Eating like a local:
- Exploring the home of The Ohio St. University
Regional food specialties
I went off to Columbus this past Spring for some freelance work. We were there for four nights and had a decent amount of free time to check some stuff out. I was always intrigued but it's a pretty long drive from Chicago. I didn't realize how big it was as far as population. Part's of it actually felt like an Urban City. It is Ohio's largest city after all. Food wise Columbus can most definitely be called a melting pot. It's pretty underrated in that you never really hear anything about it. I found it to be my type of spot as there's quite a few long time establishments as well as a long list of international options. It being home to the largest University in the country means it attracts people from all over. Two things I didn't get to tackle but would on a return trip are the city's large number of African restaurants featuring food from a handful of Countries. It was Ramadan so most were closed during the day. Also of note is they have a real nice taco truck culture but most of them close by 10pm.
Hey Hey Bar & Grill
After the long drive from Chicago it was time for a beer. I wanted to see how the bar scene in Columbus compares to the Big Ten's best bar scene in Madison. I got the feeling it doesn't compare and that's ok bc not much does. That said I was surprised by the long history of some of Columbus' favorite watering holes. These days at my age I prefer a bar with a long history that gives it character than I do a rowdy college bar with great specials. The Hey Hey has been a part of Columbus since 1900. It was a speakeasy during prohibition and their slogan then was "Hey Hey the beer is here!" and it later became named The Hey Hey Bar & Grill. It's location in the Old German Village makes it a great place to grab a beer after walking through the neighborhood. They also have a signature drinking snack in their Sauerkraut Balls. It's sauerkraut mixed with eggs, mustard, seasoning and binded together, breaded and fried. Some delicious house horseradish sauce comes on the side.
Sauerkraut Balls at Hey Hey Bar & Grill
This old school looking Coney shop was directly in front of where I parked when going to The Hey Hey so I might as well have tried it. I read that their most popular item was a Coney Dog with cole slaw which is pretty much a West Virginia (or North Carolina slaw dog). Seeing as how West Virginia isnt that far I can see why these are popular but the colorful cole slaw seemed off. I also had half a Cleveland style Polish Boy. It's a Polish Sausage covered in BBQ sauce topped with fries and cole slaw. Another popular regional hot dog from a place not far away. Another Coney shop checked off.
Hot Dogs at Village Coney
In a lot of ways Columbus seemed more East Coast than Midwest to me. One of the small reasons for this was their love of Hoagies. You don't see Hoagie shops in most of the Midwest as they tend to be found out East. Essentially they're all just cold cut sub sandwiches that can also be ordered warm (at the hoagie spots). As Subway continues to take over most corners strip malls spots like Yogi's Hoagies fade into oblivion. They've been around since the 60's and that's exactly what the inside felt like. They also do Columbus style pizza (and popular French Bread pizza) which is essentially Midwest tavern thin. So when it comes to the pizza Columbus is Midwest but the sandwiches are East Coast style hoagies and they're pretty good if you like them this way. Toasted with lots of oil and a good amount of seasoning with banana peppers etc. The bread was just ok but overall I liked it.
Italian Hoagie (warm) at Yogi's Hoagie's
Talita's Southwest Cafe
Here's one I really enjoyed. If only bc when I started looking into where to eat in Columbus I wasn't expecting to find a legit Tex-Mex option. Talita's has been a part of the area since 1968. Named after the matriarch who moved with her family from Brownsville Texas to Columbus Ohio. They eventually opened a restaurant selling the food they sold in Brownsville. Their most popular item are the burritos which come smothered in cheese and red chile sauce. It's hard to find the flavors of Tex-Mex outside of Texas but this was one of those spots that's an exception to the rule. I loved my burrito so much so I finished it pretty quickly which prevented me from trying a Coney. They also do made to order crispy fried tacos but they're two to an order and I was pretty damn full from the burrito.
Smothered Brownsville Burrito at Talita's Southwest Cafe
I'm not going to say that Ding Ho was at the top of my dining bucket list but it's one of those old school spots in the US that I very much looked forward to the day where I got to go. The reason is War Su Gai aka War Shu Gai aka Almond Boneless Chicken. More on that in a minute. Ding Ho has been a part of the Columbus area since 1956. Though they've moved from their original location the new spot still feels like an old school American-Chinese restaurant. The same family still runs it so there's lots of relics from the past including the original menu which had some interesting options on it. Wonton Skin soup and an egg roll to start. They were ok. The soup being the better of the two.
Appetizers at Ding Ho
Now for the reason we were here. This would be my first go with Columbus style War Su Gai where they serve it with an orangish gravy as opposed to
Detroit where it’s commonly brown. You can find this dish served at pretty much every Chinese restaurant in town but you wont find it in many other spots that aren't the Detroit area. Ding Ho is the city’s oldest Chinese
restaurant and the War Sue Gai is their number one seller so much so that it out sells all of the other menu items 3:1. The regional American Chinese favorite is
commonly compared to pressed duck which was a popular dish in American
Chinese restaurants decades ago. No one knows the exact origin
of this delicious fried chicken dish but it’s most likely a product of
Cantonese immigrants who moved east from San Fran. A half order comes with tasteless fried rice that becomes tasty when the gravy is poured on. The chicken was fried crisp and pretty much everything I was hoping for as far as that goes. War Su Gai is my favorite of all the regional American-Chinese dishes though I still need to try a few others.
War Su Gai at Ding Ho
Momo Ghar Ohio
Most know Columbus as home to the Ohio St.
University but it's also the home of the best Momo west of Queens.
Hidden in a bustling international market is the magnificent 'Momo Ghar Ohio'.
A small food stall pushing one of the worlds great snacks - Momo. The
Nepalese and Tibetan style dumplings are one of my favorites from the
dumpling family tree. Momo Ghar’s menu has momo on offer in a handful of
ways. Pictured are the Pan Fried Pork Momo aka Kothey and below that the Tibetan Jhol made with steamed pork dumplings
swimming in a pool of spicy red sauce. I scarfed that Jhol down so fast even
though I was already full. Shout-out to the Amish family that was sitting next
to me. Living proof everyone loves dumplings. I also loved the ganja
reggae they always have playing. All in all I loved my first visit. So much so I returned the next day for the fried dumplings. I owe the GOAT that is Guy Fieri for this one. They have a second location but go the OG if you can. You'll get a true sense of the amazing presence of immigrants in Columbus. A great grocery shop.
Momo at Momo Ghar
The folks at Los Guachos, one of Columbus' most popular taco spots, have built a nice taco
empire with a few locations in the city. It all started with a taco
truck which was popular for its tacos al pastor. It doesn’t feel like
this family from Michoacán has messed much with success as both the
tacos al pastor and a Volcan al pastor were on point. Between the fresh
spit of spinning meat, the tortilla machine churning out fresh
tortillas, and the top notch salsa bar, this was clearly the real deal
upon arrival. Not a fan of the football team but the taco scene in Columbus is very underrated.
Tacos al Pastor at Los Guachos
Columbus is home to quite a few corporations including the purveyors of "America's Most Influential Hamburger" aka White Castle. My favorite of all the fast food burger chains. Turns out I love them even more after visiting this special location on Columbus' popular late night hangout High street. First off they serve beer until 3:30a here. They had the NBA playoffs on the TV and like all White Castles the dining room was squeaky clean. I was invited over by one of the higher ups at the offices as he wanted to get my opinion on the 1921 slider which I had just learned was a thing. Currently there's three White Castle locations where they're making sliders from fresh beef. Two of them are in Columbus and the other is in Chicago (State street). The 1921 Slider is an ode to the original White Castle burger which debuted in 1921. It's pretty damn good. Not as good as the slider in its current
form but it's a burger you can enjoy anytime of the day. Though oddly
they offer it with lettuce, tomato, and cheddar cheese. I rec getting it
dressed traditionally (American cheese, pickles, onion).
The 1921 Slider at White Castle
Here's the students spot for 24 hour eats. Donuts and gyros on the heart of the OSU campus. Interesting combo I'd say. The donuts are pretty much known by every Ohio St. student who's ever lived on campus. They make for a great stop after White Castle which is also 24 hours. They've been open since 1969 and currently owned by a third generation Greek-American hence the gyros. They fry donuts all day and we got a bakers dozen to take back to our AirBNB. The specialty of the house is the Buckeye donut which is filled with peanut butter and dunked in chocolate as seen below.
a peek inside Buckeye Donuts
Jiu Thai Asian Cafe
Don't let the name of this strip mall spot confuse you as this is a Northern Chinese restaurant through and through. I asked our younger waitress about the name and she told me some story about tarot cards and the older lady who owns it. Packed house on a Sunday visit. They had a mix of clientele with plenty of groups in tow. We started with a couple skewers each of both the hot dog and chicken hearts. Ever since trying the hot dog skewers at Gao's in Chicago's Chinatown I've been in love with them. This was good but not quite to the level of Gao's. The heart was cooked well and thus not too chewy. I was here for an order of Biang Biang noodles which are one of the their best sellers if you count the pictures from yelp reviews as evidence. Hand pulled noodles are one of my favorite things to eat so I always seek them out. This was a good bowl, they most always are, but it lacked that heat.
Skewers and Biang Biang Noodles at Jiu Thai Asian Cafe
The Original DiCarlo's
Here's a hyper local regional eat I always wanted to try. Ohio Valley Style Pizza. One of the weirder styles of pie out there in that they don't put on the cheese or toppings until after it comes out of the oven. DiCarlo's is a regional franchise that I saw had a location in the suburb of Hilliard. I rode out to try their locally loved pie which got it's start in Steubenville, OH in 1945. The son of Italian immigrants came back from World War II and wanted to start making this specific style of pizza he saw while in Italy. This from their website - "The pizza can best be described as a delicious combination of crispy hot
bread, homemade tomato sauce and freshly grated provolone cheese." It's sold by the square so I was able to try three slices for something like $5. Most operations are exclusively takeout which allows for the pizza to steam in the box which semi melts the cheese. I didn't love it but I also didn't hate it. The crust was pretty good. Another family member opened a DiCarlo's in Wheeling, WV in 1949 thus is the preferred pie in both Steel and Coal Countries. It's also popular around Pittsburgh.
Ohio Valley Style Pizza at DiCarlo's
Speaking of locally famous regional chains here's one attempting to make a comeback. Anyone out there remember G.D Ritzy's? I'd never heard of it until I found this semi new place which is the first location of it's attempted comeback. Some online research led me to their story. They were founded in 1980 here in Columbus. Apparently the original founder has decided it's time to make a comeback in the Central Ohio region. During their short lived run (they closed in the 90's) they had more than 100 locations across most of the Midwest. Known for their smashed burgers, ice cream and art deco aesthetics. Not just those but also hot dogs, chili, shoestring fries. Four independents survive in Owensboro, KY and Evansville, IN. But this is the first of the original owners relaunch.
Chili Cheese Fries at Ritzy's
I got in a small line upon entering and ordered my burger which was smashed after ordering. I saw the guy making an order of chili cheese fries and decided that I had to try those too. I contained myself from ordering a hot dog but they looked good as they were a locally made natural casing brand. The chili cheese fries were terrific. I loved the Steak N Shake-esque house-cut shoestring fries and the chili sauce too. I can see those chili cheese dogs being delicious. The burgers are held by a super light house baked bun which gets a nice toasting with butter. The smash job was nice and the topping options were abundant. This was comparable to the legendary spots I stopped at
coming to and from Cbus. I'd describe it as Steak 'n Shake meets Five Guys but it's way better than both.
Cheeseburger at Ritzy's
The G&R Tavern (Waldo, OH)
I've long wanted to try the Roadfood favorite
that is G&R Tavern in Middle Ohio. Seeing as how I was as close as I probably ever was going to be I made the trek here for breakfast. The small town of Waldo is about 40 miles north of Columbus. It's home to an old time tavern with a mighty sandwich. The bar has been around for more than 50 years and due to sites like Roadfood it's attracted patrons from all over. Be it bikers, families, or city boys like myself they host out of town guests on the regular. They also host a slew of regulars from the town as evidenced by the large group sitting around a table and talking upon our arrival around 9am one morning. If asked to shoot a Hollywood scene featuring a small town tavern this would be a great place using the locals as extras.
The Famous Bologna Sandwich at The G&R Tavern
Beer might not even be the bars number one seller and that's bc the people who come to visit do so for the famous bologna sandwich. The current owners still make them the old school way which is popular around these parts of Ohio. No place more known for them than G&R Tavern. Thick sliced bologna (beef/pork) is fried hot on a flattop until nice and charred on the edges. I ordered mine deluxe bc I wanted some crunch and it comes in the form of lettuce, sliced raw onion, and pickles. The cheese is Monterey Jack and it gets melted just enough. Somewhere underneath all of it is a bottom bun. This is no doubt a heavyweight division sandwich and one worth fighting. Equally as laugh out loud large are the slices of pie. I love a good banana cream so I tried a slice. It jiggled like an early 2000's rap video vixen. Bc they open early I was happy to take the ride here for breakfast.
Banana Cream Pie at G&R Tavern
Note: To find the locations of all the spots featured in this post, as well as places I didn't make it to, please click HERE
for my google maps guide to Columbus.