Columbus: The Home of Lots of Dumplings, National Pistol Champions and 60000 Nuts

The last leg of my Midwest road trip was a stop in Columbus. It seems I have circled around Ohio’s capital in the past but visiting cities including Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton and Pittsburgh. My understanding of Columbus is limited to its place as state capital, the home of a recently decimated NHL hockey team and of course, the location of THE Ohio State University.

To me THE Ohio State University has always been a castle in the kingdom of post-secondary folklore. It is loathed especially by Michigan, anybody in the Big 10 and well… pretty much anybody within a 200 mile radius who isn’t a Buckeye or Buckeye fan. In fact, just a few weeks ago, an American colleague (and Indiana native) of mine couldn’t help but roll her eyes at the sheer mention of my presence anywhere the campus. Just the look of Urban Meyer, the celebrated ex-OSU head coach who in his tenure of 8 years scored a national championship, makes most football fans wince. You have to admit, calling yourself “THE” in any context is pretty ballsy, especially in light of the many Ivy league schools which display their pride in less overt ways such a participation in college Jeopardy competitions and high sales of “My kid goes to Harvard” bumper stickers. That said, maybe the OSU claim is justified. Let’s look at 5 reasons why:

  1. The school is in the top five nationally for student enrollment. I guess when 60 000 students think they are the best, they are the best.
  2. Their mascot is a tree nut with a face and a body which has got to be as tough as a wolverine or a badger, possibly through the induction of allergic reactions among those who dare question their authority.
  3. Rumour has it that their reluctance to surpass rival Michigan in stadium attendance is the sheer fact that they don’t want to close off the bottom of the complex and have to think up a nickname other than the horseshoe.
  4. There is something to be said about 100000 people who can spell a four letter word (no it’s not any of the vulgar words coming to mind..it’s O-H-I-O) for 10 minutes before kick off. Thank god Columbus isn’t the capital of Massachusetts.
  5. Screw football…OSU has won 9 national men’s pistol championships since 2000 and 32 national woman’s synchronized swimming championship since 1977. Michigan, on the other hand, has only won 8 men’s hockey championships and none since 1998…losers.
  6. Famous alumni include George Steinbrenner, Jack Nicklaus, Roy Lichtenstein and R.L. Stein…the thought just gives me Goosebumps.

Honestly, part of the reason I have avoided Columbus until now is because until recently it has been void of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives which I find ironic given Columbus is the birthplace of host Guy Fieri.  Of the six DDDs which now populate the capital, I managed to hit half of them during my short trip.  The first was Loops (named after the L-line), a Chicago sandwich shop which pays homage to most the Windy city as well , of course, THE Ohio state.  Among the many sandwich and dog choices on the menu, I opted for two of Guy’s choices from the show; the Italian Beef and the authentic pork gyro “done the right way”.    They came unapologetically wrapped in foil street vendor style.  The beef was loaded with giardiniera (pickled vegetables) and the gyro with the traditional lettuce, tomato and tzatziki.  I much preferred the Italian Beef, possibly because of the promise of Chicago  authenticity (giardiniera atop beef is classic Chi-town). Also, I found the pork a little dry but it was helped by the sloppiness of the rest if the sandwich including the aforementioned sauce.

Stop two was the much anticipated North market (located in a rather surprisingly nice downtown area complete with brick streets and the attractive Nationwide arena). The market houses the second DDD, a Nepalese dumpling house called Momo Ghar which has gained national popularity on social media and other foodie channels.  Nepal (probably less recognized than it’s capital Katmandu which has been a celebrity refuge for many and theme of the Bob Seger song of the same name) is sandwiched between China and India so it’s not surprising that its culinary influences come from both sides of the border. I can best describe Momo Ghar’s offerings as hakka dim sum. Strong Indian flavours of cilantro and cumin filled the Asian style chicken and pork dumplings which were served atop a flavourful sauce resembling a thin curry.  The side of potato salad also had Asian flair..kind of like if Nepal was fused somewhere between India and the United States and hosted a picnic. In addition, the market offered a number of other vendors including Flavor and Fore, a great hot sauce and salsa shop, Penny’s Meats (hey I have to mention a butcher with my last name!) and  Destination Donuts, who sweet offerings and sweeter staff were enticing enough to make a trip back over the border with me back to Ontario.

The final DDD was Pierogi Mountain.  There are two locations and both are hidden within the kitchens of Columbus bars which makes understanding where and when to find them a bit confusing.  One is a late night punk bar near OSU and the other is in a cocktail bar called Wunderbar located in the historic German village in central Columbus.  It seems quite a symbiotic relationship as I imagine drunk punks and hipsters would love to scarf down pocket potatoes in the wee hours of the morning after pounding Miller High Lifes and listening to bands named Acid Angst or the Beard Scratchcards. Pierogi Mountain offers a lunch service right in the kitchen while Wunderbar is closed so I had to forego the punk bar scene (in which neither the bar or the kitchen opened until evening anyway) and order alongside a rather adorable old couple who was less than decisive. It’s also cute to watch old people loudly read the menu items to each other and then argue about each other likes and dislikes. “Henry, you won’t like those beer pierogies and I don’t want you drinking before noon”. “Nevermind Margaret…I wouldn’t dare order the meatloaf because it won’t be as good as yours. “Oh, Henry, that’s sweet”. Henry gets beer pierogies…the end. The pierogis were soft, flavourful and nicely pan fried without excessive grease.  The stewed onions were a delicious condiment, sweetened nicely to compliment the sour cream.  I also ordered their special; a meatloaf with a cheese gravy which, despite sounding a little odd, was surprisingly complex and quite satisfying.  

  Honorable mention goes to Rooster’s, a local roadhouse chain with big ass cheap beer and heaps of butter laden wings. I also have to shout to , who was probably the most courteous Uber driver I’ve ever had.

In sum, Columbus is worth another visit which I may plan immediately after the next Michigan game to either relish the win or snicker somewhat in the loss as I read “How I got my Shrunken head” aloud on a street corner or scream “I Don’t Care! I’d rather drown than.. call Brad for help!” over and over as I streak across campus. If not, I’ll just hit the other three DDD and call that a major win.

Looking for Redemption at Shawshank: My Own Amazing Race Without the Need for a Permanent Reminder

Sometimes you come across things by chance. The initial plan on the way from Cleveland to Columbus was to hit one of the many Amish buffets that populate mid-Ohio. However, I still super full from the previous day. Curious about the weather, I flipped on the news to look at the map and get the forecast and saw that the town of Mansfield, Ohio was about halfway to Columbus travelling down highway 71. After a quick internet search, I discovered two things; Mansfield, in particular the Ohio State Reformatory, was the venue for the 2019 Inkcarceration tour featuring the likes of Godsmack, Five Finger Death Punch and a whole lot of tattoo artists which, as a guy who’s skin is a blank canvas, wasn’t particularly appealing. Second, the same prison was the hub for the filming of the Shawshank Redemption which hit theaters 25 years ago. Based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, this movie, which follows the wrongful conviction Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) has achieved cult-like status. That year, it couldn’t compete with Forest Gump and the Lion King but surprisingly, it didn’t even crack the top 50 in box office earnings that year and was even beaten by the likes of Beverly Hills Cop III, Richie Rich and the Schwarzenegger classic Junior. Nonetheless it was nominated for 7 Oscars including best picture (at a a time when there weren’t 17 candidates), best adapted screenplay and best actor for Morgan Freeman. It failed to win any. Also, it seemed a fitting tour stop given the fact I stomped around Bangor, Maine last year posing near numerous landmarks referenced in Stephen King’s “It” so why stop now.

One can tour the reformatory for $15 and we got lucky because it was the first day it was open following the concert (they were still disassembling the stages and cleaning up the grounds when we arrived). The tour is a peek into the history of the Ohio penal system with a number of Shawshank references scattered throughout. One gets a bit gobsmacked (or is it Godsmacked) viewing things like the electric chair, shanks (made from spoons, pencils and other routine prisonware) and the eerie symmetry of the numerous cells stacked on top of each other. In regards to the movie, you can also the warden’s office, the infamous “Brooks was here” room, the solitary confinement area where Andy spend a lot of fine as well as the tunnel that was used for his escape. Cardboard cutouts of various characters including the ominous Captain Hadley are strategically placed throughout the grounds to recreate many of the movie scenes.

Other movie scenes scattered throughout the town of Mansfield itself which are identified by Shawshank Trail signs which made me feel like I was competing on the amazing race. These included the building who’s front facade was the movie’s halfway house and the green bench Brooks rested and reflected on after his release. There is also the Food Way(now a convenience/grocery store called the KV market) which was used in the movie. It was purchased by a Brampton family and now looks nothing like the market Red was employed at following his release. I had a nice chat with the owner’s son about life in rural Ohio and whether the Honey Jalapeno Fetty Wap chips were any good.

The Shawshank trail also scoots up to Upper Sandusky (which is south of Sandusky….). Here you can see the courthouse where Andy was originally sentenced in the movie as well as the workshop where many of the prisoners worked throughout the movie. Other than that, it is a quaint Northern Ohio place with a picturesque central street where you can get a decent coffee and a friendly small town smile at a place called Beca House Coffee Co.

Given I stumbled across Mansfield by fluke at the 11th hour, I didn’t have a chance to venture to Ashfield or Butler to sit under the “Shawshank oak tree” and ponder why I might want to get “Brooks was Here” tattooed on my forearms in sanskrit. I guess I don’t really have to; I bought the beer koozie which I can nicely tuck it away in a drawer when the novelty wears off.