Plenty of Web sites allow ordinary people to review restaurants, and good reviews on sites like Chowhound and Yelp can help a restaurant. Now tech-savvy food lovers are creating a new kind of culinary Web site that steers people toward smaller, harder-to-find eateries.
Joshua Lurie-Terrell of Sacramento, Calif., is the creator of YumTacos.com, an online map of taco trucks in the United States. It's an example of a new category of Web sites that alert people to small restaurants that probably would never make it into a fancy food guide. It focuses primarily on California.
"I was keeping a list," Lurie-Terrell says. "I carry a little notebook, usually, around with me. ... And as soon as friends of mine knew I had this list, people were calling me all the time, saying: 'You know, I'm in the South area. I'm hungry, it's 10 o'clock. I've had pho already this week, and I need something different.' And I'd say, 'Oh, taco truck at the corner of 65th and Stockton.' And there they were."
From there, it was a short leap to compiling that information online using Google Maps. Lurie-Terrell is a graphic designer by trade and says he loves maps. Plus, his wife is a cartographer. Once he had the map, people from around the country started submitting information.
"There's several in Baltimore, Md., which was kind of surprising to me," Lurie-Terrell says. "I've been to Baltimore many times, and it did not seem like the kind of place where you had any hope of finding authentic Mexican food."
Lurie-Terrell is turning people on to small businesses that they might not otherwise find. One of the earliest food maps was made by Adam Kuban, the founder of SliceNY.com, a blog devoted to pizza — specifically, New York pizza.
"I could just as easily have put the pizzerias in a list, say in the sidebar or some such," Kuban says. "The advantage of having a map is that it's visual and people can click on it. They can zoom in on it to their neighborhood and see, 'Hey, there's five pizza slices here' — which is what I use on the map, pizza slices, for my pinpoints — 'That means there's good stuff around me.' And they can go and look and see where it is."
But what if your neighborhood is the entire country? That was the problem for Brian Hui, a graduate student at the University of Southern California who splits his time between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Hui is like a lot of Chinese immigrants who don't cook — they comprise a large market of people nationwide who want a little taste of home.
That's how ChineseFoodMap.com was born — an entirely Chinese-language site with reviews plotted in major metro areas around the country, including Houston, Seattle and Atlanta. But chances are, your favorite local Chinese restaurant isn't on the list.
"The Chinese restaurant for Chinese here and the Chinese restaurant for non-Chinese is kind of totally different. That's why Chinese people need a Web site for themselves!" Hui says.
If you can't read Chinese and you feel like you're missing out on the good stuff, fear not. Hui wants to help his favorite Chinese restaurants get new non-Chinese customers. He plans to complete an English version of the site by the end of the summer.