Waffles, Kibble, Rhine and PBR in Cincinnati

I reverted back to increasing my Diner, Diners and Drives tally on my recent trip to Cincinnati.  It was an easy call since three of them are less than a block away from each other on bustling Vine street. Over the course of two days I hit all three; one for breakfast, one for lunch and one for dinner.

When Guy Fieri was only 10 years old, WKRP in Cincinatti hit the air.  I remember watching the short lived sitcom (four seasons to be exact) as a kid.  It featured a group of misfit radio personalities at a radio station in the Ohio city.  The cast, headed by Andy Travis (not to be mistaken for Randy Travis) featured the likes of Johnny Fever, Venus Flytrap and Jennifer Marlowe.  Andy may have precluded the hipster movement by frequently donning plaid shirts and luscious locks.  Howard Hesseman, who played Johnny Fever,  went on have success as the lead in the sitcom Head of the Class and Loni Anderson will go down in history for certain features and for being remembered as Mrs. Burt Reynolds until the end of time.

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The Cast of WKRP in Cincinnati

 

In honour of this cult favorite, here’s an overview of Taste of Belgium, Bakersfield and Senate, three of Cincinnati’s Vine street triple D joints.

W- (Waffles and Wright).

Taste of Belgium boasts waffles done right so it seemed to be the ideal breakfast spot.  The decor had the brick walls and tiled floor characteristic of Over-the-Rhine eateries. We were seated and greeted but a waiter with a definite chip (unfortunately not chocolate) on his shoulder.  He was efficient but far from welcoming.  I ordered a decent Americano and the McWaffle, a breakfast sandwich containing egg, bacon, cheese and served with a side of maple syrup.   The waffle itself was far from the fluffy batter you might bake up at the free Hampton breakfast.  It was much denser and more filling.  It flirted with dryness but was helped by the syrup.  The combination of everything made for a good but not remarkable bite that was a lot sweeter than the service.

 

Daniel Wright is the brainchild behind Senate, the street food pub which revolves around the ultimate street meat..the hotdog.  In addition to tube steak (including a daily dog names after a celebrity), there are a number of items including bites, burgers and sandwiches. It had a good vibe highlighted by a long packed bar surrounded by tables. Since it was over twenty degrees, the front window/patio was open and I managed to score a seat overlooking the street.  Our waitress was attentive although somewhat overshadowed by this dude in a vest and tie walking around like an..umm…senator.  As tempting as the Mama June celebrity dog of the day was (you can imagine the toppings), I opted for the best selling trailer park burger, mainly because it was topped with Cincinnati’s own Grippo’s crushed BBQ chips atop a bacon wrapped dog and finished with slaw and american cheese. It was a delicious mess.

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Senate Trailer Park Dog $10

K-(Kentucky and Kibbles)

Bakersfield is a taqueria which is gradually expanding in all directions from it’s Cincinnati epicentre.  Also focusing on Mexican food, the booze menu is expansive, not only including traditional tequila but also whisky from the neighbouring state of  Kentucky.  In fact, I was there on a Monday night which meant I could get a shot of Bulleit for $3.  Add a $2 boot of PBR and I’m two thirds of my way to a George Thorogood song for $5. I felt bad to the bone.  As for kibbles, the guacamole at Bakersfield was fresh and chunky (which I’m sure is Cincinnati style)  and aggressively seasoned with garlic which was paired nicely with one of the best (and spicy margaritas) I’ve had in a while.

R- (Restaurants Over-the-Rhine)

Defined as one of the most historic neighbourhoods in the US, the Over-the-Rhine area of Cincinnati has deep German roots and architecture dating from the 19th century.  Over the years, it has debilitated into one of the sketchiest area in the states.  For example, the area was used as the backdrop for the 1991 movie “A Rage in Harlem” because of it’s resemblance to 1950’s Harlem.  However, over the past decade or so, there has been major restoration, at least along the southern part of Vine St, resulting in a trendy neighbourhood full of shops and restaurants including the trio of triple D’s mentioned in this blog.  I was speaking to a table of locals at Bakersfield and they confirmed this restoration story, telling me that crossing Liberty street to the North after dark was once  a death wish but ven that is slowing changing.  That said, I late took a drive north up Vine St.to check out the University of Cinicinnati  and passed through one of the most decrepit neighbourhoods I remember, easily rivaling  Michigan St. in Detroit, parts of  Harlem and the worst part of San Francisco’s tenderloin district.   Restaurants like Taste of Belgium, Senate and Bakersfield are part of the nucleus in a molecule of hope working through the celebration of food.

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Cool Floor at Taste of Belgium indicative of Cincinnati architecture.

P (Pastor, Potstickers and Poutine)

The foundation of the Bakersfield menu is the taco and there are almost 10 to choose from.  They pride themselves on making their own tortillas and ironically, that was the weakest part.  I felt they tasted a little raw as if they were only fried on one side.  They were nicely presented on a large tray with abundant fillings at a reasonable price point of $3-4 each. The pork belly pastor were a good representation and the spicy cochinita pibil and huitlacoche tacos were quite unique.

Meanwhile at Senate, the potstickers were full of extreme Asian flavours and the poutine was served with short rib and cheese  and since a white gravy was used instead of the traditional (at least in Canadian terms) brown one, it was more creamy than squeaky and quite rich to say the least.

My Take

Based on my ongoing Guyz rating for diners, drive-ins and dives, none were a disaster but  I’ll  give top taste, service and vibe points to Senate. The vibe of all three were helped by the cool architecture but the buzz at Senate and Bakersfield was much better than the sleepiness and snarkiness of Taste of Belgium.  Service wise, both Bakersfield and Senate were pretty good. Regarding the food, the Senate hot dogs, in addition to being pretty delicious, are a great concept especially with the rotating celebrity choice of the day.  The Bakersfield guacamole was good and the tacos were average.  Taste of Belgium served a decent breakfast.

In the end, Over-the-Rhine is a fun and buzzing area with a number of funky restaurants, shops and snacks.  In fact, Vine Street may be the best thing in Cincinnati’s food scene since WKRP’s  turkey bombing of the Pinedale mall on Thanksgiving in 1978.

Senate

Food- 4/5 Guyz
Service- 4/5 Guyz
Vibe- 4.5/5 Guys

Total- 12.5/15 Guyz

Senate Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bakersfield

Food- 3.5/5  Guyz
Service- 4/5 Guyz
Vibe- 4/5 Guyz

Total- 11.5/Guyz

Bakersfield OTR Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Taste of Belgium

Food- 3.5/5 Guyz
Service- 3/5 Guyz
Vibe- 3/5 Guyz

Total- 9.5/15 Guyz

Taste of Belgium Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Jogging and Benching to Burn off Ice Cream and Grilled Cheese in Cincinnati

While researching Cincinnati’s scene, I came across an article from Cincinnati’s travel site telling me about 5 things to do for under $5.  They included observation towers, castles and conservatories  but I was particularly interested in food related activities which included  Graeter’s ice cream and Tom and Chee grilled cheese.

Graeter’s was started by the family with the same name in Cincinnati in 1870.  Since then, it has grown into a 50 million dollar enterprise with around 50 stores and numerous celebrity endorsements.  Since it was an above average night from a temperature perspective, the Over the Rhine location was buzzing.  Normally I’m a sloth when it comes to ice cream choices but the website instructed me to indulge in the black raspberry chocolate chip, their signature and best-selling flavour.  It was well worth a few bucks highlighted by big chunks of dark chocolate mixed within the rich and not sickly sweet raspberry ice cream.

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Black Raspberry and Chocolate Ice Cream

Graeter's Ice Cream Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Tom and Chee’s started in a tent in downtown Cincinnati. Short for Tomato and Cheese, this grilled cheese eatery has steadily grown in the Midwest boosted by endorsements from a couple of  Shark Tank investors as well as a pre-weight loss Adam Richman on man versus food nation. It’s  smart concept for a number of reasons.  One, who doesn’t love a grilled cheese and better yet 16 different ones?  Two, they have a great gimmick with their spin on this classic; using a donut instead of bread with almost 10 different filling combinations. Three, the restaurant decor is fun, fresh and clean.  Bright red and yellow colours highlight the simple interior.

 

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I opted for the same item as Adam…the Blueberry Bleu consisting of blueberry compote, blue cheese and lemon mascarpone within a donut.  It certainly removed the stigma that a grilled cheese is a simple, handheld American snack. This one needed a knife and fork. It was salty and sweet and crunchy and smooth with every bite.  I loved the abundant blue cheese against the marscarpone and the blueberry compote was excellent.

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Blueberry Blue Donut Grilled Cheese Donut (may be a little more than 5 bucks)

Tom+Chee Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I made up a few of my own cheap excursions that didn’t involve any eats.  For example, I took a 6k jog and was able to hit three bridges, two states, two rivers and pass both an NFL stadium and an MLB stadium.  Speaking of the latter, the Great American Ballpark is a spectacle. The outside has a recreation of an infield complete with a pitcher, catcher, batter and base runner. The entrance to the stadium bring you into the top of stadium meaning you have to walk down instead of up to get to your seat.

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Johnny Bench Statue Outside the Great American Ballpark

My Take

I’m always interested in the snack scene of a city as much as I am the James Beard nominees or triple D destinations.  In the case of Cincinnati, some of the highlights include an ice cream shop nearly 150 years old and a grilled cheese joint in its infancy.  Both are cheap indulges you can help burn off with a jog through a couple of states or a stroll through a modern ballpark which is the centrepiece of an interesting midwest American city.

 

 

Lachey’s: If Only the Meatballs Were 98 Degrees

Maybe it was a dare or maybe I was curious but I felt it necessary to drop into Lachey’s bar while in Cincinnati.  The show Lachey’s: Raising the Bar was an expose of the trials and tribulations of opening a sports bar in the US midwest.  Of course, the Lachey brothers gained notoriety as two members of 98 degrees. Although hailing from Ohio, the quartet fled to west coast to gain fame as one of many cookie cutter boy bands that were prominent at the time. After a decade’s hiatus,  they joined  NKOTB and Boyz II Men as members of “the package” tour in 2013.  I neither watched the show nor listened to the music (now or then) but I felt compelled to visit to see if the bar warranted the hype.

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Lachey’s Bar

One of the first thing I noticed about the website (other than Nick’s glistening teeth) was the fact it had a rather long happy hour.  One could enjoy a couple of bucks off any draft beer, wine or cocktail until 8 pm on weeknights. Although it was a Monday, I had no idea what to expect crowd wise, so I rushed my daughter so we wouldn’t arrive too late.  We probably got there around 630 to a nearly empty bar.  The decor was nice enough (my daughter specifically asked me point out how nice the washrooms…err…restrooms were) and we waited and watched one of the many televisions before a  somewhat disgruntled waitress came by to take our order.  There was no mention of the happy hour or any half price appetizer.  I asked about a specific beer and she had no idea where it was from although she did look it up later.

Food wise, we ordered Not Your Nana’s Meatballs ($9), the chicken tenders ($9 plus $2.50 for the tots) and the hair of the dog burger ($12.50 plus $2.50 for the tots).  The meatballs were dry and cold (so they clearly were not my Nana’s.  The chicken tenders were a bit overdone and the sauces (honey mustard and house BBQ) were mediocre and although I didn’t try the burger, reports from the table were that it was pretty good.  The tots were ok.

When I got the bill, there were $2 off my pints as promised although I felt there was a bit of souvenir pricing for the food.

My Take

I came to Lachey’s with an open mind and free of any angst caused by exposure to boy band music in my younger years. Despite this, I was generally disappointed by the experience. The chicken tenders with accompanying sauces were average and the meatballs weren’t even 98 degrees. The happy hour beer was a steal but the food  was a bit pricey. Service wise, the waitress might as well sung “Was it something I didn’t say?” because she didn’t say much.   Unfortunately, in the end,  I didn’t leave the place humming  “Thank God I Found You”.

Lachey's Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Salazar: It Seems Only the Hipsters Have Beards in Cincinnati

Cincinnati has long been ignored as one of America’s culinary destinations, especially in the area of finer dining. Sure, there’s Jeff Ruby and he acclaimed steakhouses but other than that most of the regional foods are more pedestrian in nature and include chili, goetta (a German inspired spiced meat patty containing oats) and grilled cheese via Shark Tank.  They are perennially shunned in the annual James Beard awards mostly due to the fact that they are in the same regional category as Chicago.  Take 2016 for example.  Of the 20 James Beard semifinalists for the Great Lakes region,  11 were from Chicago compared to one in Cincinnati. As for the finalists, all 5 hail from the Windy city.

The lone wolf in Cincinnati was Jose Salazar.  Salazar isn’t your typical hometown boy.  He’s originally from Columbia and after coming to the states, developed a passion for cooking, schooled in New York (and was two blocks away from the twin towers when the 9/11 attacks occurred)  and ended up working with icons including Geoffrey Zakarian and Thomas Keller.  He decided he wanted a quieter life and moved to the Queen City.  Since then, he has opened a handful of restaurants including Mita’s ( the tapas restaurant he was nominated for) and Salazar, his first endeavor which celebrates the Over the Rhine region of Cincinnati.  Given the simplicity of the menu and the fact I was with my daughter, I opted for the latter.

Salazar has a modest but pretty interior highlighted by a large bar, brick walls and tiled floors which seems characteristic of the OTR region. We were quickly greeted by a waitress and I started with a Kentucky Penny cocktail, mainly because it is bourbon based and shares my last name (hey…it’s the closest I’ll ever get to a namesake cocktail so I gotta love a little).  Made with  maple, lemon, bitters and topped with ale, it was a shandyish but punchy concoction which I quite enjoyed given the abnormally warm weather.

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Kentucky Penny $10

There’s a handful of nibbles on the menus so we indulged in some brussels finished in a yuzu aoli. They were crispy, fantastic and gave me an idea of how to use my bottle of yuzu vinegar at home moving forward.

salazar brussels
Brussel Sprouts $6

My daughter went with the burger and I chose the sandwich special which was egg salad served with gravlax.  I found it kind of funny that the salmon played second fiddle to the egg but the combination was quite delicious, especially with the toasted bread it was served on. The farm green salad was a pleasant side. The burger was solid even when dumbed down by my daughter’s cheese omission and medium-well patty.  The thick bacon and “special sauce” were both spot-on.

We ended the meal with a dessert which fused three American favorites; sweet potato pie, donuts and smores.  The sweet potato donuts served with chocolate, graham and marshmallow. The earthy and naturally sweet flavour of the potato was a terrific medium for the  sweeter accompaniments and the fact they were served hot out of the flyer was bonus.

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Sweet Potato Donut $8

My Take

Jose Salazar and his namesake restaurant prove there is more to Cincinnati than chili and goetta.  It’s modest and economical menu delivered on taste and value without a whole lotta pretension. Even though the Queen City’s culinary scene will likely always live in the shadows of Chicago’s, Salazar growing empire is a reminder that, unlike the Bengals and Nick Lachey, there is hope in Cincinnati after all.

Salazar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato