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
click to enlarge BRITTANY THORNTON
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
click to enlarge HAILEY BOLLINGER
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
click to enlarge HAILEY BOLLINGER
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'
click to enlarge HAILEY BOLLINGER
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.