IndyEthnicFood turns 5 

Sometimes I think of the fragrant dishes my Iranian uncle by marriage used to make, and I am saddened by my lack of exotic cooking knowledge. My nostalgic pangs are associated with distinct images and smells: long-grain rice with chunks of burnt yellow that I now recognize as saffron; pink blob-spotted swords that emerged from the oven as perfectly cooked kabobs.

I imagine these memories drive many people to their local ethnic eateries. But these places tend to be small and out of the way enough to sometimes thwart potentially ardent visitors.

Enter, circa May 2003. Those who haven’t yet stumbled upon or heard about this most complete listing of Indianapolis ethnic eateries, grocery stores and news have been missing a valuable resource.

As of Monday, May 26, the site had 2,973 ratings for 820 restaurants. The ratings are user-penned reviews.

Site co-founder Drew Appleby created a series of fields so that site users could write “lay person” reviews with the criteria — ambience, service and food — that “professional” food reviews ostensibly contain. Of course, some site users are also local chefs and food writers.

Appleby, a professor in the psychology department at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, started sending out mass e-mails about his favorite ethnic restaurants prior to the site. His motives were selfish — he was tired of his favorite restaurants closing from a mere trickling of traffic.

Appleby paired up with John Baldwin, the IT director for Riley Hospital for Children, a little over five years ago. Baldwin created the simple interface for IndyEthnicFood.

Users began to discover the site through word of mouth. Now the pair has people calling from out of the city to inquire how the two put it together. Appleby says it wouldn’t be hard to take the existing model and create a “CincyEthnicFood” or the like.

The prototype is thorough. From the first page, users encounter a culinary quiz from Appleby, the restaurant ratings of the month broken down by weeks, a recipe of the day, the “hot” rated restaurant of the last 30 days and the “un-rated” restaurant of the day — among other things.

The most useful tool for users who may be looking for a new restaurant of, say, the Russian persuasion, is to use the pull-down restaurant directory. Boom — Russia House on 86th.

Unfortunately, there are no Iranian or Persian restaurants in the Indianapolis area. I’ll have to lobby for one under the “Restaurant Ethnicity Wish Survey.” Polish dominates this list at 105 requests, followed by Okinawa at 52.

Lucky for me, there are plenty of Persian-related cuisines in Indianapolis: 10 under the “Middle Eastern” pull-down menu, to be exact. Mediterrano Café (5941 E. 86th St.) comes highly recommended by users; Appleby recommends the buffet at Cairo Café.

I was familiar with the same ol’ sushi joints — Sakura, H20, Mikado — so I did my own little search. Asaka Japanese Restaurant (6414 E. 82nd St.) is my next place to try. Apparently, sushi happy hour from 5-7 p.m. every weekday is a big draw. Several reviewers claimed to have Japanese friends who lauded the food as “just like home.”

When a new ethnic eatery hits the streets, the best place to find out about it is usually on this site. Taiwan Tea House (4040 E. 82nd St.), a Cantonese joint that opened a few months ago, got a lot of traction from being here.

Chefs and PR people know the power of IndyEthnicFood. Appleby and Baldwin have to monitor review submissions that are overly complimentary. Five-star ratings without a reason to recommend can be easily “planted,” raising a particular restaurant’s standing in the dynamic top 10 restaurants list.

Appleby shared an anecdote about the coming of Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chao. “A review showed up before it actually opened,” he says, intimating a sly PR move. He deleted the post.

Have a hankering for Brazilian? Not to worry. A couple of more earnest reviews on Fogo have already cropped up.

If you like the site, don’t forget to donate: IndyEthnicFood is a not-for-profit corporation.

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