something new.