Monday, May 8, 2023

Eating BIG in Cincinnati

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties

- Exploring the Queen City 

We took a quick trip to Cincy just last month and I really enjoyed our stay. Of all the major cities in the Midwest, Cincinnati was the one I had explored the least. In fact I have an 'Eating BIG in (insert city)' post from all of those major cities except Cincy which gets it's due here today. I ranked the Queen City sixth place on my list of the Midwest's ten best food cities. I don't think I would move it up but probably not down either. But after this trip I think I would rank it higher than six as far as best Midwest cities. It's a really nice place that has a decent amount to offer. It reminded me a little bit of Pittsburgh mixed with Louisville and a splash of St. Louis. I enjoyed checking out all of the different neighborhoods and their parks and walking across a few of the bridges into Kentucky. It's a charming little city and I wouldn't hesitate to return for some more exploring. Here's where this trip brought us.

Pics from Cincy 

Pleasant Ridge Chili 

Did you really visit Cincinnati if you didn’t visit one of the city's many chili parlors? No. I don't think you did so lets get that out of the way. This was my third visit to the Queen City and thus my third time hitting up one of it's many old school chili parlors. I always take a ‘When in Rome’ approach to eating in out of town spots and that’s part of the reason I always make it a point to get some chili when I'm in Cincy but also bc I kind of like it. Look I don’t come from a place with its own kind of chili so I got no dog in the fight but I know what I do and don’t like in chili and I don’t care for the typical heavy tomato blend so common in the Midwest. What I like about Cincy style chili is that it’s not too tomatoey. It’s more of a sauce used to top hot dogs and pasta than it is a soup or a stew. It’s a Greek Bolognese so to say. On top of that I love the culture of it which is as strong as any regional food out there. Handfuls of old school parlors hang on while there’s a few locally born chili corporations. Every native has a favorite spot for a plate of 5 Way or Coney dogs loaded with a big handful of shredded cheddar. 

Breakfast at Pleasant Ridge Chili 

Let's recap exactly what Cincinnati chili is - it's a spiced meat sauce developed by immigrant Greek restaurateurs in the 1920s. Recipes vary but unusual ingredients like cinnamon and chocolate are commonly cited. The most popular way to enjoy Cincinnati style chili is a plate of five way which signifies spaghetti, chili, shredded cheddar, diced onions, beans. Mini hot dogs spread with chili and loaded with cheese is another favorite of locals and visitors alike. There’s subtle differences from spot to spot but it seems like Cincy chili stands are similar to Chicago hot dog stands in that for the most part they offer a similar product. But each place also has it's own uniqueness and menu items specific to the spot. At Pleasant Ridge Chili that unique menu item is the gravy cheese fries. They also serve goetta which is another regional treat you’ll find at every chili parlor in town. It’s made of pork and ground oats and spices and is of German heritage, similar to scrapple. Chili parlors are pretty much a dying breed across the country except for here in Cincinnati where they continue to thrive. So cool.

Gravy Cheese Fries / 5-Way Chili at Pleasant Ridge Chili 

Alabama Fish House 

After visiting Findlay Market and walking around the historic Over The Rhine neighborhood for a little bit we wandered over to the Alabama Fish House for a quick snack. I wanted to go here years ago when it had a different storefront but the line was crazy long which only made me want to try it more but time was not on my side on that day. But this time it was as I walked right in and placed an order for the cod dinner which was ready within a few minutes thanks to a great little setup with different stations for breading and frying. The fish seems like it could be fried in tallow but I can’t verify that but either way it had a great taste. Every order of fish (perch and whiting are also options) comes with two slices of bread, crinkle cut fries and a packet of grilled onions mixed with cherry + banana + jalapeño peppers. It seems like most locals throw that on the fish and add hot sauce so that’s what we did. 

Fried Fish from Alabama Fish House

Nolia Kitchen

The last time I was in Cincinnati was 2014 and even then you could see that the old Over The Rhine neighborhood was changing. OTR is well-preserved with 19th-century buildings from the onetime working-class German neighborhood now home to craft breweries, hip gastropubs, and trendy bars. Nolia Kitchen is the hottest spot in the neighborhood and with it a 2023 James Beard finalist for best new restaurant in the country. I'm not the biggest fan of lists but some are better curated than others. I do however enjoy the best new restaurants lists from different publications and also the nominations from the James Beard Foundation. I enjoy them bc they’re useful for travel and also to see what chefs across the country are doing. Here they’re taking inspiration from the south and putting imaginative and unconventional twists on familiar favorites. It’s ran by a native of New Orleans who moved to Cincy after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It’s quickly become a Queen City favorite that reminded me a lot of the type of spot you’d find in the Crescent City. Well executed southern forward plates served up in an old building by a friendly staff with good music to accompany your meal. An order of crawfish remoulade was seasoned just right while an order of crab boulettes with a smoked fat aioli was the type of snack you'd like to have at your local watering hole. We tried two entrees and had a hit with the sea trout with fava beans, corn, chayote squash, lime butter (still thinking about it) but also a miss with a jerk rabbit with pickled plums, spinach, watercress, plantain mole (it wasn't as fragrant and full of spice as I'd like). Dessert was a decadent slice of cheesecake made with a creole cream cheese. 

Dinner at Nolia Kitchen 

Citrus & Sago 

I often get asked how I find the spots to eat at when I'm out of town in situations like this. The answer to that is there is no one exact way aside from searching online and knowing what I'm looking for which is usually a mix of a few things including international eating options. Cincy doesn't have the most diverse food scene in the Midwest (or even in Ohio) but it does have options. Citrus & Sago was a spot that caught my eye with pretty plates of Eurasian favorites. I'd never heard that term before or maybe it never registered but Eurasian refers to the food of Singapore and Malaysia. Both spots are basically tops on my bucketlist and I always seek their food when traveling so finding a spot in Cincy was a pleasant surprise. I was greeted by a super friendly older guy who I assume is the dad of the younger chef who runs Citrus & Sago. I had just ate so I only ordered one item despite there being alot of interesting options. I was very happy with my choice which was a Beef Rendang Nasi Lamek. 

Beef Rendang at Citrus & Sago 

J&W Sandwich Shoppe

Nobody is exactly sure when it comes to the history of the double decker sandwich but one of the most common stories is that it was developed at the Saratoga Club House in Saratoga Springs, NY in 1894, hence the Club Sandwich name. But one thing we do know when it comes to the Club Sandwich is that Cincinnati has adopted it as their own. Double Deckers are especially popular at some of the city's chili parlors among other places. I searched around online and ended up on J&W Sandwich Shoppe at some point. Not only is it almost universally loved in online reviews but it looked the part. Actually we drove right past it upon pulling up as it blends in with an otherwise empty block as far as businesses go. I read it's a popular stop with Xavier students and could see why after unwrapping a double decker that set me back an almost unbelievable $5 and change. What a deal. 

Double Decker Club Sandwich at J&W Sandwich Shoppe

Mr. Gene's Dog House

I always check to see if there's any old school hot dog stands whenever I'm visiting an out of town spot. Mr. Gene's Dog House was found during that search. It's a popular spot for Coney Dogs done Cincy style which means chili and a ton of shredded cheddar cheese on top. Mr. Gene's has a locally loved mettwurst on the menu which is why I was there there. The local specialty is traditionally made with smoked pork sausage seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, mustard seed and is served all over town including Reds games. Mr. Gene's offers one dressed like a Coney and it slapped. Quite spicy. 

Mettwurst at Mr. Gene's Dog House 

Zip's Cafe 

The Cincy area has a strong burger scene just like the rest of the Midwest (Ohio as a whole is one of the better burger states). I haven’t explored this region as much as some of other parts of the Buckeye State which is why this was my first trip to Zip’s. It’s been a part of the community since 1926 and aside from the prices not much has changed. Their iconic Zip Burger is a 6 ounce patty of fresh ground beef that’s supplied by a local butcher and dressed with lettuce, tomato, raw onion, pickles, mayo. It’s a simple burger so the beef needs to be flavorful and that it is. I liked this one better than I thought I would even though I already expected it to be good. I figured their chili would be a typical Midwest blend when I read it isn’t traditional Cincy style and my hunch was right as it’s basically a beefy tomato soup. But the classic Zip Burger served up in a vintage setting is why you’re here.

Chili / Zip Burger at Zip's Cafe 

Putz's Creamy Whip

While doing a bit of research for this trip I learned that blue soft serve was a thing in Cincinnati. So the story goes it was first introduced in 1984 at the iconic amusement park known as Kings Island. These days it's found at just about every ice cream spot in town, and there's a ton of them. Putz's Creamy Whip is one of the oldest going back to 1938. They've been at their current stand since the 50's. 

Ice Cream at Putz's Creamy Whip 

Mita's Restaurant 

It was a relatively hot weekend with temps in the 80's when we visited. After walking around downtown for about 30 minutes we decided to get some drinks and some tapas to go with them. Mita's is ran by local chef Jose Salazar and is one the city's most popular spots to take a date or celebrate. We arrived about ten minutes before opening as did a few other groups. The place was packed about 20 minutes into them being open and I imagine it stays that way for most of the night. There's a bunch of James Beard plaques hanging in the front window including one from 2023 for 'Outstanding Hospitality' which is well deserved based off our visit. We had some amazing service and the meal as a whole had a perfect flow as far as the food coming out and what not. I also had a perfectly made margarita. As far as the food the menu is Spanish / Latin American with a focus on tapas. The menu isn't all that exciting in that it's mostly standard stuff but it's executed at a really high level. We tried a bunch of the tapas and the only one I wouldn't order again was an apple empanada dessert that fell flat due to a soft and soggy crust. But the rest was really good with my favorite being a burger bocadillo made with some extremely juicy locally produced beef. An excellent meal overall.  

PATATAS BRAVAS | fried potato wedges tossed in pimenton oil, aioli

TOSTONES Y GUACAMOLE | twice fried plantains tossed in garlic butter, served with crushed avocado dip

ALMEJAS AL VAPOR | steamed littleneck clams chorizo garlic butter, pickled apples, brocolini, grilled baguette

CROQUETTAS DE CORDERO | braised lamb fritters, mint chimichuri

EMPANADAS DE RES CON PIQUE |  beef short rib hand pies

BOCADILLOS DE HAMBURGUESA | grass-fed beet sliders, manion cheese pickles, crispy serrano ham, atoll, brioche bun

Cafe Mochiko

Cafe Mochiko is another James Beard Finalist (best pastry chef) that I was excited to check out. It's run by a couple and she does the baking making the pastries. Each morning they're open brings a new menu and lots of locals who line up for some excellent Asian leaning pastries. Pictured below are the six that I picked out on my visit of which there wasn't a dud in the bunch. My favorite was the bbq pork bun which was sweet and savory and so good I considered driving right back to grab more. We also had an unbelievable Ube Hayala croissant, a sweet corn bibingka (so good), carioca coconut mochi donut, kimchi + egg croissant, peanut butter miso cookie. But that's only half of the story.  

Pastries at Cafe Mochiko 

While Cafe Mochiko is a bakery by day it's also a yoshoku cafe by night when they offer up a weekly made from scratch ramen among other Japanese favorites including a katsu sando. I had my fingers crossed that Cafe Mochiko would be making it's viral Cincinnati style ramen which is on special now and then. There’s lots of purists when it comes to chili but ramen is pretty much the opposite in that there's endless variations and innovations with this being one of the more interesting creations you’ll come across. Rich Cincinnati chili broth / ground pork / shredded cheddar / white onion / tamago and housemade ramen noodles makes a pretty natural pairing. I was so glad that this recurring special was running that week, the ramen gods were on my side or so it seemed. I just wish I could’ve tried their Neo Shoyu as well as Cafe Mochiko is well known on the ramen circuit and rightfully so. 

Cincinnati Chili Ramen


Hamburger Wagon (Miamisburg)

There’s one less spot on my burger bucket list after crossing off the Hamburger Wagon. You’ll find this 110 year old relic / hamburger stand in Miamisburg Ohio - a suburb of Dayton about 40 minutes north of Cincinnati. They make one thing and one thing only - hamburgers or sliders to be more precise. You can get singles or doubles and the topping options are pickles, onion, salt, pepper. The burgers are made the same way they have always been made. 2 ounce patties of beef are lightly smashed and fried in a wok like vat of oil. The end result can best be described as an entire patty of those crispy laced edges you get on a well made smashed burger. These burgers were crunchy and not just from the pickles and sliced raw onion but also from the beef. We arrived right before a big line started to form but they have a nice setup that moves it pretty quickly but you do have to hope people ahead of you don’t order a ton of them as they have a menu with pricing up to 50 ($75). If you don't already make sure to follow me on IG @chibbqking where I share videos and more from trips like this. 

Sliders from the Hamburger Wagon 

See ya next time @chibbqking


Anonymous said...

Would love to know what your top 10 Midwest Food cities are!

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