Cincinnatians live in their own little world. Especially native Cincinnatians. Those of us born and raised here find comfort on our own turf. We admit it. Many of us have been sheltered, going time and again to the same restaurants and never knowing what we've been missing. I recently discovered some of what I've been missing during a short trip south of the border -- in Kentucky -- at Sylvia's.
Nestled within a Newport neighborhood, Sylvia's is as inconspicuous as a well-kept secret. The piñatas and frappes decorating the dining rooms let you know you've found Mexican fare, but this is no trendy Hyde Park or crowded Western Hills establishment. The night we visited, we found the restaurant fairly empty with just a few couples and families scattered throughout the front dining room. We watched other diners -- obvious regulars -- take their familiar booths and chat with the servers like old friends, many never looking at a menu before ordering.
Our server was just as friendly, but in a relaxed, neighborly way, not like a harried server pushing drink specials or dessert. In fact, she seemed stumped when we asked for her appetizer recommendation, immediately pegging us as outsiders. But she was pleasant and patient, suggesting familiar-sounding Mexican favorites such as Nachos Supreme ($6.25) and Flautas ($4.25). The flautas (shredded chicken rolled inside crisp corn tortillas) were tasty and very filling for a nibbler -- enough for four of us with a lot of sour cream and guacamole to spare. We also munched on chips and homemade hot salsa (complimentary with meals), although we quickly discovered that it packed quite a punch.
Pegging us as rookies who couldn't handle the real stuff, our server was kind enough to bring some mild salsa, equally delicious with chunky tomatoes and fresh cilantro.
We washed it down with some Mexican beer ($3) from a list including Corona (and Corona Light -- an unusual find), Carta Blanca, Dos Equis XX, Tecate and Negro Modelo. And of course, we sampled the house Margaritas ($3.95), an authentic blended and frothy drink, not slushy or too frozen.
Most of our dinner selections began with a small tossed salad (shredded lettuce with chopped tomatoes and cheese) which, although they reminded me of misplaced taco toppings, were very fresh and crisp. One of our guests sampled the homemade vegetable soup ($1.25) instead, about which he raved. (On a second visit, I loved the homemade bean soup, full of crispy bacon and chunks of ham in a tasty broth.)
Our entrées soon followed, and included a variety of Mexican favorites. My serving of Green Chicken Enchiladas ($7.25) reminded me of meals I had in Santa Fe. The sauce, made with green chiles and tomatillos, is tangy and almost sweet, giving the meal its authentic taste. The Chili Relleno ($7.25) was equally delicious -- a stuffed poblano pepper covered in a red, spicy ranchero sauce. And the Chile Colorado Burrito ($7.50), a flour tortilla stuffed with shredded spicy pork covered in red chile sauce, was also a favorite. All of our dinners were served with Mexican rice and the best homemade refried beans I've ever had locally. The à la carte Gordita Chincharon en salsa (stuffed with shredded pork -- $2.25) was not what we expected -- and not to our taste, although probably a very authentic selection.
The dinners include quite a quantity of food. Diners who are not so hungry can also order combinations ($6.50-$4.95) or à la carte selections that still make up quite a meal. Sylvia's fajitas also come in half orders for reasonable prices and include chicken ($12.75 full/$8.95 half), shrimp ($13.50/$9.75) or steak ($12.75/$8.95).
Somehow finding room for dessert, we ordered the Sopapilla with ice cream ($2.95). Since everyone else was full, I forced myself to devour the crisp cinnamon-and-sugar topped fried tortilla with honey and vanilla ice cream -- probably in record time. (Someone had to do it.) Next time I won't need a menu for dessert.
Reasonable, authentic Mexican fare does exist in the Tristate, and it comes in a neighborhood package that will please both families and singles alike. No matter if you give yourself away by studying the menu on your first visit, the friendly servers will treat you like a regular, and the reasonable prices and authentic food will likely bring you back to this well-kept secret. ©
Go: 15 E. Seventh St., Newport
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday- Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Payment: Credit cards accepted.
Vegetarian Friendliness: Tons of options, including cheese or bean-filled favorites, vegetable-filled creations and various salads and beans.