Best Of 2018

A mouthful to say on top of being a mouthful to taste, Quan Hapa's okonomiyaki are far and away worth the added labor behind the tongue twister. Dubbed an “oki” for the faint of heart, the Japanese-style pancake comes three ways: pork lovers can stick to the house oki, featuring tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets), bacon and a fried egg; the ahi tuna oki suits seafood savants with its seared ahi tuna, pickled red onions and bonito flakes; and for veg fans, the cauliflower oki features fried cauliflower tossed in a housemade honey-Sriracha sauce. Keeping things fresh, chef Mapi De Veyra tests his talents on new oki recipes every Monday after 5 p.m. and serves them at the discounted price of $8. Quan Hapa, 1331 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, quanhapa.com.

Best (Mostly) Guilt-Free Pizza
Brittany Thornton
click to enlarge Best (Mostly) Guilt-Free Pizza
Brittany Thornton

Pizza, in all its cheesy, carby goodness, is pretty much always a guilty pleasure. And the pies at Harvest Pizzeria are super binge-worthy. Their pizzas have a magically crunchy-yet-chewy and light-but-substantial crust with gourmet toppings like fennel sausage, almond pesto and vegan chorizo; the menu is rounded out by yummy small plates, salads and burgers — the whipped cheese, cherry tomato and candied prosciutto bruschetta is almost good enough to fight over. Unlike your average delivery hut, you can actually feel good about eating this pizza: Ingredients are sourced from Ohio bakeries, producers and dairy farms, like Mushroom Harvest in Athens and Bluescreek Farm in Columbus. And, if you do want to feel a little bad, splurge on the buttermilk-fried pickles with zesty remoulade. They’re addictive. Harvest Pizzeria, 1739 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, harvestpizzeria.com.   

The animatronic band is certainly rad, but there’s something about Chuck E. Cheese’s appeal that fails to hold up once you’ve made it to adulthood. While the trip may keep your kids occupied, it’s not as fun for adults to sit surrounded by the wafting smell of sub-standard pizza, screeching toddlers and loud arcade games with buttons that stick. Rivertown Brewery and Barrel House has the solution to this generational gap, hosting weekly Family Fundays. Monday evenings, keep the kids occupied with old-school arcade games and free food (with the purchase of an adult dinner) while you work your way through Rivertown’s beer and barbecue menus. Say sayonara to Skee-Ball and germy tokens: this fun night covers everyone’s bases. Rivertown Brewery and Barrel House, 6550 Hamilton Lebanon Road, Middletown, rivertownbrewery.com.

Our historic city market is becoming a dining destination. Starting when Jean-Robert de Cavel opened his tres chic bistro French Crust in 2016, a few other restaurants also have made it possible to enjoy meals even when the market is not open. French Crust serves breakfast, lunch and very popular weekend brunches along with Parisian-style dinners Thursday through Saturday and rings all the bells for Francophiles. The corner location at Elm and Elder streets faces Findlay Market’s beer garden and main entrance, sits right on the streetcar line and will brighten anyone’s day thanks to expansive windows and Provence-yellow walls festooned with colorful posters and ceramics from de Cavel’s vast personal collection of French memorabilia. The effect is as jaunty and friendly as its owner. Patrons sit at booths, tables or at a 20-seat bar and soak up the bonhomie of a lively bistro ambiance. The food matches the surroundings and delivers note-perfect versions of dishes you’d expect for breakfast, brunch or lunch — a variety of quiches, sandwiches on croissant or baguette, omelets and, of course, a croque monsieur. At dinner, more bistro classics tempt diners, from appetizers of snails and beef tartare to mains ranging from duck leg confit to steak frites. French Crust, 1801 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, frenchcrust.com.

Best Alternative to Fries
Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Alternative to Fries
Hailey Bollinger

A burger joint without fries may sound like sacrilege to fast-food fry-hards: the holy union between crispy potatoes and grilled beef is as solidly devised as the balance of nature itself. Where the earth meets the water, so too do sesame seed buns meet cheese. Where the wind stokes the fires, salt tinges the fry’s oily jacket. It’s a classic American tradition, but one that Tickle Pickle is here to disrupt. Eschewing fast food’s favorite side from their menu, the Northside stop dishes out mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, Grippo’s and potato salad; each adding its own textural contrast to sandwiches crafted from locally grown ingredients. It’s enough to make you fall in love with the potato all over again. Classic Rock-inspired burger creations crafted with locally sourced ingredients keep things fresh, yet still familiar: the pepper-laden Rob Zomwich and the sauerkraut-topped Hammstein are worth dropping the needle on. Tickle Pickle, 4176 Hamilton Ave., Northside, ticklepicklenorthside.com.

Best Artisan S'mores Spot
Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Artisan S'mores Spot
Hailey Bollinger

Meggie Kraus doesn’t like marshmallows. This isn’t too strange, until you consider the fact that she is the owner and proprietor of a gourmet marshmallow business and newly opened s’mores bar, Quaintrelle Confections. Kraus makes all her own marshmallows in house — she says her perfectionism keeps her from letting anyone else take the reins. Each small batch is made with simple ingredients: water, sugar, gelatin, some salt and natural flavoring. The s’mores offerings on the hand-written blackboard change every month but include fillings like white chocolate, caramel, pecans and the classic, with mallow, graham cracker and chocolate. In addition, Kraus offers “crispies,” which are variations on Rice Krispies treats, subbing in ingredients like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Oreos or Ruffles potato chips for the puffed rice cereal. Bags of marshmallows — in flavors including snickerdoodle, chocolate chip, peanut-butter-and-jelly and more — are available in the store as are a boozy variation (marshmallows infused with alcohol, like bourbon). For purists, you can also buy à la carte marshmallows for 50 cents. Quaintrelle Confections, 1210 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, quaintconfections.com.

Best Bagel with Big Flavor for Being So Lil'
Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Bagel with Big Flavor for Being So Lil'
Hailey Bollinger

Made with chutzpah, Lil’s Bagels is a tasty and twee experience nestled beside Roebling Point Books in Covington. A sign sits out front of a stone pathway, lit by twinkly lights, which leads to the best lil’ bagels in Greater Cincinnati. Order through a walk-up window (windough) like a champ and pair your bagel and smear with a local Smooth Nitro Coffee. The menu includes sweet and savory spreads — options like plain cream cheese, Dolly’s Caviar pimento cheese and Judy Garden, with beet, roasted veggies and goat cheese — and a whole buncha bagels. Lil’s are hand-rolled, boiled and then baked and come in flavors ranging from sesame and salt to Old Bay and cranberry cardamom. The bagels and menu choices change frequently (based on how quickly they sell out), but expect to see creative sandwiches that turn deli staples into gourmet mashups. The Gawd Father comes with schmaltzy pastrami bacon, pimento, pickled green tomato and lettuce; you can add chopped liver for $2. And the famous egg salad lives up to the hype on the delicious Notorious RBE, with perfectly portioned egg-to-mayo salad, pickled beet and wasabi-roe cream cheese on a sesame bagel. Lil’s Bagels, 308 Greenup St., Covington, lilsbagels.com.

Speaking of Taco Bells, downtown’s Taco Bell Cantina is an amped-up version of the late-night fast-food favorite because they serve alcohol. Along with beer and wine, they also have freezes — which are essentially ICEEs — that you can “twist” by adding your choice of vodka, rum or tequila. A twisted Baja Blast tastes like the soda, but what does Baja Blast soda taste like? Teal-ish? Like a melted Popsicle? Apparently it’s “tropical lime” flavored, whatever that means. But as an icy slush with added alcohol, it becomes an extra-credit Baja Blast. You get some bubbly carbonation flavor, caffeine and a ton of sugar. Also, it pairs well with a seven-layer burrito or Crunchwrap Supreme. Also, also it might make you feel like a garbage person who hates their body and health, but in a FUN way. Bonus: The Cantina has a streetside patio for outdoor drinking because it’s classy like that. Taco Bell Cantina, 580 Walnut St., Downtown, tacobell.com.

Donuts aren’t just for breakfast anymore. Open evenings from 5 or 6 p.m. until the donuts sell out, Latonia’s Moonrise Doughnuts bakes its confections as the sun sets, serving classic flavors and seasonal surprises while they’re still hot. The blueberry donut is a local favorite, but don’t miss out on fun creations like the Homer Simpson, pineapple bacon and banana chocolate donut, plus classics like glazed yeast, powdered and cinnamon sugar twists. Moonrise Doughnuts, 3718 Winston Ave., Latonia, moonrisedoughnuts.com.

The search for the best baklava in Cincinnati starts and ends at Areti’s Gyros. Areti’s dessert follows a tried-and-true recipe of filo dough and nuts with a healthy portion of honey to hold it together. The flakiness is second to none, but the ratio of honey to filo is what keeps people coming back. Areti and George Papastergiou have also created “Chokolava.” Coined “the Cadillac of all baklava” by Areti, the chocolate-dipped sweet pushes baklava purists to kick tradition to the curb. Areti’s Gyros, 1509 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, findlaymarket.org/merchants/aretis-gyros.

Best Bar to Find Landjunge Fruhstuck
Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Bar to Find Landjunge Fruhstuck
Hailey Bollinger

“Like at most brunches, everyone’s pretty much hungover,” says owner Nathan Chambers of the typical Wunderbar! brunch crowd. A German-inspired bar and eatery, it provides a safe haven to those interested in hangover remedies who can’t quite remember their karaoke performance from the night before. With $3 mimosas and $4 bloody marys alongside a rotating brunch menu — which ranges from classics like omelets and eggs benedict to their hard-shell breakfast tacos — the real hero is landjunge fruhstuck, a killer plate of two poached eggs, bacon, housemade sausage, goetta, corned-beef hash and a biscuit that will keep you sated all damn day. It’s basically every breakfast meat you could imagine, all piled onto a plate. Wunderbar!, 1132 Lee St., Covington, facebook.com/wunderbar.covington.3.

Best Barbie Jukebox
Megan Waddel
click to enlarge Best Barbie Jukebox
Megan Waddel

It’s verifiable: the more surreal the atmosphere, the better diner food tastes. Three cups of coffee and a plate full of home fries deep into the witching hour, no local hole-in-the wall can compare to the Anchor Grill’s dream-like coziness. Its wood-paneled walls are festooned with lovably hokey knick-knacks and nautical memorabilia. Dim lighting fixtures and ferns form swirls of chiaroscuro color among black leather booths. To top it all off, your jukebox quarters yield a live show for you and your fellow diners: as your ’70s Soft Rock single of choice crackles to life over the Anchor’s speakers, a curtain opens in a small box attached to the ceiling, revealing an animatronic Jazz band comprised of nine handmade puppets and a Barbie doll. The stage, held behind glass, bears an uncanny resemblance to Twin Peaks’ “Red Room,” which is appropriate considering the diner’s Lynchian ambiance. Anchor Grill, 438 W. Pike St, Covington, 859-431-9498.

Best Beer and Pizza Pairing
Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Beer and Pizza Pairing
Hailey Bollinger

Beer and pizza combos range from the standard delivery box and six-pack to coal-fired slices and craft pints. If you’re interested in the latter, Taft’s Brewpourium is the go-to spot. An extension of Over-the-Rhine’s Taft’s Ale House, the Brewpourium is fitted with all of Taft’s top beers, New Haven-style “apizza” and enough televisions to satisfy all of Cincinnati’s sports fans. Apizza is a crispy, coal-fired version of Neapolitan pizza that originated in Connecticut, which the Brewpourium opted to serve over other styles (e.g. New York, Chicago) because William Howard Taft — former president, Cincinnati native and brewery namesake — went to Yale in New Haven. The dough is made with filtered water and flour imported from Italy, and toppings range from classic white clam to a BBQ Pork Pie. Whether paired with Taft’s Gavel Banger or the seasonal special, the pork pie will have even the most avid beer drinker opting for slices over sips. Featuring a barbecue sauce made with Taft’s Cherrywood amber ale, the pizza includes pulled pork, red onion, jalapeño and smoked cheddar. Taft’s Brewpourium, 4831 Spring Grove Ave., Spring Grove Village, taftsalehouse.com/brewpourium.

Mild chili spices a hefty portion of shredded chicken as a centerpiece in the Guajillo Chicken Bowl at Maplewood Kitchen and Bar, but along with it comes a farro/quinoa blend, smoked black beans, roasted corn, sliced avocado, pickled onions and a few other treats to perk up your taste buds. With a beer or a nice glass of pinot noir, it’s a super supper. Maplewood Kitchen and Bar, 525 Race St., Downtown, maplewoodkitchenandbar.com.

Monday nights at Nicola’s mean it’s time to get saucy. “Bolo Monday” at the Italian eatery starts at 5:30 p.m. and features a real meal deal: a salad, an entrée-sized portion of housemade tagliatelle noodles covered in Nicola’s famous meaty Bolognese sauce and a bread basket for $16. The Bolognese is a long-held family recipe of proprietor Nicola Pietoso and, while the recipe itself is a secret, at least one of the ingredients is not: the meat. A mix of ground beef and veal from Eckerlin Meats in Findlay Market is slow simmered for hours with some other choice additions, and each batch of sauce is personally tasted by chef Aaron Owen. If veal isn’t your thing, there’s a veggie Bolo option as well. Ask for this tomato-based sauce “spicy” to kick things up a notch. Nicola’s, 1420 Sycamore St., Over-the-Rhine, nicolasotr.com.

When native Cincinnatian Tali Ovadia opened a food cart in Portland, Ore. 15 years ago, she had a novel idea: streamline the menu and serve a single dish. Her titular Whole Bowl is brown rice, beans, black olives, Tillamook cheddar, avocado slices, salsa, sour cream and a lemon-garlic sauce. It’s simple, wholesome, delicious and comes in two sizes — big or bambino (smaller). And that’s the only choice you need to make. A year ago, Ovadia’s brother Micah opened the first Whole Bowl outside of Oregon on Ludlow Avenue in Clifton. It’s a walk-up window catering to Gaslight’s foot traffic and people who are sick and tired of having to build their own goddamn bowls. Give me less choices! The secret to the super, duper flavor rests with the bright and lemony Tali Sauce. You can find a slew of bloggers and Pinterest-ers trying to recreate the recipe, but you don’t have to make it at home: you just need to find a parking space on Ludlow. Whole Bowl, 364 Ludlow Ave., Clifton, thewholebowl.com/cincinnati.

Best Bread-Themed Instagram
Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Bread-Themed Instagram
Hailey Bollinger

As if blessing your timeline with aesthetically pleasing photos of fresh bread wasn’t enough to warrant a follow, Allez Bakery’s Instagram account (@allezbakery) is peppered with well-chosen emojis, poetic odes to meatballs, half-baked wordplay and topical Muppet Show screencaps. Frequent scrollers might even catch the occasional outtake bake, posted under the #ShowUsYourFuckedLoaves hashtag. Allez’s feed is the perfect polygamous marriage of social media’s oldest standbys: food photos, dad jokes and pop cultural nostalgia. If that’s not enough to make you a repeat customer, then the chicken salad sandwich on ciabatta paired with a spicy-carrot pickle and Hen of the Woods chips will keep you coming back for more. Each order appropriately comes with the beverage world’s most Instagrammable vessel — a can of LaCroix water. Allez Bakery, 1208 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, allezbakery.com.

Best Brunch Blintzes
Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Brunch Blintzes
Hailey Bollinger

Weekend brunch at CWC the Restaurant features a slew of tasty creations — breakfast nachos with fried egg and homemade queso, Skyline-soaked flank steak with sharp cheddar grits and a Brussels sprout omelet — but their insanely delicious blintzes are a favorite. Blintzes are an old-world Eastern European Jewish dish — the ultimate comfort food — consisting of a thin crepe that’s folded around a sweet cheese filling, which is then sautéed and served with a cooked fruit sauce and sour cream. In the case of CWC, the blintzes are filled with sweetened ricotta and topped with blueberry sauce. Adding to the feeling of warmth is the very nature of CWC itself. Owned and operated by gregarious sisters Kelly Trush and Caitlin Steininger, you’ll feel at home and like part of the family in no time. If their hospitality doesn’t warm you up, try the Hot Black Russian: Tito’s vodka, Kahlua, La Terza coffee and homemade orange-chocolate marshmallows. CWC The Restaurant, 1517 Springfield Pike, Wyoming, cwctherestaurant.com.

Venturing to Hyde Park on a Thursday evening means Burger Night at Dutch’s. The artisan larder/bar/eatery doesn’t hold back on their one-night-only specialties — these ain’t no American-cheese-and-mayonnaise-topped meat patties. Dutch’s burgers start out with a base of mouthwatering beef cuts, like 30-day dry-age prime ribeye, an all-natural grass-fed strip or a shoulder from a local butcher. After being seasoned with just good ol’ salt and pepper, the burgers are thrown on the grill and brought out promptly at 6 p.m. Get them while you can, because the 70-or-so burgers they prepare each Thursday sell out quickly. They’ve tried more than 150 different burger variations, ranging from the Cordon Bleu, with crispy chicken skin, house-smoked ham, housemade dijonaise and grated Gruyere cheese to a burger topped with shaved asparagus salad, manchego cheese and clam dip. Similar to a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get — and that’s one of the many reasons why these creations offer sheer perfection with each bite. As a bonus, Dutch’s also recently started offering burgers on Fridays during lunch. And, if the weather’s nice, hanging on the back patio and bocce court are an easygoing way to spend happy hour. Dutch’s, 3378 Erie Ave., Hyde Park, dutchs.squarespace.com.

Best Carrot Sandwich
Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Carrot Sandwich
Hailey Bollinger

The Wheel is an Italian takeaway restaurant housed on a well-hidden residential block in Oakley. A spinning wheel hangs above the door; inside, concert posters adorn pale blue walls, joined by personal iconography curated by owner Chrissy Antenucci. The food provides evidence that cooking is an act of love and creativity for Antenucci, who named The Wheel after a Grateful Dead song. Though the ingredients seem simple in the rosemary roasted carrot sandwich, the first bite alone is enough to convert a Punk into a Deadhead. The carrots are tender and hearty. Within the dish, they are a vegetable transformed — the taste is more exploratory and creative than most other vegetarian sandwiches. Kale peeks through between bites of carrot and both are covered in the perfect amount of romesco sauce and garlic yogurt, the latter of which adds a surprisingly creamy touch. The bread, which Antenucci makes fresh daily, is thick — almost like foccacia — and cradles the ingredients within. Visually the sandwich is also a work of art: the colors are as bright and balanced as the flavor inside. The Wheel, 3805 Brotherton Road, Oakley, thewheeloakley.com.