This piece is part of our SJtoday Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them here.
Would you like to explore your city in a way you’ve never before? Cassie Kifer is here to help.
The local author recently released “San Jose Scavenger,” a book that takes you into the neighborhoods and neighboring cities of San Jose — through riddles and rhymes.
Kifer tests our knowledge of local landmarks, architecture, restaurants, and more, with every page taking you to a new side of town that you may have never explored before.
Read on to learn about her process of writing the hunt, some of her San Jose favorites, and the coolest person she’s met in San Jose.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
A: I’m actually not sure I ever did. Writing is just the way I communicate best and it turned into my work. My first published work was a fan letter that I wrote about my pets — a dog and a goldfish — that was featured in an “Archie and Friends” comic book back when I was about 8 years old. I’m still very proud of that!
Q: How did you come up with the idea of “San Jose Scavenger”?
A: After my first book, “Secret San Jose: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure” came out in 2020, readers started asking me to organize a scavenger hunt. I was working on planning just one, just to do as an event, when my publisher suggested we turn that into a book so, instead of one, I came up with 20 different neighborhood scavenger hunts all over Santa Clara County. I loved the idea of challenging people to get out beyond the communities they live in and know best, and explore other neighborhoods in our region.
Q: Take us through the process of researching locally — who did you connect with?
A: The History San Jose Archive and the California Room at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library are the best places for diving deep into Bay Area history. They are both research libraries so you can’t check out the materials, but you can spend the day reading and taking notes.
To learn more about other local cities, many have their own wonderful, volunteer-run historic organizations and museums. Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Saratoga, Milpitas, and Gilroy all do, and some of them host free or cheap walking tours so you can learn more about these communities.
Q: What was your favorite part about writing this book?
A: Definitely the encouragement to learn about and explore neighborhoods I don’t get to very often. Gilroy was a big surprise! I’ve always enjoyed stopping there (one of my favorite taquerías, Tacos Ameca, is down there), but the city also has lots of interesting history, a nice downtown business district, lovely historic homes, and some cool mural-filled parks.
Q: If you’re originally from San Jose, why have you stayed here?
A: I’m not originally from San Jose, but I’ve been living here for more than fifteen years. I love the people here and friends I’ve made. This community is full of open-minded, nerdy, creative, and compassionate people. I feel lucky to have landed here.
Q: You also have a travel + culinary blog called “Ever in Transit.” What would you say is the most unique thing about San Jose’s culinary scene?
A: I think the sheer size of some of our cultural communities mean that you can’t just, for example, get a great bowl of phở, you can get great phở, AND bánh mì, and bánh bèo, chè pudding, Buddhist temple food, blood pizza, Viet-Cajun crawfish, and endless regional Vietnamese delicacies I can’t even imagine. You can find it all. Los Angeles is certainly like that, but up here in the Bay, the South Bay is where you go to dig into many different food traditions.
Q: If you were taking someone on a tour around San Jose, what three places would you go?
A: Downtown San Jose: We would poke around the historic core to check out the architecture, historic monuments, public art, and murals. Stop in for coffee at Nirvana Soul or Con Azucar or a beer at Camino, Clandestine, or Fox Tale Fermentation.
A local food experience: Preferably, Vietnamese soup and desserts. I like Đông Phương Tofu (the one on Story Road) for the soups and Thanh Son Tofu (on Senter Road) for desserts. If it were Sunday, I’d take them to Đức Viên Buddhist Pagoda for their food stalls, and if not, Lion Plaza, or Grand Century Mall to explore. If they didn’t want soup, I’d take them to one of our many great Ethiopian restaurants. Kategna and Selam are two favorites.
Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve: There’s no better view of the Bay and the Santa Clara Valley. Everyone knows it’s a good place for sunset, but the Santa Clara Open Space Authority often organizes sunrise hikes there and the ones I’ve done have been absolutely magical, whether the morning is foggy and you get to hike through the clouds, or whether you get to see the sun come over the Diablo Range. It’s worth getting up super early and driving up the hill for that!
Q: Fill in the blank: The coolest person I’ve met in San Jose is ___.
A: Definitely Krazy George Henderson. He’s a character who really loves to make people smile and to support all our local teams.
Q: Describe San Jose’s personality in three words.
A: Open: To new and different ideas, beliefs, and creativity.
Self-conscious: This city is certainly a little uncertain of who we are and our place in the world.
Resilient: And supportive of each other. There are a lot of helpers here.