By Aleksandra Bulatksaya
Photography by Daniel Garcia
Thank you to Psycho Donuts for providing Donuts
They do it in the dark away from prying eyes. With a click of a mouse, Bay Area’s hungry masses buy tickets to Dishcrawl, one of San Jose’s hottest new epicurean events. The twenty-six bucks Dishcrawlers shelled-out for a ticket granted access to secret local menus like the fried grass hoppers washed down by mescal, a traditional Oaxacan alcohol similar to tequila at Mezcal, the trendy Oaxacan eatery in downtown San Jose. If fried grasshoppers were not your cup of tea, ice cream sandwiches and karaoke provided by Treatbot, a gourmet ice cream truck with a cult-like Facebook following waited a block away. But none of the gourmet ice cream and grasshopper tasting would be happening in San Jose were it not for one woman’s search to combine her greatest passions – food and bringing people together.
Tracy Lee, the founder of Dishcrawl pointed-out to me that the point of Dishcrawl is not just trying new food. “I wanted to go back to my roots in San Jose,” said Lee, “I went to San Jose State, I lived in downtown and I wanted to bring back a sense of community back to San Jose. Like the block parties people use to have back in the day.” Lee, like many of San Jose residents, found that suburban sprawl made for peaceful living but lacked a vibrant sense of community of more claustrophobic urban centers like neighboring San Francisco or New York.
Working the corporate grind in Brocade’s marking department, Lee kept finding herself drawn to food and a business of her own. “It started with a video blog I did for fun called ‘Tasty Twosome’ where I interviewed chefs from local restaurants. The blog was eventually developed into another site called Battledish that a short time later became Taste Monkeys, which was basically Yelp for dishes, with Dishcrawl being a side marking promotion of Taste Monkeys.”
Not one to shy away from describing the many entrepreneurial dead-ends on the road to her success with Dishcrawl, Lee explained that many times young entrepreneurs put too much emphasis on formal business details and not enough focus on an idea that may be developing organically. “We built the product, the site, but it took me two hours to upload a single restaurant menu to the website! Why would I do that to myself?! In reality nobody cares, nobody is going to your site and all your market research on compulsion loops is for nothing,” exclaims Lee with a trademark cascading laugh.
In her frustration she realized that a community of people who enjoy food and not food reviews were what was missing from San Jose’s foodie scene and a website was not going to fill that void. “We created a site that allowed people to start Dishcrawls in their city, but after a while we realized that most people didn’t want to start a Dishcrawl, they just wanted to come to ours and once we did what people wanted us to, we exploded.” The explosion was exponential, with the first Dishcrawl hosting thirty people in an excursion of downtown San Jose’s restaurants. Today, the latest city to Dishcrawl is Montreal, Canada where one hundred and fifty foodies discovered Canadian cuisine.
On her first Dishcrawl Lee recalls a woman who pensively emailed her, asking if she will be “okay” to go to Dishcrawl by herself, since none of her friends could make it. Her fears turned-out to be unfounded, as she sat down for the first taste and conversation with her neighbors about Dishcrawl offerings flowed. The people the woman met that day have been coming to every Dishcrawl together ever since. “It’s the sweetest thing, she emails me asking if her friends bought tickets yet, or tries to call me to add one more person if we are at capacity,” said Lee with satisfaction that can only come from those who truly love their work.
When asked specifically about the San Jose foodie scene Lee confesses that, “In San Jose it’s all about finding the little hidden gems.” Some of her personal local favorites include the Naglee Park Garage and their bread pudding French toast, the flaky empanadas at Mmoon and the edible orchid salad at Fahrenheit Lounge’s restaurant.
“I think the main reason people are not aware of hidden treasures in San Jose is because there is a very small platform for these places to promote themselves, whereas in San Francisco there is a huge dining media machine,” said Lee, “Just look at Satori Tea tucked away in a quiet corner of San Pedro Square and the edible orchid salad at Fahrenheit. Who knew they had an edible orchid salad? And who wouldn’t wanna eat it? I know I do!”
Lee seems to have accomplished the Silicon Valley dream of starting small, dreaming big and making it all happen through sheer persistence. What could possibly be next? A full Dishcrawl dinner of course! In her new vision, Lee sees a single restaurant and a gathering around a big family style table. “It will be specially prepared menus of a single restaurant for a small group of people.”
San Jose, like most suburbs, was built with a sense of community to help recapture a pastoral innocence and escape a hectic city pace, but the sheer distance between neighbors at times seems to do the opposite. In her mission to bring a more urban food scene to San Jose, Lee has accomplishing what few city planners and politicians ever did. Finally bringing a community together.