Foodies on Parade

dining dishcrawlDishcrawl Santa Cruz creates restaurant-centric camaraderie

At Pono Hawaiian Grill, a sellout group of forty curious foodophiles was donning name tags, ordering beverages and mingling; anxious for the mystery that was Santa Cruz’s first Dishcrawl ($45) to unfold. Finally, an organizer announced that the buffet was open and we lined up to partake in the food at our first of four restaurant stops.

Dishcrawl founder Tracy Lee enjoyed taking groups of friends to sample the food at various San Jose-area restaurants, and saw the potential of turning the joy of shared culinary experiences into a business.  The company’s first expansion was into Montreal, and there are now organizations in 50 cities in the U.S. and Canada.

Wes Katayama is the Dishcrawl Ambassador for the South Bay and Santa Cruz area. He explains the goal of the organization as involving the community in supporting local restaurants. He was especially excited about the relationships he was building with the restaurateurs.

I see it as bringing the expanding market of culinary tourism back home, however I can imagine planning a trip to Boston or Austin around a Dishcrawl event. The cities’ ambassadors surely know the best places to eat.

The next local Dishcrawl will be on Feb. 26 in Capitola, but, in March, we might see a family-friendly downtown neighborfood event instead. Participants are given a map of the eight or so participating restaurants, which they visit at their own pace during a three hour window. Typically, one item is served to each ticket holder, and small children are welcome to share a ticket. Katayama is excited about the community spirit such events engender. San Jose’s Santana Row Neighborfood (at the time called a Dishwalk) drew 250 people, and in downtown San Jose, 500. All events have a charitable component. For instance, this month’s Mountain View event ($40) benefits the Silicon Valley Arts Council.

At the Santa Cruz Dishcrawl, as is typical, participants receive an e-mail two days before the event which identified Pono Hawaiian Grill as the starting location. The remaining stops are kept secret. At Pono we were treated to nuggets of Panko-breaded and fried Chicken Katsu, fresh spring rolls with crisp vegetables and tofu with a side of Hoisin sauce, and Kalua pulled pork sliders. The pork recipe had changed substantially for the dining dishcrawl.cafemarebetter since my last tasting and incorporated a delicious, lightly sweetened, seasoned sauce. Vegetarians were offered a special sushi instead.

As we followed the lead umbrella to the second secret location, I recalled annual Progressive Dinners where groups of teenage campfire girls prepared a different course at a handful of homes. But at a Dishcrawl, talented chefs instead of novices staff the kitchen.

Five tables were set up for us at Café Mare, and I wasn’t the only one to order a glass of Merlot for this course, which arrived quickly. Like redesigned lasagna, a sheet of pasta was rolled around paper-thin zucchini and, with buttery smooth pork and beef meatballs, rested in a pool of marinara. A toasted but still-tender crostini topped with creamy grilled eggplant and shaved Pecorino-Romano sat atop a bed of curly endive. I have a small stomach (which doesn’t necessarily equate to a small belly) so I felt like I had eaten two meals so far. But I had already met a number of people, and was having so much fun.

It was lights out, literally, at the third venue as a power outage sent the staff scurrying to the kitchen for an ample supply of votive candles. Tables had been set for us with cloth napkins in the back room upstairs at Rosie McCann’s. The restaurant boasts a selection of 30 beers, organic produce, and Creekstone grass-fed beef.  On our plates was a talented presentation of tapas-like renditions of three favorite dishes. For the fish and chips, a piece of crisply fried fish was drizzled with lemony tartar sauce and skewered with cabbage and a slice of potato. Corned beef with horseradish sauce was stacked with cooked carrot, cabbage, and mashed potatoes, and house-made buns were featured on the seasoned beef sliders.

And finally, dessert. At Mission Hill Creamery, owner David Kumec talked a bit about his organic artisan ice creams. The company is recognized for sustainability and quality as one of the top 20 artisan ice cream makers in the U.S. We then sampled a few of the 16 flavors before choosing one for our cup or cone. This time I tried the maple-bacon, which was interspersed with crunchy and chewy smoky and sweet bites.

The 40 of us, plus about a dozen Dishcrawl employees-in-training headed back to our cars; some with umbrellas, some with hoods, and some just a little damp. We were in our twenties and seventies, we were singles, couples and co-workers, we were teachers, retirees, directors of City of Santa Cruz departments, marketers and food scientists. Some of us took photos of every plate from every angle. But in three hours, we had walked .9 miles together, we had been treated royally, and we had shared our inquisitiveness about, and passion for, food, conversation and community. 

To purchase tickets or subscribe to the Dishcrawl email, facebook or twitter feed, visit dishcrawl.com/santacruz

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