For three years, a combination of circumstances led me to the least glamorous job with a seemingly infinite budget for food, allowing me to eat my way, for free, across Europe. Some of these meals were so bad, that the memory still incites anger to this day.
While there have been many good meals, time and location constraints sometimes meant godawful food due to limited options. The job itself already sucked ass and we took a lot of abuse from people on the daily, so food was the highlight of the day. A lot of times, the only place open that was still serving food plain sucked and it would crush your soul just enough so that for a moment you reconsidered all the choices in your life that led up to that exact moment.
We’re reliving the worst of the worst. By worst I don’t mean fast food or anything in that vein – I love trash food, as long as it’s not a sad meal. Anything from molecular gastronomy to a home-cooked meal to chain restaurants to regular ol’ fast food (if the timing’s right) is all good by me. What we’re talking about today is a sad meal, with 1 being “I might have just ordered wrong” and 5 being “I definitely shed at least a couple tears after eating this because it was so sad”.
Sad meal: a meal that made me sad to eat. A meal I wish I could go back in time and un-eat because the meal brought me nothing but emotional tragedy.
Spain is a country I know intimately. I spent 7 of my formative years there and go back at least twice a year to visit family. I used to love Spain unconditionally, until working there, because we always ended up with the worst of luck. Madrid in particular has been the culprit of many sad meals.
The most memorable of the bunch was when my team had a late-night dinner at VIPS – a Spanish fast food burger joint. We rushed to VIPS, hoping for a reliable meal option after finishing off almost two weeks of non-stop 11+ hours-a-day work.
VIPS did not say they were closing and that we were about to be kicked out at as soon as we received our order.
We sat outside their steps on the sidewalk to finish our meal. Somehow, they managed to burn both the burger and bun on each of our burgers, while simultaneously serving cold fries. To set the mood, I played sad off-tune Titanic flute music from my phone while we ate and said goodbye to a terrible stint in Spain with a too-fitting meal.
Rating: 4/5 burnt burger buns.
What you should eat instead: go to a local cerveceria and get tapas. The name is deceiving (they serve much more than beer) and you can find some gems. Avoid food near the main tourist places and go one or two side-streets down.
Alternatively, try a Latino restaurant! Madrid has many good Latino restaurants – anywhere from Mexican, to Colombian, to Venezuelan, they’ve got most of it.
Lannion is a beautiful seaside city in Bretagne that does fish very well. We ordered the seafood platter for four people, for three of us. During the meal, the seafood platter did not feel like a mistake. It was all the oysters and shrimp and crab legs and sea snails a human could eat. This particular seafood platter – a four tier tower – had every mollusc and crustacean you could imagine. It was a decadent and well-deserved treat for an overworked bunch.
The seafood platter became a mistake that same night. And the day after. And the day after that. And even a few more after.
Whatever joy we had during that meal was ripped away the following days. It turns out four tiers of all the seafood you could imagine is a terrible idea for your gut. This became evident once my colleague and I spent the next days passing the keys to the bathroom to each other like you’re passing a baton in a relay race.
Rating: 0/5 during dinner; 5/5 for the 5 days following.
What you should eat instead: get a plate or two of fresh seafood, but don’t get a platter. Your insides will thank you.
I’ve always been reluctant to call someone useless. Up until recently, I thought everyone had their purpose in the workforce – even if it’s just because they’re fun to be around.
This was until I met useless Michael.
No one understood how useless Michael had gotten assigned to one of the most labor-intensive, headache-inducing, prestigious projects available to his department. All we knew is that one day there was no useless Michael, and the next day there was.
One incident with useless Michael that will forever stay with me was during a tech summit where we were receiving over 1,500 guests a day, from 8 to 19 – 7PM for the Americans. Useless Michael was meant to cover me and my colleague whenever we needed our breaks (usually only a half-hour lunch). Useless Michael decided to disappear the entire first day of the event.
Seeing that he was nowhere to be found, my colleague and I went for lunch regardless, getting a burrito somewhere in the venue. Because no one was attending our parts of the exhibit, our Portuguese contact complained to us and to him about him not taking over during lunch. They specifically clarified that my colleague and I needed our half-hour lunch break and that he promised the stand would always be attended, so he should not disappear.
Instead of taking over the Herculean task of working for one whole hour, useless Michael volunteered to pick up lunch. This way, we could have a quarter-hour lunch break instead, because according to him, ordering lunch took the other fifteen. Because he’d already proven to be of little help, we agreed in order to save us a headache or two.
The next day he comes in with three large pizzas from Pizza Hut. Of these three pizzas, there’s a cheese, a shrimp and corn pizza, and a canned tuna pizza. He proceeded to eat most of the cheese and leave the other two abominations to the human palate for the rest of us, hurrying us in the process.
Not only were they the worst flavor of pizzas from the worst place, but they were crumpled. He complained that the people working at Pizza Hut must be idiots. We almost believed him until the next day, when we saw him walking in with the pizza being carried vertically in a plastic bag.
Turns out, Useless Michael not only couldn’t choose pizza properly but he also carried it in a way only someone completely unhinged and disconnected from the world would.
Rating: 6/5 sideways pizza boxes.
What you should eat instead: Lisbon has a surprisingly good Chinese restaurant, The Old House, near where the tech summit was hosted. It can be pricey, so skip sad lunch and just have a big dinner there.
Toulouse (en route)
A common rule of thumb when choosing a good place to eat is that pictures on menus indicate a low quality restaurant. While I no longer agree that this is entirely true, I wish I would have followed this on my train ride to Toulouse.
Already not feeling the freshest because of a bad hangover, I chose to eat a burger to settle my stomach. The burger in the picture already looked sad enough – like someone took a blurry iPhone 4 picture of a McDonald’s burger. But the reality was so much worse.
The burger that I received had 0 vegetables – yet still reeked of onions. The buns were stale, the burger patty looked (and tasted) like a hockey puck, and was microwaved right in front of my very eyes. In my self-induced dehydrated and overemotional state, I was very close to crying when I saw it.
Not only was it offensive to consume, it was physically offensive to my body as well. The second the last bite of this burger hit my stomach, it set off a bomb I was ill-equipped for. That train ride felt eternal.
Rating: 5/5 microwaves.
What you should eat instead: buy yourself a good French sandwich at whichever station you’re departing from – jambon beurre (ham and butter) is my personal preference and a delicious, but safe choice. Avoid train food at all costs. It’s like airplane food, only without the excuse of changes in air pressure making things taste worse.
Romania (somewhere on the road)
Romania is a country that exceeded my expectations when it comes to food. Despite having Romanian friends, no one had ever touted Romania as being a killer place to eat (which it is)
One typical Romanian delicacy that I tried is a small sausage called mici (pronounced meetchee) or mititsei. We stumbled upon it during a roadtrip that spanned 5 Romanian cities. Romania has two main highways, with the rest being mountain road, so getting from one place to the other means a lot of meandering through the Romanian countryside.
During one of these meanderings, we started smelling the distinct odour of grilled meat. There were no establishments in view where this grilled meat could be made. The grilled meat mystery was solved a few minutes later where a whole stretch of street vendors selling fruits, vegetables, Romanian plum-based moonshine (tsuica), grilled meats, and most importantly, mici, came out of seemingly nowhere.
Mici is amazing. A small sausage that’s packed with flavor and super super super affordable. We picked up the mici with some tsuica and left very content.
We became less content once, one by one, we got the meat burps. The smell of the gas that came out should be classified as a biohazard – especially in enclosed places. Considering we still had 5 hours to go on our roadtrip, a “no mici if there is driving” rule was implemented from that stretch of the trip onward.
Rating: 1.5/5 unlabeled tsuica bottles.
What you should eat instead: pick up some roadside mici!!!! It’s delicious!!!! Just don’t stay in an enclosed location with anyone who’s eaten it. If for whatever reason you want to avoid the mici meat burps, the best steaks of my life were eaten in Romania. They know how to cook meat well and, compared to Western Europe, it’s affordable.
Fun fact about Lyon: Lyon is considered the food capital of France and one of the food capitals in the world. Knowing this, I somehow managed to fuck up our experience in Lyon so much I had the worst meals of my life there.
Let’s start with the worst pizza I’ve ever had.
My team and I had arrived late at night at this parking lot, ready to set up for the next day’s event. Working on almost no sleep, but still in high spirits, we ordered the only option available in this industrial area telecom parking lot: pizza. The pizza took an hour and a half to get to us, and our French/Chinese contact had to argue on the phone with the delivery driver for it to even get to us at all.
The taste was subpar, but not offensive. What was offensive is what it did to my stomach. I never knew a pizza could double as a laxative until we ordered this one. To this day, I’m convinced that because of whatever argument was happening on the phone with our contact, they might have added something to that pizza to do what it did to us.
The second worst meal of my life was in another parking lot in Lyon, the day after.
After the terrible pizza of the night before, I held out for a good dinner the day after. This did not happen. A series of unfortunate events led to everyone in the team being too drunk on gin to realize that restaurants had closed and our only option was now takeaway. Once we noticed, we ordered doner and ate ravenously in the hotel parking lot.
The circumstances of being in the best European food city, drunk on an empty stomach, and having the saddest of sad meals – this time self-induced – was emotionally too much to handle and I might have cried when half my doner fell to the floor while eating it.
Rating: 7/5 sad sad tears of a clown
What you should eat instead: Anything else in Lyon. Please.
Sad meals are usually avoidable. It’s part of what makes them so sad.
Picking a good place to eat in a country you don’t know is an art in itself. It’s a good skill to hone and one that I think I’m pretty good at (if anyone wants tips on that, leave a comment and I’ll share them). But every once in a while I get reminded that really, you can’t win all the time.
And when that happens, and I’m staring down a sad meal, I try to hold on to the fact that at least most of the time, I nail it.
Like what you see? I post a new blog every Sunday where I talk about… whatever THOUGHT interests me that week. Expect a bit of books, travel, beauty, and taking pop culture way too seriously.