What makes the perfect mouthful? With a crisp apple or a perfectly ripe peach, it’s elemental.
Or maybe it’s the quality of the ingredients. When people compliment my pot roast, for instance, I tell them, “Thanks, but the cow did the work.”
Still, the skill, knowledge and techniques of a chef improve and enhance most food, sometimes bringing out flavors and textures you didn’t even know were there.
The diner also brings something to the special moment — the associations of a food with meals past, the fun of eating with friends, the setting. There are no bad hot dogs at the ballpark when your team’s winning, right?
That’s the premise of the hit Food Network show The Best Thing I Ever Ate — that a great meal starts with great food but often relies on the meal’s context as well.
So we asked CityBeat staffers and a selection of our friends to answer a tough question: What’s the best thing they’ve eaten in Greater Cincinnati. And we got some great answers, from giant Girthburgers to fancy foie gras.
Let’s wander through the local culinary scene….
Girthburger at Zip’s Café
Angela Wong Miller
“Lay Sik Faan Mei?” This is a typical Chinese greeting that translates to “You eat rice yet?” Not “How are you?” or “What’s new?” Even the traditional Chinese greeting centers around food.
My family emigrated from Hong Kong, where I grew up eating my mom’s Chinese home cooking. My sister and I eagerly savored fish cheeks and devoured dim sum. So, when my dad first introduced us to American cuisine, I was skeptical.
Then I discovered the Girthburger from Zip’s (1036 Delta Ave., Mount Lookout, 513-871-9876). It’s brilliant! A juicy burger topped with a grilled mettwurst, complemented by big crispy onion rings. Poof! Skepticism gone!
I know why this has been the place of Cincinnati burger legends since 1926. The top of my Western food favorites: the Girthburger. So even though Chinese home cooking has my heart, my stomach always has room for Girth.
Angela Wong Miller and her family own and operate the Oriental Wok restaurants in Hyde Park, Taylor Mill and Fort Mitchell.
Fried Pickles at Pepper Pod Restaurant
Few foods elicit a Pavlovian drool response when I simply think about them, but if I start daydreaming about the Fried Pickles at the Pepper Pod Restaurant (703 Monmouth St., Newport, 859-431-7455), I inevitably need a napkin.
The Pod is hugely popular with the after-bar crowd (stake out a seat some Saturday night around 2 a.m. to see many familiar musician faces) thanks to its simple yet yummy diner food. On my most recent visit, as I tacked on Fried Pickles to my order, the waitress knowingly shook her head, chuckled and said, “Of course. I sell more of those things than anything else!”
These sensational spears don’t seem to undergo any magical cooking process. The breading isn’t too thick or too thin. I’ve had others that were way too acidic and heartburn-inducing, and I’ve had some that are treated too preciously and are too lightly breaded.
The Pepper Pod has (probably accidentally) found the perfect preparation, balancing the mix of the pickle’s juiciness with the fried-chicken-ish breading and grease. If they ever discontinue them, I imagine there’d be a Fried Pickle Rebellion, and they’d quickly reconsider to avoid a coup.
Mike Breen is CityBeat Arts & Entertainment Editor.
Swirl Cone at Putz’s Creamy Whip
To paraphrase Robert Duvall’s crazy colonel in Apocalypse Now, I love the taste of soft-serve ice cream in the evening. It tastes like … summer.
They say the senses of smell and taste can trigger stronger memories than sight and sound, and food memories certainly are hardwired into our brains. Soft-serve ice cream instantly takes me back to childhood summers on the Jersey shore boardwalk and connects with bursts of other impressions, from salty air and sandy toes to flashing neon lights and laughing, shrieking kids.
Not growing up in Cincinnati, I was warned about the West Side when I first moved here, told I’d get lost if I wandered too much over there, told not to expect anything interesting. Instead, I’ve developed a fascination with the West Side, discovering it to be the city’s Epcot Center of living history where habits and traditions evolve at a slower pace, if at all.
I discovered Putz’s Creamy Whip (2673 Putz Place, Westwood, 513-681-8668) on one of my expeditions and have been returning for years, yet I still order just one thing: a soft-serve cone. Sometimes if it’s really hot out, I’ll go light with vanilla. Occasionally I’ll shake up the routine with chocolate. Most times I get the chocolate/vanilla swirl.
I like that high school kids sell the treats out of a window in small cinder-block building that’s open only in the warm months, I like sitting on the picnic tables under the trees and I like helping my son and daughter form their own childhood memories. Thanks, Putz’s.
John Fox is CityBeat Editor/Co-Publisher.
The TAB at Arnold’s Bar & Grill
In my personal culinary experience there’s hardly been a more rewarding time than the early days of the Arnold’s Bar & Grill (210 E. Eighth St., Downtown, 513-421-6234) revival in the mid-1970s. There was a never-ending series of “best meals” from Greek Spaghetti and the original pasta salads, particularly the TAB (turkey, avocado and bacon), to grape pie, Swiss bread to lamb shanks with risotto — all with an emphasis on fresh ingredients, from scratch and grown locally. We didn’t even have a freezer.
When I bought Arnold’s on April 5, 1976, the staff consisted mostly of friends who joined the team for music, camaraderie, a sense of adventure and, for sure, a love of food. My wife Brenda, followed by Mary McMahon and Toni Davina, led a chorus of cooks who set a pace like none other.
Jim Tarbell is former Vice Mayor of Cincinnati and Democratic candidate for Hamilton County Commissioner.
Wheels Burger at Café de Wheels
I always say life is all about the story, so how about one of the best things I’ve eaten along with a story?
It was a cold January day, a day off. What to do for lunch? Something that’s not open in the evenings for sure, Cafe de Wheels (www.cafedewheels.com)? Yes, the new food truck running around Cincinnati that everyone had been talking about.
It was cold, I mean real cold out, but Erin Marie and I walked up and ordered our food, a couple burgers and sweet potato fries. About 10 minutes later, food appeared out of the side of the truck like manna from heaven, and we dug in.
The burger was made just as they should be, packed together just enough to keep it from falling apart while cooked, a Niagara Falls of flavor just explodes in your mouth. As I contemplated the taste and texture, I looked around and took in Central Parkway and its surrounding buildings.
Then, just like that we were done, cold, shivering and content, we walked back home.
Bob Schwartz has been blogging about and boostering for city life in Cincinnati at 5chw4r7z.blogspot.com since 2007.
Grilled Salmon at York Street Café
My knockout dish is peppered salmon with pomegranate marmalade from York Street Café (738 York St., Newport, 859-261-9675). I had this a couple weeks back, and it nailed me from bite one. While a half-dozen friends shared lively conversation, I deconstructed the salmon with my fork, analyzing the composition of the crust so I could duplicate the meal at home every other day.
Despite the hoity-toity Epicurean-magazine tone of the dishes’ ingredients, my entrée tasted closer to Bourbon Street than the Champs Élysées — at heart a New Orleans-worthy chunk of fish bammed with a thick coat of black pepper, black-seared crisp, topped with red onion, pomegranate marmalade and drizzled with pomegranate syrup
I give this gustatory accomplishment five stars of solid gold. And if York Street Café figures a way to serve it on sticks from a carryout window, I’ll give it six.
Jack Kerley writes suspense novels from his Newport home. His titles, published in 10 languages, are best sellers in the UK and Australia. In the U.S. they’re available from murderbooks.com.
Cheeseburger at Herb & Thelma’s
C. Trent Rosecrans
There are so many ways to hide sub-par food. You can prepare it behind a wall out of view, throw spices in it to hide lesser ingredients or pile more and more things on top of it to make it seem more than it is. There are few things more honest than a cheeseburger, and there’s no more honest cheeseburger than the one at Herb & Thelma’s (718 Pike St., Covington, 859-491-6984).
Walk into the corner bar that’s been in the Boemker family since 1939, and Chip is behind the bar. Order a $2 cheeseburger, and you’ll get to see every bit of the process: Chip takes the fresh patty out of the refrigerator and onto the steel flattop grill right there behind the bar. A couple of minutes later, it’s in front of you, served on a simple paper plate.
Every morning at 10 a.m. Chip buys freshly ground beef from his local market, and that’s what goes on the grill. What comes off is a perfectly juicy burger. There are no fancy toppings (onion and pickles only) because anything more would hide the taste of the meat. It’s not extravagant, but it’s everything a burger should be.
C. Trent Rosecrans is editor of CNati.com, a Web site that focuses on Greater Cincinnati sports.
Pork Belly Sandwich at The Rookwood Bar and Restaurant
My weakness — indeed my vice — is without a doubt the Pork Belly sandwich at The Rookwood (1077 Celestial St., Mount Adams, 513-421-5555). I’m not usually much of a fan of pork, but sometimes the appetite of my inner-Cincinnatian takes over. And there’s something almost religious about the idea of another creature’s belly becoming your belly — in this case at least.
The Rookwood’s most expensive sandwich ($13), this feast contains tender and rich (read: fatty) braised pork belly accented by a little applewood smoked bacon, topped with Fontina cheese, pickled red onions and, oh yes, a fried egg. Put it all on a pile of watercress and between fresh Focaccia bread smeared with mayo, and you have a sacrament of the table indeed — a most unholy communion.
At first, the sandwich doesn’t appear too threatening. It’s not so tall that you can’t fit it in your mouth, and the fillings are barely visible under the thick slice of lumpy, crusty bread. After your initial bite it becomes apparent that you’re going to have to put a little effort in, as the meat slips out from between the focaccia and you get a mouthful of everything else. Delicious, but you’re left wanting more.
With each bite, you start to get more pork belly and more fried egg and more watercress. And more bacon and cheese and mayo. Before you know it, you’re clutching the remains of your sandwich together, hands covered in God knows what, and you realize you’ve lost track of the topic of conversation at your table.
If you ordered fries on the side, God help you. If my last supper was The Rookwood’s Pork Belly sandwich (and at the rate I consume them, it might someday be) I would surely die happy.
Brian Cross is a CityBeat contributing food writer.
Cheese Enchiladas at Cactus Pear
George Bernard Shaw said that there is no love sincerer than the love of food. My sincerest love is for one dish in particular, and it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that it’s the Cheese Enchiladas at Cactus Pear (3215 Jefferson Ave., Corryville, 513-961-7400; 9500 Kenwood Road, Blue Ash, 513- 791-4424).
I will make any excuse to go: “I had a really bad day at work, let’s go to the Pear.” “It’s such a nice day, let’s go to the Pear.” “I just lost $200 at the track, let’s go to the Pear.” Like a siren song, the Cheese Enchiladas call my name.
The Cactus Pear’s version is a culinary marvel. I have no idea how they melt the cheese to such a rich, creamy, fondue-like consistency that feels like silk as it envelops my mouth. You can’t scarf this down, and you shouldn’t. This dish demands your attention and forces you to enjoy the suppleness and the experience, not unlike a dominatrix. A hot, cheesy, sumptuous dominatrix.
When your Cheese Enchiladas are placed in front of you, your eyes are drawn to a wide river of beautifully melted cheese flowing between a levee of rice and a small lake of black beans. And the topper — the lemon sour cream — glitters like sunshine across water.
You know food is good when no one speaks for the first few minutes of a meal. I’m silent for nine minutes, the exact time it takes me to eat this delicious devil. I twirl the cheese around my fork like pasta. I treat it like a dip and scoop it onto tortilla chips. And then beans. And then more cheese. Sip of margarita. Repeat.
Please don’t tell me how they make this dish or what’s in it. I just want to know that it’ll never be taken off the menu. See you there Friday.
Karen Christopfel is a CityBeat contributing food writer.
YeeHaw Barbeque Sandwich at Melt
My pick would have to be Melt’s YeeHaw Barbecue sandwich. (Full disclosure: I’m a Melt employee, but I’ve worked in restaurants all over town and this is my honest appraisal.)
Equally good meaty or veg, you can opt to get it with chicken, tempeh, seitan or tofu with smoked mozzarella or their vegan smokey cheddar. Spoiler alert: It’s awesome pretty much any way you try it. Spicy, sweet and filling. For $8.50 it comes with a side choice, and I normally opt for redskin potatoes or greens with Lime Cilantro Vinaigrette.
My dad’s choice is always the equally great Joan of Arc. I mention this because I suspect he drives three hours just to eat this sandwich. He says it’s actually to visit me, but those visits have suddenly increased since his Melt discovery.
Lisa Walker is a singer/songwriter in Anne Mitchell’s favorite band, Wussy.
Mahi Mahi at Nada
Nada (600 Walnut St., Downtown, 513-721-6232) is the perfect restaurant for the new, hip downtown: bright and colorful, brash and eccentrically fun-spirited but with subtly sophisticated service and high standards in its imaginative, south-of-the-border food preparation. With summer almost here, it deserves its reputation as a happening, exciting spot.
My favorite dinner there is to start with the cabo salad (greens with tomatillo, mild goat cheese and red wine vinaigrette) and then move on to the wonderful, perfectly grilled mahi mahi on a bed of charred corn and fregula with tomato vinaigrette. (I get the jalapeno pesto on the side.) It’s a delicious combination of flavors, presented in a visually appealing manner.
To top it off: the tart pink grapefruit sorbet.
Steven Rosen is CityBeat’s Contributing Art Editor.
Poutine at Senate
Surprisingly, smothering French fries in a yellow puddle of melted cheese sauce is a relatively recent concept in America, widely recognized as dating to the early 1980s, though whether it was done first in Chicago or Philadelphia is somewhat in dispute.
Our neighbors to the north, however, have been eating a similar dish since at least the 1950s. French-Canadian poutine is a homey blend of crispy fries, cheese curds and light veal of poultry gravy. Today, versions of this classic dish can be found throughout Quebec, from haute-cuisine establishments to greasy spoon truck stops.
The finest (though not the most authentic) version you’ll find locally is without doubt served at downtown newcomer Senate (1212 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-421-2020). Simply put, it’s a heaping plate of heaven: crispy, hand-cut, truffle-flavored fries layered with an oozing mass of loose, rich cheese curds and meltingly tender shredded beef short ribs with brown gravy ($10).
You might as well throw caution to the wind and order it with an intensely flavored Southern Tier “Unearthly” Imperial IPA ($13) that clocks in at 10 percent ABV. If there’s a more delicious way to court coronary artery disease, I don’t know what it is.
Michael Schiaparelli is a CityBeat contributing food writer.
The Bengal Sandwich at Price Hill Chili
As a native, I know as well as anyone how tough it can be to find good, diverse food on the West Side. Contrary to popular opinion, one can’t live on LaRosa’s and Skyline alone.
But I can’t complain. My food memories are dominated by Grandma Gargano’s authentic Italian spaghetti dinners every Sunday for as far back as I can remember. (Grandma, now 85, finally retired her Frank Sinatra apron a few years ago.) Imagine 20-plus Garganos scrambling to grab the last lovingly crafted meatball or the last piece of Italian bread baked fresh daily at Scalea’s Deli in South Fairmount. And don’t get me started on Grandma’s made-from-scratch ravioli. Heaven.
All of which doesn’t detract from the deliciousness of another nostalgia-driven favorite, The Bengal sandwich. Long a West Side epicenter of sustenance and conviviality, Price Hill Chili (4920 Glenway Ave., Price Hill, 513-471-9507) features a massive, comfort-food-laden menu stuffed with worthy options. To choose just one is a painful endeavor. Alas, it must be done.
I can’t remember the first time I put The Bengal to my lips — mostly likely during the quarterback reign of Ken Anderson, whom I imaged eating it every week for his pre-game meal — but know that it forever altered my brain’s pleasure center via its seemingly simple combination of hot ham, crisp bacon and melted American cheese topped with fresh tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise, all held together by a toasted Kaiser bun. Sound mundane? Not a chance. It’s a subtle melding of flavors and textures that somehow taste great together.
And the to-go version is even better: The heat-holding wrapper allows its various ingredients to congeal and coalesce, adding a whole new dimension to an already classic sandwich.
Jason Gargano is CityBeat Managing Editor.
Tom Thait Ram at Song Long
We live close to Song Long (1737 Section Road, Roselawn, 513-351-7631), and there’s no doubt I’ve eaten more meals there than at any other restaurant. There’s also no doubt that the most frequent — and wonderful — of those meals has been Tom Thait Ram.
The shrimp and pork combination is simmered in black pepper sauce, and I have no idea how to pronounce it. I think it appeals more to my classical taste than to my Rock & Roll taste, but it’s just as tasty as can be.
Brian O’D plays Classical music on WGUC (90.9 FM) and Rock & Roll on Saturdays on WNKU (89.7 FM).
French Toast at Honey
For those who think the activity of brunch strikes upon the deepest pleasure center of eating and socializing, Honey’s (4034 Hamilton Ave., Northside, 513-541-4300) Sunday brunch exemplifies the sophisticated yet down-to-earth sensibility for which the restaurant is reputed. Theirs is a bit more expensive than other breakfasts in the city (especially if you accompany your entrée with a lineup of mimosas or Honey Royales, a cocktail of honey Barenjager and champagne), but whether I lean to sweet or savory on a particular morning Honey’s thoughtfully crafted dishes always impress.
Possibly the best French Toast I’ve ever eaten in Cincinnati (which is saying something with the number of unique versions around town) is Honey’s, which is a pronounced baguette (from Shadeau Breads, of course) battered with frangipane (Viennese almond pastry creme) and served with caramelized bananas, a dollop of mascarpone and a drizzle of warm, fresh maple syrup. Dreamy and downright confectionary, the success of the dish, for me, is how resilient the bread is to its many accompaniments, remaining textural with a lovely crust.
With so many layers of this and that, each bite is like a sweet little painting of different flavor profiles. Honey’s brunch is available Sundays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is nearly always very busy.
Matt Morris is a CityBeat contributing arts writer.
Foie Gras at Daveed’s at 934
Food writing poses some interesting challenges. Writing about bad food makes you sound really mean, and writing about ordinary food gets really repetitive. But writing about outstanding food gets a little bit like writing porn. Not that I’ve ever done that, Mom!
Um, but if I had, I think it would be close to writing about my experience eating the Foie Gras appetizer at Daveed’s at 934 (934 Hatch St., Mount Adams, 513-721-2665).
“Dear Penthouse, I never thought it would happen to me, but one night I went up the hill to Mount Adams, innocent, and then … I shuddered when I closed my eyes, opened my mouth and let the velvety texture melt across my tongue. It was so sensuous! I bit my lip, but a tiny moan escaped, and the couple at a nearby table glanced, curious to see what caused it.” Snap out of it!
But that’s actually what happened the night I tasted foie gras from La Belle Farms, pan seared, grilled and beautifully presented, wrapped in a crisp, delicate pancake, accented with a buttery maple sorbet sparkling with sea salt and a tiny pat of passion fruit jelly. The richness, the sweetness, the earthy flavor … the perfect ingredients, the perfect preparation … it was just too amazing.
I got a little carried away. Sorry, Mom.
Anne Mitchell is CityBeat’s Contributing Dining Editor.
House Salad at Scotti’s Italian Restaurant
I’m willing to bet money not too many salads make it to “best of” lists around the country. They’re simply too simple, too ordinary, too “salad-y.” But this can’t be said of the house salad at Scotti’s Italian Restaurant (919 Vine St., Downtown, 513-721-9484). Unique and bold, it’s part salad, part coleslaw and part culinary masterpiece.
Simple lettuce is shredded thick and tossed with cabbage dyed red and green (what, you’ve never eaten your patriotism?). Delivered swimming in the most deliciously sweet and vinegary dressing and adorned with exactly one olive and one pepperocini, it’s one of the most addicting concoctions to ever pass my lips. If only I had a potato pancake from the Decent Deli on Cornell to eat with it. Sigh.
The thing about this salad, and all the food at Scotti’s, is this: It’s the real deal. You want Italian? Real Italian? Go to Scotti’s. You want iceberg lettuce elevated to rock star status? Go to Scotti’s. Now. And if licking the bowl is wrong, I don’t want to be right!
Diana Day is a CityBeat contributing food writer.