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Mardi Gras By the Bite

Local eateries offer traditional foods to celebrate the start of Lent

By Anne Mitchell · February 14th, 2012 · Cover Story
Fat Tuesday, the day before Christians settle down to 40 lean days of Lent, is part of almost every culture, whether it’s called Carnevale, Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. But before you pick up that Hurricane glass and get your beads on, you’d best pick up a fork and get something substantial in your tummy. In Cincinnati, you can go with traditional Mardi Gras foods or just go for fat on the cheap and hit a buffet for a big bang for your buck. The following are some great spots in town for NOLA-style fare, from Packzi and King Cakes to beignets, shrimp, grits and oysters, with a little bit of homestyle cookin’ mixed in. 

Goodbye meat, hello sweets

The word “carnevale” in Italian literally translates to “goodbye, meat!” In Venice, where Carnevale is a huge party day, they kiss meat farewell with frittelle — fritters filled or topped with savory meats or sweets like jelly, fruit or chocolate. Makes sense, since the two things most commonly “given up for Lent” seem to be meat and sweets, and the first thing you eat on Easter morning is a chocolate bunny — something that, at least conceptually, combines the two. 

Our filled fritters — doughnuts, really — are called Paczki, which is pronounced “poonch-key.” This pre-Lent treat is available locally at Busken Bakery. Paczki are of Polish heritage and came to Cincinnati via Cleveland. While Poland is not known for bare-breasted bead-tossing parades, apparently they do know doughnuts. These jelly-, cream- or custard-filled babies are more than a mouthful. Busken tells me they’re “over-filled,” and therefore messier to eat than regular doughnuts. They’re also made from a richer, sweeter dough. Paging Homer Simpson!

Busken is also a local source for King Cakes, another sweet way to get your Mardi Gras morning started. King Cake is the ring-shaped coffee cake topped with sugar in Carnevale colors — green, gold and purple — with an added twist. The cake is baked with a plastic baby inside, and if you get the piece with the baby then you’ve got to buy the next cake. According to my friend Chuck Taggart’s blog of all things New Orleans, gumbopages.com, you may not prepare and serve King Cake before Twelfth Night (the twelfth day after Christmas) or after Mardi Gras Day!

NOLA to go

I love New Orleans — the people, the culture and the cuisine, so I make an annual pilgrimage every summer to chow down (and drink up!) the best flavors of the Creole and Cajun region. It’s a city that’s all about appetite — whether you’re hungry for a big ol’ po-boy stuffed with fried oysters or for some jazz trumpet from Kermit Ruffins at Vaughn’s on a Thursday night. You’ll see stray strands of beads hanging from a tree or a street sign all year round. Somehow, traces of the party that is Mardi Gras never goes away.

While I’d never say that you can get “genuine” New Orleans food anywhere else, there are some good places in Cincinnati to get a taste of it. One of my favorite food trucks is New Orleans to Go, owned by NOLA native LaToya Foster-Filson and her husband Randy Filson. LaToya cooks gumbo and red beans and rice year-round, but she’s been engaged to cater a private party for Mardi Gras, where she’ll serve up some shrimp and grits, jambalaya and peach bread pudding.

She might have put some bad voodoo on me when I almost tricked her into divulging which cheeses she adds to her special Three-Cheese Grits. I’ll have to try again when I find her serving up crawfish boil from the truck in early March.

Beignets, shrimp and grits

Senate, a happening spot in the Gateway District, does a fine job on another New Orleans treat — the beignet. They don’t do the powdered sugar version that you find at Café du Monde in the French Market. The Senate version is sweet and salty, and since they do make every batch fresh, they’re just as delicious. 

Also in the Gateway, A Taste of Belgium makes a shrimp and grits waffle during Mardi Gras. It’s worth a try, but my favorite local version of shrimp and grits is at Otto’s in Mainstrasse. Chef Molly Thompson adds blue cheese to her grits. You put a few drops of Crystal hot sauce on there and you have something good to eat.

Sadly, I can’t find anyone locally who makes the New Orleans dish I miss the most, and that’s grits and grillades. Grillades are shreds of slow-braised round steak with peppers and onions, and it’s served atop baked cheddar cheese grits. My friends and I have this dish for brunch with a spicy Bloody Mary and a plateful of praline bacon at Elizabeth’s Restaurant in the Bywater neighborhood. Elizabeth’s is one of those places like Cincinnati’s beloved Arnold’s, where you can’t quite tell if the floor’s not straight, or if the Bloody Marys are catching up with you. Either way, no worries.

Don’t forget the seafood

Luckily, you can find fried oysters here. They’re a specialty at Washington Platform at the corner of Court and Elm streets and at De Felice Café in Mainstrasse — both an easy stroll away. Knotty Pine on the Bayou out in Cold Spring does some fine oysters, too, but they’ve been closed while they move to a new building and may not be open in time for this year’s Fat Tuesday.

On the Sunday before Fat Tuesday, Findlay Market will be celebrating Mardi Gras with music, a parade and a traditional lowland seafood boil prepared by Chefs/Owners Josh Campbell of Mayberry and Matt Bueschle of Virgil’s Café. Of course, the Market is always a great place to buy some Andouille sausage or get the ingredients to make your own muffuletta. If you’ve never indulged in one of these hearty, meaty sandwiches dressed with olive oil and vinegar and topped with chopped olive relish, you are missing out.

Wash it down

If all this talk of feasting is making you thirsty, it’s always time for a cocktail in NOLA. Sure, there are Hurricanes and Hand Grenades on Bourbon Street for the tourists, but the better bars are ready to make you a Sazerac. As the Gumbo Pages notes, this is the quintessential New Orleans cocktail, and as of 2008 it is the Official Cocktail of the City of New Orleans. Cincinnati’s own mixologist Molly Wellman will be doing all New Orleans-inspired cocktails for Mardi Gras at Japp’s on Main Street. Sip one as part of a long tradition.

A feast by any other name

So let’s get our game plan ready. Packzi and King Cake for breakfast, muffuletta for lunch, oysters at cocktail time, shrimp and grits for supper. But what if you’re looking for an alternative to Cajun celebrations? 

Start the day with pancakes! In Britain and Ireland, Shrove Tuesday is called Pancake Tuesday, and pancake racers take to the streets with their skillets, flipping flapjacks as they run. It’s a whole lot easier here to get a damn fine stack at Half Day Café in Wyoming. After a big plate of their Mango Rum pancakes with sausage links and maple syrup, you might not have to eat for 40 days and 40 nights.

Or you can go for big meat ahead of the meatless Lenten season. Ready to chow down on steak, chops, drumsticks and roasts? You’re not going to find that at most buffets, but I’ve got two where you will. 

Boi Na Braza! Meat on a skewer! This place is awesome if you’ve got an iron deficiency. There’s a buffet — a salad bar on steroids, really — with great side dishes. But when you sit at the table, you’ve got a stop and go coaster that’s red on one side and green on the other. Green means go, baby, and as long as the green side is up, the waiters keep the meat coming. Rump roast, sausages, lamp chops and sirloin — the gauchos bring you the gifts of many animals until you start to groan. Not for the casual carnivore, Boi Na Braza is serious as a steak knife.

And here’s one that surprised even me. The Farm, the West Side tradition for weddings and banquets is open on Tuesday and Thursday nights for a major buffet. The big draw here is unlimited fried chicken and, on Tuesdays, roast beef and baked ham. 

You may not throw any beads, but you can fill up on favorites just like mama used to make on Fat Tuesday — because it’s fish sticks and macaroni for the next few weeks!  ©



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