Picnic preparation truly is an art. Martha Stewart might suggest something simple, like grilled eggplant and feta sandwiches served on foccacia triangles, wrapped inside delicate, hand-embroidered antique Irish linen napkins picked up at an estate sale.
I suggest carryout.
Fortunately, Cincinnati offers many options for quick and tasty carryout, at locations just a stone's throw away from some of the Tristate's beautiful, neighborhood parks.
Across the river and just down the road from Devou Park sits the Party Source. What Home Depot is to hardware, the Party Source is to ... partying. The party warehouse is probably best-known for its aisle-after-aisle of wines and imported and domestic beer, although many local business folk frequent its deli for a hearty lunch during the week.
I'm one of those folks easily sucked into creative packaging. Show me a little jar with a cool label, and I'm convinced 10 bucks is a reasonable price for mustard. Gourmet, Vermont honey mustard, that is. Perhaps that's why I can rarely check out of the Party Source for under a hundred bucks. The first few aisles of gourmet specialties, fresh breads and cheeses, dips and spreads all lured me in as possible picnic contenders, and one could easily make a meal from these. But instead, we opted to sample a few of the two-fisted sandwiches made to order at the deli counter.
The sandwich menu seems to have pared down since my last visit, although all the ingredients are still present to build-your-own from a large variety of deli meats, cheeses, dressings and breads. The "best sellers" are pre-conceived combinations, conveniently spelled out for those who aren't in the mood to be creative. I ordered the No. 12, "Maxine's Party Source Club" ($4.99) for my picnic entrée. The club (all white meat chicken salad, cheddar cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato and honey mustard on rye, easily switched to sourdough) was huge, messy and delicious. I loved the tangy honey mustard (surprised?) which gave the sandwich a little "kick," and found myself using a fork to scrape up the hunks of chicken that fell into the Styrofoam box I used as my picnic plate.
My husband had the No.
Heading toward the east side of town, picnickers will find What's For Dinner? to be a convenient quick stop near several prime picnic spots, such as Ault Park, Alms Park or Hyde Park Square. The O'Bryonville eatery, which touts its selections as "homecooking for those who can't be home cooking," has had success serving up its fresh salads and entrées (many with a vegetarian twist) to regulars on the east side of town.
Although What's For Dinner? features several sandwiches, a highly touted veggie burger and a black bean burrito, we decided to sample several of the salads for our east side picnic. They're sold by the pound, or boxed-lunch style as The Combo ($7.50) of four salads with fresh fruit and bread. With about a dozen from which to choose, we narrowed it down to four: veggie slaw ($5.25/lb), pecan wild rice chicken salad ($9/lb), American fried rice ($4.25/lb), and oriental sesame noodle salad ($6/lb).
They looked delicious and fresh, especially the veggie slaw with crisp cabbage, lettuce and crunchy corn. However, I'd suggest picking up your order shortly before you're ready to eat. The American fried rice, which at the restaurant had been a cold dish of white rice, corn, peas, onions, bok choy in a light dressing, had turned dry by the time we started our meal. The same for the pecan wild rice chicken salad. Perhaps a cooler would have helped maintain freshness. Next time we'll opt for a sandwich or another selection that might survive carryout better.
Homemade cookies and brownies from What's For Dinner? are incredible, too. We sampled the peanut butter chocolate chunk square ($2), although I can't comment on how well it would hold up after a short drive.
Hop across the Western Hills Viaduct and experience a whole different style of picnicking. Although many of my west side friends recommended several fried chicken places for picnic food, we wanted an alternative. We visited the Louisiana Fish Bar for some fried fish instead. Just down the hill from Rapid Run Park and a short drive to Price Hill's Mount Echo Park, the carryout-only Fish Bar features a simplified menu of fish, shrimp, fries and slaw.
The Big Cod Sandwich Special ($3.99) was three nice-sized fried filets of cod on a huge sesame seed bun, served with potato chips and pickles. The cod is tasty: breaded then fried (and pretty greasy), but still crisp and flavorful. The six-piece Cod Dinner ($5.99) was exactly that: six large breaded and fried filets of tasty white cod, served with French fries, two slices of bread (which mostly served to soak up the grease) and grilled onions and peppers. Both were delicious.
The folks here have quick carry out down to a science. The friendly staff kept the line moving and packaged everything in paper and plastic (to absorb and contain the grease, I suppose) in short order. I'd suggest keeping up with the pace, however, because the fried filets get soggy if not eaten in pretty short order. With Murray's Drive-thru just next door, it's an easy stop to pick up any other picnic needs on the way to the park.
Our final picnic destination is one of my favorites: Eden Park. What better way to spend the day than a stroll through the Butterfly Show at Krohn Conservatory and a picnic lunch at the overlook. Tucked inside the East Walnut Hills neighborhood is a hidden gem, mostly known by locals and a few business folks at the Baldwin Building. Andy's International Deli on Nassau Street, just up from Gilbert Avenue, features Mediterranean and domestic deli-style food perfect for carryout.
Don't let the understated, convenience-store-appearance of Andy's fool you. Behind the rows of canned goods and snacks sits the small deli counter where great falafel, tabouli and hummus are made. Andy's offers several lunchmeat sandwiches (ham, turkey, pepper loaf, garlic bologna; $2.50) as well as many double-decker combinations ($3.50 -$5.50). But save the deli meat for another time. Andy's specialties are its Mediterranean choices.
My favorite is the hummus and falafel ($3.50). Described on the menu as a "vegetarian burger," the falafel patty is a rolled patty of fava beans and chickpeas, seasoned with Mediterranean spices. It's crumbled inside a flat pita, covered with hummus and fresh vegetables, then rolled, burrito style and wrapped tightly in wax paper to help contain all the stuffing while eating it. It works well as picnic food because it is completely self contained and required no utensils and leaves little mess.
I'd also recommend the Fatoush Salad ($4.49), large enough to share as a side. The salad is a mix of fresh iceburg lettuce, cucumber, banana and green peppers, and onions, tossed with oil, vinegar and toasted pita chips. Andy's sprinkles on suman -- the Mediterranean spice, not the poison kind -- which gives the salad a tart, vinegar-y taste. Combined with crunchy toasted pita, it has a lot of flavor.
Andy's also features several shelves of bulk spices, many of which could be hard to find elsewhere, as well as Mediterranean cooking staples, like chick peas, pita bread and others. You can grab drinks here, too.
No matter where the picnic, or what you're craving, the Tristate offers a variety of choices. If you're looking for something more creative than a bucket of chicken for your next picnic, you'll only have to drive as far as the park to find a variety of easy and tasty carryout. ©