Best Of 2015

2015 Eats Staff Picks: Cincinnati's best dining destinations as selected by CityBeat staff.

2015 Eats Staff Picks

Cincinnati's best dining destinations as selected by CityBeat staff. 


BEST OTR SAUSAGE HOUSE GIVING SENATE A RUN FOR ITS MONEY 
The go-to place in Over-the-Rhine for housemade sausage is Krueger’s Tavern, a bar and eatery where Lavomatic once held forth. There you’ll find menu items like jagerwurst (“hunting sausage” with lean beef and pork, touches of pepper, garlic and mustard seed) and spicy reddish merguez (a Moroccan lamb sausage sparked up with cumin and chili peppers). Choose from a great selection of canned beers — they brag of 75 varieties — in buckets or in beer cocktails, which you can enjoy inside the eatery or on the rooftop patio come spring. Krueger’s is across the street from Senate, whose gourmet hot dogs must be feeling some friendly competitive heat. Krueger’s Tavern, 1211 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-834-8670, facebook.com/kruegerstavern.  

BEST PIZZA INSIDE AN OLD FIREHOUSE
Since opening a brick-and-mortar version of their popular wood-fired pizza cart last year, Fireside Pizza has been able to attract a crowd to the up-and-coming East Walnut Hills neighborhood. With the family-friendly vibe, old school Ms. Pac-Man game and the fact that it’s located inside an actual historic firehouse, Fireside’s appeal transcends its nicely singed wood-fired pizzas. With more businesses following suit, East Walnut Hills has suddenly become a destination again. And for the area bars that don’t offer food, many allow you to bring in or order a Fireside pie — maybe a White Pie (olive oil, provolone, mozzarella, shaved Parm, rosemary and garlic)? Fireside Pizza, 773 E. McMillan St., East Walnut Hills, 513-751-FIRE, firesidepizzawalnuthills.com
 
The Weekly Juicery
Photo: Jesse Fox
BEST WAY TO AVOID SOLID FOODS 
The influx of juice bars in Cincinnati is making it easier to be health conscious while still maintaining a certain level of laziness. With the opening of Off the Vine in Over-the-Rhine and The Weekly Juicery in Hyde Park, plus the longstanding Total Juice Plus downtown (in operation since 1997), you can get all the fresh-squeezed or cold-pressed, nutrient-dense juice you need without the hassle of cleaning up the annoying mess a home juicer makes. Order pre-planned cleansing programs from Off the Vine or The Weekly Juicery ($55-$65 per day), featuring homemade nut milks, citrus, root and green juices, and see if you can reset, restore and go three days without chewing. Off the Vine, 1218 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-305-6020, otvcincinnati.com; The Weekly Juicery, 2727 Erie Ave., Hyde Park, 513-321-0680, theweeklyjuicery.com; Total Juice Plus, 631 Vine St., Downtown, 513-784-1666, totaljuicecincy.com

BEST ROAD TRIP EVER 
Take six of the best chefs from Cincinnati — David Cook of Daveed’s NEXT, David Falk of Boca, Julie Francis of Nectar, Jose Salazar of Salazar, Jean Philippe Solnom of French Crust Café, and Stephen Williams of Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar — led by arguably the most recognizable chef in town, Jean-Robert de Cavel, plus a gaggle of sous chefs, photographers, PR people, food writers, family, etc., bring them all to New York City to cook at the world-renowned James Beard House and what do you have? Quite possibly the best damn road trip known to man. Last May’s Cincy in NYC was a weeklong showcase of Cincinnati’s performing arts and culture in venues across the Big Apple: the Cincinnati Ballet danced at the Joyce Theater; CCM Jazz alumni performed at Lincoln Center; the Cincinnati Symphony and the May Festival Chorus took the stage at Carnegie Hall; and, of course, our talented chefs showed folks that Cincinnati food is about so much more than chili. cincyinnyc.com. 


BEST REASON TO SPEND CASH ON A COCKTAIL 
Northside bourbon bar and kitchen The Littlefield made a smart move when they brought on former Honey chef Shoshannah Hafner to craft and cook their curated menu of savories and sweets to pair with their bourbon and beer. And while their bourbon selection, which features coveted brands and years like Old Rip Van Winkle’s 10 and 12 year, Old Forester’s vintage-dated Birthday Bourbon and Bulleit’s 10 year, is commendable, so is their effort to raise money for local causes. The bar creates a featured cocktail or flight of the month, with proceeds going to everything from arts organizations to community initiatives. The bar’s February cocktail — the Apple Street Cooptail, with brandy, cherry shrub, house lemonade and soda — benefitted ownership drive efforts for Northside’s Apple Street Market coop; for each drink sold, the bar donated $1. And if that’s not a reason to get drunk, their Mad Anthony (Four Roses with basil simple syrup, house ginger beer and balsamic vinegar) certainly is. The Littlefield, 3934 Spring Grove Ave., Northside, 513-386-7570, littlefieldns.com

BEST VEGETARIAN BARBECUE 
Don’t misunderstand: Huit Craft BBQ hosted a dinner for Meat Week in January, the eight-day national holiday where a city’s restaurants celebrate barbecue with meat-based meals. And the French-Asian fusion Huit cooks up a fine, spicy tribute to the pig, the chicken and the cow. But their barbecue tofu helps keep those pesky vegetarians happy, and god knows we need joyful vegetarians. This energetic dining spot is bringing new life to Court Street, with good hours for residents, including evenings and Saturdays, and their ramen is a big fat bowl of heaven. And Huit is opening a second location in Corryville this spring. Huit Craft BBQ, 29 E. Court St., Downtown, 513-381-4848, facebook.com/huitasian.

BEST PASTRIES THAT LOOK GREAT BUT TASTE EVEN BETTER 
Cincinnati pastry artist Blair Fornshell does not have her own storefront yet, so she’s relegated to selling her Brown Bear Bakery goods at various locations throughout the city, including at Carabello Coffee and City Flea. Unlike a lot of commercial bakeries in the city, Blair uses all-natural ingredients (no food coloring or preservatives) to create so-beautiful-you-almost-feel-bad-about-eating-them desserts, such as vanilla bean scones, oat flour salty chocolate chip cookies, cacao nib rochers and brown butter cranberry almond streusel muffins. Just check out her Instagram feed (@brownbearbakery) and you’ll fall in love at first sight. brownbearbakes.com

BEST MARRIAGE OF LOCAL FOOD AND BREWS 
MadTree Brewing recently formed a permanent relationship with food truck Catch-a-Fire Pizza in the form of a wood-fired in-taproom café, but luckily the brewery will continue to host its popular Hop Up Dinner Series. Hop Ups pair some of the city’s hippest chefs — like Hideki Harada from Kaze, Patrick Hague from Dutch’s and Jose Salazar from Salazar — with MadTree’s rotating 21 brews on draft for a casual dinner. Eat at your own pace, and fill a growler before you head home. (MadTree also offers homemade root beer on tap for the kids and teetotalers who still want good food sans brews.) MadTree Brewing, 5164 Kennedy Ave., Oakley, 513-836-8733, madtreebrewing.com


BEST URBAN COVINGTON FARM 
Grassroots cooperative gardening effort Grow the COV takes a different approach to creating food access through not only growing food but also by giving people resources to grow their own and educating the community on where their food comes from. The goal of co-founders Lydia Cook and Gus Wolf is to “create enough noise” that the issue of access to fresh, healthy, affordable food gets heard by the demographic of folks who shop at corner markets and convenience stores. Their agrarian efforts include chicken coops on Orchard Street and goats who groom the hillside at Covington’s Goebel Park. growthecov.org

BEST SALAD WRAPPED IN MEAT 
Salads tend to have a bad rap — their main ingredient is usually lettuce. Some call it rabbit food, a palate cleanser or a lean alternative to a hot (real) meal. But La Poste’s prosciutto salad is none of those things. This tasty plate includes pistachio relish, Stilton blue cheese, blackberry vinaigrette — and, yes, fresh spinach — and it all comes neatly enveloped in a dainty slice of the sweet and savory Italian ham. Be sure to ask for a wine pairing suggestion. La Poste, 3410 Telford St., Clifton, 513- 281-3663, laposteeatery.com

BEST CULINARY BLIND DATE 
Today, it’s not uncommon to walk into a restaurant ready to order. Diners can look up a restaurant’s menu online in advance, check out some Yelp reviews and scope out dishes on Instagram to figure out what they want to get. But if you can throw all order planning aside, Vitor’s Bistro’s Chef’s Course Menu is a three-, four- or five-course surprise party for your mouth. Just give your food preferences/dietary constrictions (the fewer the better) and chef Vitor Abreu will whip up a memorable meal in an unsuspecting space tucked away in Cheviot. Each dish leaves you eager to see what Vitor will create next. Odds are you’ll find a new favorite dish you never would have ordered in the first place. Vitor’s Bistro, 3232 Harrison Ave., Cheviot, 513- 481-5333, vitorsbistro.net

BEST WEST SIDE BREWERY WITH A NAUGHTY-SOUNDING NAME 
Get your mind out of the gutter! Tap & Screw, the West Side’s first microbrewery, refers to beer taps, wine corkscrews and the Cincinnati Screw and Tap Company of the 1800s. Another recent addition to the ever-growing list of local beer brewers, Tap & Screw offers its own beers — Irony Belgium, Dr. Kool IPA and Jacked Porter, among others — along with local favorites from Rhinegeist, MadTree, West Sixth and more. Come for drinks and apps with friends or stop by for a quick dinner and bring a growler home (for cheap!). Tap & Screw Brewery, 5060 Crookshank Road, Westwood, 513- 451-1763, tapandscrew.com

BEST GUY FIERI QUOTE ABOUT CINCINNATI 
Guy Fieri is no stranger to Cincinnati. The exuberantly bleached culinary hedgehog has taken his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives Flavortown everywhere from Northside’s Melt to Corryville’s Island Fryday’s to the ’burbs’ Blue Ash Chili. He even went as far as to devote a show entirely to a single street — Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine — for the first time. The OTR “One Street Wonders” episode aired last year and featured Senate, Bakersfield and Taste of Belgium. All of which Fieri was super psyched on, as judged by his classic comments on Taste of Belgium (“This is the way to get your kid up in the morning on Sunday to have him mow the lawn and wax the car and shave the dog”) and Senate (“Hot Dogs are gangster”). Follow Fieri on Twitter for more gems: @guyfieri. 


BEST WAY TO EAT A BANANA 
So Tom+Chee is kind of a big deal. They’re always on TV, they’re expanding nationwide and their food — from their fancy grilled cheese, tomato soups and salads with grilled cheese croutons — is excellent … especially the Bananarama grilled cheese donut. More than a great ’80s Pop group, this sandwich will have you thinking differently about getting your vitamin B6 (bananas are full of it). Made with caramelized banana and smoked Gouda on a grilled glazed donut, it’s an amazingly delicious and slightly nutritious comfort food. Tom+Chee, multiple locations including 113 E. Court St., Downtown, tomandchee.com


Amerasia
Photo: Jesse Fox
BEST FRIED RICE FOR GAMERS 
KungFood Chu’s AmerAsia brings the kitschy charm of New York City’s Chinatown to Covington, Ky., with hanging lanterns, subtitled Kung Fu movies playing on a TV behind the bar and Asian film posters hanging on the tiny dining room’s bright red walls. The food — like the tongue-in-cheekly named Fly Rice and super spicy Dragon’s Breath Wontons — is fresh, with classic Chinese take-out undertones, and their extensive beer list (more than 100 cans, bottles and drafts) is enough to set them apart. But what really takes AmerAsia to the next level are its game nights. The restaurant frequently hosts public video game tournaments in concert with brewing companies, like a 007 competition with Victory Brewing or Super Smash Brothers with Upland Brewing. And with the recent addition of their vintage NBA Jam game cabinet (plus the food, booze and bathroom), there’s really no reason to leave. KungFood Chu’s AmerAsia, 521 Madison Ave., Covington, Ky., 859-261-6121, facebook.com/kungfoodchu


BEST TEPEE TO EAT INSIDE 
Eating lunch downtown during the workweek can become a bit rote — First Watch, Subway, Panera, repeat. Enter Cheapside Café, a breath of fresh air in the Eighth Street Design District. With a menu featuring kale salads, breakfast sandwiches with pimento cheese and modern espresso drinks (like the bubbly chinotto, with housemade tonic, espresso and soda), along with an interior decked out with a white floor, rustic wood seating and live plants, the ambiance feels decidedly West Coast — especially when you glance at the patio. The focal point of Cheapside’s al fresco seating is a large wooden tepee, constructed out of slatted cedar, in which you can sit at a bright red table while enjoying your smoked turkey on salted rye and locally foraged soda. Cheapside Café, 326 E. Eighth St., Downtown, 513-345-6618, cheapsidecafe.com

BEST PLACE TO SHOW OFF YOUR MUSSELS 
On the northeast corner of OTR’s Washington Park you’ll find Zula Restaurant + Wine Bar, a place where you could dine every night for a week and sample a new pot of mussels from a different locale around the world each time. Preparations include classic French (white wine, shallots, garlic), Mediterranean (scallions, peppers, lemon and sundried tomatoes), Thai (coconut milk, lemon grass and ginger) and New Orleans (gumbo flavorings with shrimp and Andouille sausage), among others. But don’t get stuck on the mussels: You’ll miss out on a half-dozen flatbreads and great appetizers like eggplant fries dusted with confectioner’s sugar and a spicy-sour dipping sauce. With the hard-to-pick-just-one variety, this is the kind of place that invites multiple visits. Zula Restaurant + Wine Bar, 1400 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-744-9852, zulabistro.com

BEST MULTI-TASKING COCKTAIL
If you stayed up too late drinking, deciding what to eat for breakfast is really difficult. You need a bit of the hair of the dog, plus food, but having to choose what to ingest for those two separate components is far too taxing on brain cylinders that aren’t completely firing all at once. Enter the Longshoreman’s Bloody Mary at The Anchor-OTR. Far from your ordinary brunch bevvy, this baby is a meal in a glass. A go-to rescue drink, it’s chock-full of everything, including the requisite vodka, tomato juice, pickled veggies and a big ol’ lobster claw (or shrimp or an oyster). It’s a one trick wonder and an excellent hangover cure. The Anchor-OTR, 1401 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-421-8111, theanchor-otr.com


Holtman's Donuts
Provided
BEST HIGH-CALORIE CORNER 
No matter which way you turn at 14th and Vine streets in Over-the-Rhine, you’ll get caught. Let’s start with Holtman’s Donuts: the maple-glazed donut topped with bacon will get you every time. Then, next door at The Eagle OTR, there’s the best fried chicken on the planet. Hop across Vine to Graeter’s for some raspberry chip after that — or try the raspberry sorbet if you’re starting to feel a tad guilty. Then head west on 14th a few more steps to Brezel pretzel shop for numerous flavors in a twist — cinnamon sugar, dark chocolate chunk and salt, orange thyme, spinach asiago, chipotle cheddar, Italian Parmesan and many more. Because everything’s so delicious, you won’t feel bad about yourself until tomorrow — and maybe not even then; wandering several blocks to different eateries definitely burned off at least some of that donut. holmantsdonutshop.com; facebook.com/theeagleotr; graeters.com; brezelpower.com

BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT REVIVAL 
Szechuan Garden Bistro in Park Hills, Ky., had become one of those restaurants you would drive past to get to someplace better, no matter how hungry you were. Not anymore. Veteran restaurateur Alex Chin has rescued the Garden, and you owe it to yourself to stop. It still doesn’t look too chic, but who cares when the food is completely fantastic. The standards are there, and they’re done very well, but the ante is upped by Hot Pots, duck dishes and shrimp with candied walnuts. There’s a vast gluten-free menu and vegetarian options like the Fresh Wild Mushroom Trio in Ginger White Wine Sauce, plus attentive service and a full bar. Szechuan Garden Bistro, 1504 Dixie Highway, Park Hills, Ky., 859-491-0505, szechuangardenbistro.com

BEST DINER FEATURING ELVIS PARAPHERNALIA 
There are old school diners that try too hard to resurrect the past, and then there are diners that authentically live in the past to the point where you feel like everything is trapped in amber, including yourself. Covington, Ky.’s Rima’s Diner follows the latter logic — in a great way. Elvis paraphernalia exploded inside the restaurant, from knickknacks of Fat Elvis to ephemera of handsome younger Elvis to his vinyl record sleeves hanging on walls. To counterbalance the nostalgic Elvis tinsel, Rima’s threw in some Marilyn Monroe pictures, so you can fixate on both The King and Norma Jean while you stuff your face with pie. Rima’s Diner, 635 Madison Ave., Covington, Ky., 859-261-7800, facebook.com/rimasdiner


Happy Belly on Vine
Photo: Jesse Fox
BEST NEW FAST FOOD 
Healthy grab-and-go takeaways are the new drive-thrus, and Cincinnati is full of ’em. Either with the meal-and-market concept like Sprout Market and Eatery in Mount Adams or Picnic and Pantry’s new Over-the-Rhine location, or a restaurant-cum-takeaway like Happy Belly in OTR (pictured), The Gruff in Covington and Fond: Lunch and Deli in Blue Ash, these stops are making it easier to eat fresh food without the hassle of cooking it yourself. Grab a ready-made, local and organically sourced meal at any of these locations for lunch or dinner. And with this many to choose from, it might even be more convenient than finding a McDonald’s. sproutmtadams.com; picnicandpantry.com; facebook.com/happybellyonvine; atthegruff.com; facebook.com/fondorganiclunchanddeli

BEST REASON TO GET TO FINDLAY MARKET (OR JUNGLE JIM’S) EARLY 
Quick question: Why doesn’t Blue Oven Bakery have a storefront? They should, but for now you can find them hawking their homemade breads year-round at Findlay Market, Jungle Jim’s and seasonally at various farmers markets. One caveat: You need to arrive to any and all locations early or risk leaving empty handed. Blue Oven frequently sells out of their stock by late morning/early afternoon and it’s easy to see why: Their hearth-baked bread is crusty and fluffy and their buttery English muffins are so good they put all other store brands to shame. Blue Oven Bakery, Findlay Market, 1801 Race St., Over-the-Rhine; Jungle Jim’s, 5440 Dixie Highway, Fairfield, blueovenbakery.com

BEST COFFEE SHOP INSIDE A BIKE SHOP 
Newport, Ky.’s Reser Bicycle just doesn’t sell bikes — they also sell really good coffee drinks at their coffee outpost Trailhead. It’s currently the only place in town where you can get a whole bag or a cup of Portland-originated Stumptown Coffee, which is like the gold of coffees. Using rotating roasts and Brown Bear Bakery’s salty caramel syrup, they make a great somewhat-sweet drink called The Grizzly (try it). The best part of the shop? Their baristas are knowledgeable and not intimidating like those at some craft coffee joints. Come for the coffee, maybe buy a bike? Trailhead Coffee, 648 Monmouth St., Newport, Ky., 859-261-6187, reserbicycle.com/pages/trailheadcoffee

BEST MODERN BANH MI 
Years ago, as a result of Vietnam’s French colonial past, Vietnamese bakers transformed baguettes into an even more interesting bread and called it bánh mì, and shops using this thinner, airier baked bun are all the rage these days. Today the term bánh mì generally refers to a type of sandwich made with the bread and stuffed with pork or pate, cilantro and pickled veggies. The best place locally to try one on for size is Quán Hapa in the heart of Over-the-Rhine (sister restaurant of Findlay Market’s popular bánh mì-serving Pho Lang Thang), where you can get these trendy sandwiches with a modern twist. Each filling has its own specially pickled accent and sauce: chicken with pickled cucumbers and adobo sauce; pork belly with pickled papaya and aioli; and cauliflower with red onions and cashew. They’re available during both lunch and dinner hours at the sleek diner, which offers a variety of Asian street fare and TV screens with anime features. They also now take reservations. Quán Hapa, 1331 Vine St. Over-the-Rhine, 513-421-7826, quanhapa.com

BEST HAPPY HOUR SNACK TRAY 
Downtown happy hours are a dime a dozen, but The Presidents Room at The Phoenix separates itself from the mundane by turning average snack food on its head. The bar hosts a happy hour from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday (weekend happy hour!) and offers something called a “snack tray” for $4.50. It’s comprised of housemade Cheese Nips (cheddar crisps), spicy pistachios, smoked olives and smoked almond brittle, and it fills you up. When’s the last time you had homemade Cheese Nips instead of store-bought ones? Um, yeah. (Also grab an order of their deep-fried biscuits with apple butter or the craft cocktail of the day — just $5 during happy hour.) The Presidents Room at the Phoenix, 812 Race St., Downtown, 513-721-2260, thepresidentsrm.com

BEST NORTHERN KENTUCKY FISHMONGER 
The only place to get fresh fish in Northern Kentucky (Kroger does not count) is Afishionados, which is situated inside The Friendly Market. John Lafontaine, the fishmonger, occasionally sells exotic and hard-to-find fish like tilefish, along with his daily staples of prepared foods, seafood dips, soups and Texas caviar (a black-eyed pea and black bean salad). His fish — try the Chilean sea bass and swordfish — is fresh, affordable and sustainable, and he buys a small amount of stock so he doesn’t waste much or sell gross leftovers. Lafontaine easily competes with the big boys at Findlay Market and Whole Foods. In fact, his fish is much better. Afishionados, 10050 Norbotten Drive, Florence, 859-869-4186, a-fish-ionados.com

BEST $5 BITE AT A FANCY RESTAURANT 
It’s just a little fried oyster sandwich with kimchi, radish sprouts and garlic mayo, but Salazar’s oyster slider tastes so good you’ll want more. They offer it on both their lunch and dinner menus but only as a bite-sized morsel. Considering it’s only $5 (all of their nibbles are priced between $5-$6), the oyster’s a good deal. What we wouldn’t give for an entire plate of these, but leaving customers wanting more is chef Salazar’s modus operandi. Salazar, 1401 Republic St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-621-7000, salazarcincinnati.com.

BEST PLACE TO GET A CHICAGO-STYLE DOG THAT’S NOT CHICAGO 
Chicago is well known for its “Red Hots,” or all-beef frankfurters on poppy seed buns. And as it should be, they’re delicious. But you don’t have to travel some 300 miles just to enjoy one: Mount Lookout’s Wurst Bar in the Square offers the Abe Froman Special, a Chicago-style dog with a twist that will satisfy any sausage-lover’s tummy. The plump all-beef dog is topped with relish, spicy peppers, shaved onion, brown mustard, sauerkraut and fries. It’s a perfect hot mesh of Cincinnati and Windy City cuisine. And, as it’s named after the Sausage King of Chicago, how can you go wrong? Wurst Bar in the Square, 3204 Linwood Ave., Mount Lookout, 513-321-0615, wurstbarinthesquare.com

BEST EXCUSE FOR NOT LEAVING A TIP 
Newport, Ky.’s Packhouse Meats received national attention last year when it started a policy that customers do not tip the waitstaff. Instead, waiters and waitresses get paid either $10 per hour or 20 percent of their food sales — whichever is higher. With all the controversy surrounding tipping these days — the U.S. has a higher suggested tipping percentage (15-20 percent) than any other country — it’s refreshing to know you don’t have to rate someone’s service with cash and that workers receive what’s considered a fair and decent wage regardless. And, oh yeah, their quinoa meatballs are quite good. Packhouse Meats, 1004 Monmouth St., Newport, Ky., 859-415-2312, packhousemeats.com

BEST BEER FESTIVAL FOR HOP HEADS 
If you lust after bitter, dankly aromatic pale ales and compulsively check your beer’s IBUs, chances are Rhinegeist’s first Hopgeist double IPA festival was a religious experience. The November fest featured rare, hopped-up creations from more than 30 breweries, local and non, like MadTree, Listermann, Jackie O’s, Dogfish Head, Smuttynose and a ton more, plus brats and a special Rhinegeist double IPA homebrew collaboration called Homie. If you missed it last year, don’t worry — the first Hopgeist was super popular and it will be back again in 2015. Rhinegeist, 1910 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-1367, rhinegeist.com

BEST REASON TO RESURRECT YOUR TOT POCKET 
Things seem to come back in style more quickly these days, like how New Kids on the Block is currently on a North American tour with TLC and Nelly. So it makes sense that you’d need to dust off your Napoleon Dynamite impression because tater tots are back — not that they ever necessarily left. The fried potato cylinders are showing up on menus across the city, from the fancier Poutine Supreme at The Rookwood (truffle tots with pork-cheek gravy, pecorino and shishitos) to the Tot Bowl at Lachey’s (pick one of three flavors of tots — jerked spice, garlic Parm or bacon and cheese — served with malt vinegar aioli, cheese sauce and homemade ketchup) to the drunk-food staple at Adriatico’s, where you can stuff your face with a basket of tots covered in cheese, bacon or pizza toppings. You gonna eat your tots? therookwood.com; lacheys.com; adriaticosuc.com


BEST EPICUREAN BEER BREWER 
People often use “food” words to describe the taste of wine and beer — a jammy red wine, a bready lager — but few alcohol producers take the designation as literally as Blank Slate Brewing Company. Scott LaFollette, the man behind the small-batch draft-only brewery, is no stranger to unique flavors. He incorporates ingredients designed for food pairings into his beers, like in his popular Shroominous brown ale, made with shiitake mushrooms. More recently, he collaborated on a Cincy 3-Way Porter with Colorado’s Oskar Blues Brewery to play on the flavor of Cincinnati chili (even going so far as to add a ceremonial can to the batch) and on an Opera Cream Stout with local bakery the BonBonerie. Skip lunch and try LaFollette’s latest creations in the freshly opened Blank Slate PourHouse taproom. Blank Slate Brewing Company, 4233 Airport Road, Unit C, East End, 513-979-4540, blankslatebeer.com

BEST PLACE FOR A SUB NAMED AFTER A NEW YORK BOROUGH OR MONUMENT 
If you want a taste of the Big Apple, travel no further than to Mount Washington, specifically to the family-owned New York NY Deli on Beechmont Avenue. The menu features delicious 6- or 12-inch subs made with New York-style recipes, and each sub features a Big Apple name, such as the Midtown Club, the Empire State or the Bronx Bomber. Lady Liberty, a chicken breast sub topped with bacon, Havarti cheese, ranch dressing, honey mustard, lettuce, tomato and onion is especially coma-inducing. In addition to its subs, the menu features breakfast items (including 10-inch breakfast burritos), gourmet sandwiches and housemade soups. New York NY Deli, 2210 Beechmont Ave., Mount Washington, 513-233-3354, nynydeli.com

BEST STEAK FOR TWO — OR THREE OR FOUR 
Downtown’s intimate underground trattoria Sotto is well known and well lauded for its collection of delicious housemade pasta (oh to be buried in a pile of their tonnarelli cacio e pepe). But they have an equally ravenous cult following for their meat dishes, including the Bistecca Fiorentina. The huge 1-kilogram grilled Creekstone porterhouse steak comes sliced along the bone on a platter, with daily sides. For $85, it’s a dish to share con la famiglia — you just may have to fight over who gets to gnaw on the bone. Sotto, 118 E. Sixth St., Downtown, 513-977-6886, sottocincinnati.com


Photo: Jesse Fox
BEST SWEET AND SAVORY CHICKEN PIE 
Moroccan cuisine, a mix of Berber, Andalusian and Mediterranean influences, intersects with the idea of what Americans generally consider “Middle Eastern” food — falafel, hummus, gyros, baba ganoush, etc. Marrakech Moroccan Café and Grill in Clifton meets those preconceived notions and expands them with dishes you can’t find anywhere else in the city. The chefs, who hail from Marrakech, serve up Mediterranean staples, plus a variety of tajines, flavorful stews slow-cooked in a conical earthenware pot, and bastilla, a sweet and savory chicken pie layered with scrambled eggs, shredded chicken, caramelized onions, ground almonds, confectioners sugar and cinnamon. Don’t miss out on the Moroccan tea, a sweet green tea with fresh mint served with a kind hospitality you’d expect dining in someone’s home. Marrakech Moroccan Café and Grill, 341 Ludlow Ave., Clifton, 513-442-2233, marrakech1.com

BEST MIDNIGHT SANDWICH DELIVERY (WITHIN A CERTAIN RADIUS OF DOWNTOWN AND CLIFTON) 
There’s something to be said for late-night food delivery when you’re too drunk or too lazy to drive … obviously. And Gilpin’s Steamed Grub recently jumped in on the post-dinner delivery action. If you really need a steamed sandwich — like their My Cousin Vinny, with pepperoni, ham, bacon, banana peppers, jalapeno, cheese and barbecue chips on a pretzel bun — a steamed burger or a really creative vegetarian snack (with a lot of cheese, cream cheese and avocado) at like 11 p.m. on a Sunday, they’ve got you covered. Alternately, if you can convince someone to drive you to either the Clifton or downtown location, which are open until 3 a.m. Thursday-Saturday, you can get the Doritos sandwich off the drunk menu, with turkey, cheese, lettuce, honey mustard, dressing and Doritos — nacho cheese or Cool Ranch. Gilpin’s Steamed Grub, 2504 W. Clifton Ave., Clifton; 37 E. Seventh St., Downtown, eatgilpins.com


Elephant Walk
Photos: Provided
BEST BUFFET TO CARBO-LOAD ON INJERA AND NAAN 
One genius way to set yourself apart in Cincinnati’s sea of Indian restaurants is by serving Ethiopian food. Elephant Walk Injera & Curry House boasts a large, double-sided menu — Northern Indian on one side, traditional Ethiopian on the other. The Indian side has your standards, plus wraps — chicken tikka, spiced lamb or paneer, cauliflower and potatoes wrapped in wheat roti. And the Ethiopian side — which is all-gluten free, and the veggie choices are also all vegan — covers all the bases and has a nice selection of combo platters for meat eaters, vegetarians and omnivores. But what’s really awesome (besides the 3-7 p.m. daily half-price bottles of wine, which includes organic Ethiopian wine) is the 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily lunch buffet. It has both Ethiopian and Indian dishes, so you can sample all you can eat of both country’s cuisines and gorge yourself on naan and injera. Elephant Walk Injera & Curry House, 170 W. McMillan, Clifton, 513-526-1555, elephantwalkcincy.com.

BEST SOFT PRETZELS THE SIZE OF YOUR HEAD 
Wunderbar! in Covington, Ky., is one of those restaurants that’s considered a “hidden gem.” It’s a tiny watering hole located a little off the beaten path (on the corner of Lee and 12th streets), so you wouldn’t necessarily stumble by while wandering the more mainstream MainStrasse. But it’s worth the trek. The authentic German-inspired menu features housemade wursts with locally sourced meats, like the restaurant’s super popular Currywurst — a peculiar invention of post-World War II Germany. It’s a spiced sausage served with a ketchup-Worcestershire-curry sauce. The rotating sausage menu is written on a blackboard behind the bar, but a must-try is the Riesen Brezel, a gigantic, plate-sized pretzel that easily complements any of the bar’s more than 35 beers. The pretzel comes served with a choice of five different nose-tickling house mustards or beer cheese. (And if you’re a true Teutophile who craves some authentic street meats, they also serve up a version of the ubiquitous European Doner Kebabs.) Wunderbar, 1132 Lee St., Covington, Ky., 859-815-8027, facebook.com/wunderbar.covington.3

BEST EGGLESS EGG SALAD 
Fresh Table at Findlay Market is well known for their grab-and-go local, sustainable and organic prepared “green” dishes. Owners Meredith Trombly and Louis Snowden create seasonal, fresh entrees, soups and salads daily to sell from their stand, about a third of which are vegetarian. And one of their greatest vegetarian creations is the eggless egg salad. Made with tofu, vegan mayonnaise and other secret ingredients, it looks a tiny bit like scrambled eggs and is worth taking home by the pound in one of their compostable containers to enjoy on a sandwich. Or just eat it straight out of the box. Fresh Table, Findlay Market, Stand 102, 1801 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-3774, freshtable.biz

BEST HAMBURGER FOR RICH PEOPLE 
When you enter through the bright red door into the hallowed space that what once was the five-star Maisonette, you’re anticipating a fine dining experience. And with their well-curated menu, extensive wine book, attentive service and bohème décor, Boca delivers. What you’re not expecting is an excellent burger. Their namesake Boca Burger ($16) is one of three “meat” choices on the menu — along with a filet with king crab and beef short rib pot roast with foie gras — and is anything but plebeian. The Pat LaFrieda beef patty is topped with sauce maison, cheese, red onion, house pickles and tomato and served on a brioche bun. A perfect pairing with their puffy pommes soufflées and indulgent Béarnaise sauce. Boca, 114 E. Sixth St., Downtown, 513-542-2022, bocacincinnati.com

BEST DAMN FINE CUP OF COFFEE & CHERRY PIE 
Twin Peaks’ Agent Dale Cooper was onto something with his interest in pairing a cup of coffee with a slice of pie. And at Bluebird Bakery in historic Glendale’s quaint village square, their from-scratch seasonal pies, made with farm fresh eggs, sweet butter and real garden-fresh fruit, are as authentic as it gets. Open since 1996, the menu features said pies, other desserts, breakfast, quiche and lunch. So you can in fact replicate Cooper’s lunch — a tuna fish sandwich on whole wheat, a slice of cherry pie and a cup of coffee, black as midnight on a moonless night — in one fell swoop. Definitely something to write Diane about. Bluebird Bakery, 29 Village Square, Glendale, 513-772-5633, bluebirdbakery.com


BEST WALTER WHITE-STYLE BREWED COFFEE 
From pour over to French press, there are many ways to make coffee, including via siphon. Siphoning coffee is a vacuum-based technique in which water is heated and forced up to meet the coffee grounds instead of having water rush over them, as in drip coffee. The owners of Nuvo cook their coffee tableside, before or after your meal, in a contraption that looks like a double-bulbed chemistry set attached to a Bunsen burner. If you don’t want to indulge in one of chef Mark Bodenstein’s multi-course tasting menus, you can also order the coffee upstairs at their à la carte bar. Nuvo’s contraption might look like a meth lab, but it creates a more flavorful cup of coffee than your average joe, plus siphon coffee makes you feel edgy and cool, just like Heisenberg. Nuvo, 308 Greenup St., Covington, Ky., 859-415-1308, nuvoatgreenup.com

BEST SUNDAY BRUNCH HANGOVER CURE 
The Incline Public House specializes in a handful of things — seasonal scratch-made food on the West Side, a great view and a big ass craft beer menu — but they also have the perfect concoction for people who partied too hard on Saturday night: the appropriately named “The Hangover Cure,” which is a mash up of all the best morning-after foods on one plate. Biscuits, fried potatoes, bacon, sausage gravy, cheddar cheese, fried egg and arugula are smashed together in one dish. Incline also has great booze for those who like the hair of the dog, including mimosas, an ultimate bloody mary (with bacon, olive, pickles, celery, cherry tomato and shrimp) and espresso-tini — which is both coffee and booze for a double buzz. Incline Public House, 2601 W. Eighth St., Price Hill, 513-251-3000, inclinepublichouse.com

BEST SEAFOOD PLACE YOU’VE MAYBE NEVER HEARD OF 
For 20 years the laid-back island oasis Pelican’s Reef has been serving up super fresh seafood in Anderson. Now, if you aren’t from Cincinnati’s very inland East Side, you’ve probably never heard of the Buffet-esque Reef. But rest assured the fish, prepared by chef John Broshar (a former regular who bought the restaurant is 2012), is worth the drive. While much of the expansive menu features breaded and fried items with plenty of tartar sauce — choices like fried oyster po’boys or broiled grouper stuffed with crab meat, wild rice and cornbread stuffing — none of the restaurant’s diehard fans are complaining. Rotating seasonal seafood specials come in daily from places like Hawaii, Alaska, Florida and Maryland. And there are plenty of choices for diners who don’t want breading, like seafood stew, grilled mahi mahi and nine different Caesar salads topped with various sea creatures. Pelican’s Reef, 7261 Beechmont Ave., Anderson, 513-232-2526, thepelicansreef.com

BEST KICKSTARTER WIN 
Local chef Ryan Santos has become known in Cincinnati’s au courant gastronomy circle for his pop-up dinners with his mobile culinary institution Please. He and his team have done farm-to-table terroir meals with foraged finds everywhere from West End apartments to Carriage House Farm in North Bend to Cheapside Café downtown. Santos is now moving forward with plans to open brick-and-mortar Please, thanks to funding assistance from Kickstarter. With more than 300 backers, Please reached its funding goal in February, raising more than $38,000 to begin planning a permanent location. Santos, who began cooking fresh meals for himself to help manage Crohn’s Disease, has now trained with chefs all over the globe, and his dream is to open a clean modern-yet-cozy space to serve between 30 and 50 guests a night by early 2016. Follow Please’s progress at pleasecincinnati.com


BEST HOMEMADE POTATO CHIPS 
Chef Nick Marckwald of Hen of the Woods plans to open a restaurant/market on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, but in the meantime his homemade potato chips can be found at Halfcut in OTR, Cheapside Café downtown and Sprout Market and Eatery in Mount Adams. Marckwald’s chips, which come in unique flavors such as pink peppercorn and buttermilk, are the crack of the snack world and we’d happily eat a giant barrel of them. And they’re not cooked in trans fat, so we wouldn’t even feel guilty about it. facebook.com/undergroundcincy

BEST LUNCH DEAL (STILL) 
It’s going to be hard to ever beat the lunch tray at restaurant Jean-Robert’s Table for best lunch deal. The eatery’s French Lunch Tray, served literally on a tray, all at once, is offered expressly at the bar and features four courses: a soup, salad, savory and sweet for $15.50. Previous iterations have included romaine with radishes, cauliflower, red onion, blue cheese and champagne vinaigrette; soup du jour; red snapper with potatoes and mushrooms, haricot vert amandine and buerre blanc; and frozen fruit mousse. Pair that with a glass of wine or espresso and your day just got so much better. Bon appetit. Jean-Robert’s Table, 713 Vine St., Downtown, 513-621-4777, jrtable.com


BBQ Oysters
Photo: Khoi Nguyen
BEST ’TIL IT’S GONE CAJUN 
Latoya Foster and her husband Randy, originally from Algiers Point, Louisiana, were among the first pioneers to establish a foothold in the Cincinnati food truck movement with their popular New Orleans to Go eatery. Now they’ve parlayed their mobile success into Mardis Gras on Madison, a café in East Walnut Hills featuring classic Cajun and Creole dishes. Foster invents the menu each morning, serving up items like catfish tacos, black beans and rice, fried okra and shrimp po’ boys from opening until they’re gone. And because they’re a “homearaunt” and not a restaurant, it’s always wise to make sure they’re open — and still have some food — by calling before you head out. Mardi Gras on Madison, 1524 Madison Road, East Walnut Hills, 513-873-9041, facebook.com/mardigrasmad


Texas-Style beef brisket and bacon-fat grits
Photo: Khoi Nguyen
BEST HIGH-CLASS HILLBILLY FOOD 
With pimento dip served with Ritz crackers, Slush Puppies, Cheerwine (delicious, sugary, artificially flavored cherry soda) and Red Neck Frito pie, Over-the-Rhine’s barbecue palace Pontiac takes low-class grub to a self-aware, higher level. Along with their smoked pulled pork, they make the kind of food and drink usually seen in trailer parks — their Purple Drink cocktail is made with grape slushie and moonshine — Super Bowl parties and 7-Elevens, but admitting that some trashy food can be good and served in a restaurant not located in the sticks, well, that’s a beautiful thing. Pontiac Bourbon & BBQ, 1403 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-579-8500, pontiacbbq.com


O Pie O offers large and small pies
Photo: Jesse Fox
BEST CUP-PIES 
If you grew up at a dinner table where food was passed family style and if you didn’t grab what you wanted quickly, you would miss out, you probably relished single-serving dishes that were made just for you, like TV dinners. Flash forward a few decades to another specialized individual treat, O Pie O’s hand pies. These tiny pies come in super seasonal flavors with a ridiculously flaky crust (apple with rosemary caramel, honey vinegar, bourbon pecan), just like their medium-sized pie, which is meant to serve four … although people have been known to down whole pies by themselves during Netflix marathons. O Pie O’s bakery and café is set to open sometime next month in East Walnut Hills, but until then, you can get your fix at Findlay Market and various retail locations. 513-274-3238, opieo.com

BEST (ONLY?) GOETTA CROISSANT 
What started as a fair-trade organic coffee roaster and coffee shop in the Mansion Hill neighborhood of Newport has become a full-fledged café and wine bar (with an awesome patio). Newberry Bros. Coffee roasts small batches of beans sourced from family farms in Sumatra, Peru, Guatemala and more several times a week next to the café’s front window, so the smell of roasting coffee wafts onto the street. And if that’s not enough to get you in the door, their from-scratch daily pastries, deli sandwiches, more than 60 wines by the glass and 500 different bourbons and whiskies should be. One of their stand out and extremely locals-only type homemade croissants is their goetta and cheddar; literally goetta and cheddar stuffed inside a pastry. Newberry Bros. Coffee, 530 Washington Ave., Newport, Ky., 859-261-9463, newberrybroscoffee.com

BEST VISIT TO A NOSTALGIC CHILDHOOD CHARM 
Celebrity chef Alton Brown paid a visit when he was in town to grab some chop suey — caramel corn, redskin peanuts and ribbon coconut; seems wise if you would do the same. Patty’s Old Fashioned Popcorn in Hyde Park is as quaint as quaint can be — they even have a carousel horse in the window. What’s not quaint is their food-forward and creative flavors of popcorn. While they serve up traditional pops like caramel, cheese and kettle corn, they also have Cookies ’n Cream, with Oreos and caramel corn; Cincinnati Style, with white cheddar cheese and caramel corn; and Italian Black Truffle, with truffle seasoning and sea salt. Pat and Randy, who run the shop, have been making creative corns with family recipes since the ’80s, but the shop also features old-fashioned candy, shaved ice and caramel apples so you can soothe a nostalgic sweet tooth in one stop. Patty’s Old Fashioned Pop Corn, 3437 Michigan Ave., Hyde Park Square, 513-533-2676, pattyspopcorn.com


Maverick Chocolate
Photo: Henry Severding
BEST BEAN-TO-BAR CHOCOLATIER 
While many food movements — meatballs, deviled eggs, craft coffee bars, et al. — are making their way to the streets of Cincinnati, perhaps none are as tasty as the goods offered by Maverick Chocolate Company. Located in Findlay Market, Maverick is one of only two bean-to-bar chocolate shops in Ohio, and co-owners Paul and Marlene Picton bring a very serious craft chocolate contender to the game. Their Fahrenheit 513 bar, made with 70 percent Peruvian cocoa and a blend of cinnamon, star anise and hot peppers, even won a 2015 national Good Food Award, which recognizes American food producers who push their industries toward craftsmanship and sustainability. Maverick Chocolate, Findlay Market, 129 W. Elder St., Cincinnati, 513-381-0561, maverickchocolate.com

BEST VARIED VEGETARIAN SOUPS AFTER THE DEMISE OF MYRA’S 
When Clifton staple Myra’s Dionysus closed in August of last year after nearly four decades (Myra wanted to retire), we shed a tear. Not only because we would miss seeing Myra wandering around the eclectic café, but also because we’d miss the soup. Myra’s creative soups — for vegetarians and meat-eaters — were legendary and served at several other eateries around town (Coffee Emporium, Iris Book Café, etc.). Thankfully, Newtown’s La Soupe has stepped in to fill the void. Run by former La Petite Pierre owner/chef Suzy Deyoung, the “French roadside soup shack” serves therapeutic broths, pot-friendly entrees and seasonal specialties. For every quart of soup sold — from flavors as varied as truffled mushroom, beef and asparagus chowder to broccoli and pistachio to fennel-roasted cauliflower — Deyoung donates a bowl to a hungry person. With a second carry-out location open in Madeira, her soup for the soul dining experience seems to be really taking off. La Soupe, 4150 Round Bottom Road, Newtown; 7701 Railroad Ave., Madeira, 513-271-0100, lasoupecincinnati.com


Saag Paneer at Swad
Photo: Jesse Fox
BEST INDIAN RETURN 
The former owners of Dusmesh Indian restaurant in Clifton had a cult following, and not just for their food. The family who ran the restaurant — the hardworking and kind father-son-daughter Dhillon team — had a following of their own. With warm and welcoming personalities, they always remembered your name, or at least your face. After selling the restaurant to take a much-needed extended vacation, the trio couldn’t stay away from the biz; they opened Swad Indian Restaurant in May of last year in North College Hill. The restaurant’s North Indian menu features a wider variety than your average Indian joint — more than 25 vegetarian choices alone — plus an expansive lunch buffet. Swad Indian, 1810 W. Galbraith Road, North College Hill, 513-522-5900, swadtasty.com


Andrew Gomez of Gomez Salsa
Photo: Emily Schmidt
BEST ONE-TWO PUNCH 
It’s easy to get drunk in OTR. There are a ton of great bars and restaurants that serve plentiful artisan cocktails. There are also plenty of places to get a post-sober snack — Lucy Blue, Bakersfield, Goodfella’s. But one of the best spots is Gomez Salsa. Open until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, Gomez’s walk-up taco window has it all: mahi-mahi tacos with slaw and Baja sauce, chips with pineapple salsa, taco salad bowls and owner Andrew Gomez’s greatest invention, the Turtle Shell. Take a tortilla, stuff it with rice, beans, sour cream, lettuce, salsa, meat, veggies and cheese, layer in a tostado for crunch, put some cheese on the top and then brown it. It’s a fat little crunchy burrito envelope, a walking taco. And the Turtle tastes even better if you stumble over after imbibing at the adjacent HalfCut, a craft beer café of sorts. Walk up to HalfCut’s counter, pick a beer or wine to enjoy there in pints, samplers and bottles, or grab a growler to go. With more than a dozen beers on tap, nearly 20 in bottles and cans and a respectable eight wines, it’s easy to spend a few hours sampling some suds ... until the munchies set in. Gomez Salsa, 107 E. 12th St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-1596, gomezsalsa.com; HalfCut, 1126 Walnut St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-1952, halfcut.com


BEST TASTE OF PARIS ON MAIN 
In the past, the closest thing Cincinnati had to Paris was the Eiffel Tower replica at Kings Island. Now we have Macaron Bar, thanks to Nathan Sivitz, who studied the art of making macarons at The Gourmandise School in Santa Monica, Calif., and Ecole Lenôtre in Paris, and Patrick Moloughney, a former P&G executive. Macaron Bar, the only local bakery and coffee shop specializing in the brightly colored French pastry, offers traditional and seasonal macarons, with flavors like salted caramel, Earl Grey tea and pistachio. Sivitz even teaches a macaron-making class for those ready to get more serious about macarons. Macaron Bar, 1206 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, macaron-bar.com

BEST POZOLE 
Pozole is a traditional Mexican soup with pork, chicken, hominy, red radish, onions, avocados, cilantro, limes, Mexican oregano and tostadas. And a steamy bowl of pozole from Mazunte is like a soft kiss of authenticity from Oaxaca, Mexico. Owner Josh Wamsley wanted to create a dining experience to match those he had as a hungry English professor in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, a place he calls the “unofficial mecca of Mexican cuisine.” During his tenure, he culled together recipes from “old grandmothers,” who no doubt are among those carrying on the region’s reputation as the “land of the seven moles,” richly complex, chocolaty, spicy sauces that take a day (or more) to prepare. It’s a refreshing and authentic culinary surprise, considering the restaurant’s location in a Madisonville strip mall. Mazunte, 5207 Madison Road, Suite 100, Madisonville, 513-785-0000, mazuntetacos.com

BEST COFFEE SHOP IN WHICH TO LEARN MANDOLIN 
Business frequently become purveyors of “and”: a bar and grill, a bakery and café, a coffee shop and music school. Wait. What? Folk School Coffee Parlor in Ludlow, Ky., is not just a place to grab a cup of Deeper Roots coffee and some local Whirlybird Granola, it’s also a live music venue — they frequently host the Tillers and other Whispering Beard-ready Bluegrass and Folk bands — and a music school. With a focus on Americana, they offer workshops and classes to teach every skill level and age group, from novices to masters, in traditional instruments. For example, you can take beginners guitar or mandolin one night and then classes on music theory the next. They also offer classes in assorted folk arts like knitting. Folk School Coffee Parlour, 332 Elm St., Ludlow, Ky., 859-206-1269, folkschoolcoffeeparlor.com.