Best Of 2020

Best $10 Lunch Deal

Chef Jose Salazar opened Goose & Elder, a sort of comfort food destination with self-described “Midcentury grandma” décor, adjacent to Findlay Market last year. It’s the third in the local favorite’s restaurant portfolio, which includes the eponymous New American Salazar (opened in 2013) and the Spanish/Latin American Mita’s (opened in 2015). Sydney Fisher is chef de cuisine here but Salazar himself greets patrons and puts finishing touches on just about every plate coming out of the kitchen. Though it feels more casual or at least more affordable than Salazar’s other eateries, Goose & Elder’s menu is just as creative, boasting fun takes on easy eats. Chicken wings are covered with Calabrian chili sauce and served with parmesan dip; the baked mac and cheese is infused with pickled jalapeno; fall-off-the-bone duck leg confit is served over grits; and the fried bologna sandwich comes topped with American cheese, pickles, coleslaw, an over-easy egg and potato chips. Retro cocktails like the Harvey Wallbanger and White Russian add a fun twist. And if you stop by for lunch during the week — specifically between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday — don’t sleep on the burger deal. You can get a Royale Goose burger, featuring grass-fed beef, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and Dijonnaise on a sesame bun, plus crinkle cut fries and a soft drink for $10. Pretty sweet because usually all of those options come a la carte. Goose & Elder, 1800 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, gooseandelder.com.

Best Affordable Medical Marijuana Dispensary

So, you qualified for medical marijuana in Ohio: Great, and sorry for what ails ya’. Ohio law currently allows those with certain medical conditions (cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, PTSD, chronic pain and many more) to sign up as a patient, after being approved by a licensed physician, with the Ohio Medical Marijuana Registry and Ohio Board of Pharmacy. Your physician will approve you to use a 90-day supply of certain forms of marijuana for your specific condition — oils, tinctures, edibles, vapes. And once you’re approved, you have to go to a licensed dispensary to purchase your medication. There are only a few in the Cincinnati area: Verilife, kind of by Pleasant Ridge; Have a Heart Cincy, co-founded by Rev. Damon Lynch III and located in Hartwell, which is the only dispensary to open so far technically within city limits; and Verdant Creations in Columbia Township, kind of by Target and across from the original little MadTree taproom. (There’s also About Wellness Ohio in Lebanon.) But Verdant Creations seems to be a card-carrying favorite because it has affordable price points and offers frequent discounts. After checking in with your medical marijuana card and ID, you’ll head to the Verdant Creations waiting room to peruse a menu of the current offerings. The menu is divided by form (edible, flower, tincture, etc.) as well as brand and strain (indica, sativa). And if you have no idea what any of that means, the helpful “budtenders” will teach you about the different applications as they relate to your specific ailment, especially if you weren’t or haven’t been a big pot smoker/vaper/eater/tincture-er up until his point. Note: These budtenders aren’t pharmacists, they just know a lot about pot. (They’re also very helpful if you’re confused about what constitutes a “90-day supply” limit.) After you make your selection, it’s filled in a back room and delivered through a window with a prescription label and sealed in a bag with a staple. You have to pay in cash (they have an ATM) or some weird digital payment. But it doesn’t really matter, because prices here are reasonable. And they usually have sales, special deals and promotions. Like they offered 29 percent off their entire inventory on Leap Day (there was a line out the door and an hours-long wait). Sign up for text alerts for discount notifications. Verdant Creations, 5149 Kennedy Ave., Columbia Township, verdantcreations.com. 

Best Alternative Grain and Protein Options in a Northern Kentucky Strip Mall

Tucked away in a strip mall along Dixie Highway and helmed by a former U.S. Army Sergeant and family (look for veteran and service member discounts), Sake Bomb in Erlanger is a staple of sorts among Northern Kentuckians. Serving up Korean and Japanese grub — including sushi, bento boxes, ramen, stone bowls and more — the restaurant also touts items that cater to a variety of dietary needs, from vegetarians to those who need or want to go gluten-free. Sake Bomb has also developed dishes that cater to those with diabetes, including a bowl made with barley/brown rice and a medley of veggies: bean sprouts, spinach, lettuce, carrots, beets, zucchini, mushrooms, pickled radish, broccoli and kimchi — all topped with an egg. In another quirky turn, you can also feast on goetta fried rice here and green tea ramen. Bonus: Sake Bomb keeps the kiddos entertained with DIY sushi classes. Sake Bomb, 3072 Dixie Highway, Erlanger, sakebombcatering.com.

Best Alternative to Totino’s Pizza Rolls

In 2014, Sarah Dworak quit her real estate job in favor of full-time pierogi making, pressing out the little Eastern European potato dumplings by the dozen to sell to customers at her Findlay Market storefront and grocers and restaurants throughout Cincinnati. By 2018, her Babushka Pierogies business occupied a late-night window on nearby Main Street at the future home of Wodka Bar, a homage to all things vodka and traditional Slavic delicacies. Between flights of house-infused spirits, guests can snack on bites of caviar in puff pastry, pickled fish and vegetables, smoked meats and cheese and butter on dense, dark rye bread. Of course, there are also plenty of pierogies and kielbasa bowls to scarf down — get them for dinner or a happy hour snack or get comfy for Sunday pierogi brunch in the luxe bar, finished with all the intricacies of Eastern Orthodox architecture. And fear not: The walk-up window is still open for dinner and late-night bites (and lunch on the weekends) with a streamlined menu of what one could consider “drunk food.” There’s a Polish sausage sandwich (like a fancy hot dog), your choice of four pierogi, a vegetarian 4-way pierogi stuffed with lentil chili and topped with cheddar cheese, sour cream and Frank’s Redhot and the crown jewel: Pizzarogies. Pizzarogies are the Totino’s Pizza Rolls of the pierogi world — deep fried and full of pepperoni and provolone, served with dipping sauce. And you don’t even need to turn on your toaster oven. Wodka Bar, 1200 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, wodkabarotr.com. 

Best “Most Anticipated” Restaurant Opening

Vogue magazine and Food & Wine both released a list of their “most anticipated” American restaurant openings of 2020 and, surprisingly, a forthcoming Queen City eatery popped up on each: Khora. Khora is slated to open in spring 2020 in downtown’s new Kinley Hotel (the one going in the building where the old Payless shoe store was) and will be helmed by chef Edward Lee and executive chef Kevin Ashworth. The Vogue round-up — which includes restaurants in cities like Boston, L.A., New York and Chicago — highlights Khora in its list of 27 eateries from some of “the country’s most iconic cooks” and other international big-name chefs. Food & Wine has it called out in its gang of 16. And both mention Ashworth’s plan for his inspired menu. “Ashworth, who worked alongside Lee for over a decade in Louisville at 610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry, is from the Cincinnati area, and is plotting fun twists on regional classics — including a pasta inspired by Cincinnati chili,” says Food & Wine. The pasta-driven operation will be a play on the restaurant name, which apparently comes from the word “khorasan,” an ancient grain. Khora, 37 W. Seventh St., Downtown, vhghotels.com.

Best Baby Cheezus

Mikey’s Late Night Slice is an Instagram-feed feverdream of a pizza parlor that serves a blend of Ohio/New York-style pizza by the slice (or pie) and “unpretentious classic cocktails.” With glowing neon signs, ’80s music videos, boldly patterned wallpapers, an entire wall of record covers and retro industrial décor, it’s a pulsing TGI Fridays reimagined to meet the needs of modern millennial diners. It’s fun, it’s weird and it’s attached to its sister bar — Oddfellows Liquor Bar — via an electric bathroom grotto. The Columbus-based operation offers options for vegetarians, vegans and gluten-free diners, plus drunk people as a nice nod to the “late night” in the name. Order one of the Sacraments, a list of outrageous pizza bastardizations, for a decadent experience. The Pizza Dawg is a butterflied hot dog stuffed with pepperoni and cheese and served with a pizza as the bun. The Cheezus Crust is a grilled cheese sandwich with pizza instead of bread. And if you’re feeling naughty but not that naughty, the Baby Cheezus is slightly less overwhelming in size but “every bit as blasphemalicious.” We’re calling it the best, but we can’t really think of any other grilled cheese pizzas... Mikey’s Late Night Slice, 2014 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, latenightslice.com. 

Best Bagel Comeback

At the end of 2018, Covington favorite walk-up bagel window Lil’s Bagels abruptly closed. But after a long hiatus, the “Windough” reopened in April 2019 with a new concept. The menu had been expanded — with several kinds of non-bagel sandwiches and more spreads — and they introduced the Fam Club, a fee-based program in which members receive discounts on food and coffee and invites to special events. Some of those events included movie nights on the patio, all-you-can-eat latkes, pizza bagel Friday and LGBTQ nights. And in mid-February, after a fundraiser and much community support, Lil’s officially opened an indoor café. The restaurant offers a full deli, boozy brunch cocktails and seating for more than 20, plus a gold-framed TV screening throwback sitcoms or cartoons. “We truly see Lil’s as a community-owned space, and hope everyone uses it as an extension of their own dining room,” owner Julia Keister told CityBeat. Lil’s Bagels, 308 Greenup St., Covington, lilsbagels.com.

Best Beef Butchering Class

Want to get some highly allocated wagyu beef in your kitchen? Check out Wyoming Meat Market, which has been serving its community’s hungry carnivores for decades. The market is a great spot to purchase locally raised meat, eggs and dairy, or, if you want to stop in on your lunch break, phenomenal sandwiches that showcase their mastery of all things meat. The market also hosts demos on how to fully break down half a cow. This past winter, they gave a step-by-step class on how to butcher an Ohio-raised carcass from Sakura Wagyu Farms to a full house. Wagyu is a breed of cattle prized for its exceptional tenderness and fat distribution. Meat connoisseurs consider it the champagne of beef thanks to tightly regulated guidelines on the animal’s breeding and diet. A lot of work is needed to process wagyu cattle into steaks but the end results are deliciously worthwhile, as those in attendance at the Wyoming Meat Market’s ticketed event found out. Starting with the forequarter of the cattle, market owner Jim Gelhausen and apprentice Shelbi Nation began to cut it down into individual cuts such as brisket, chuck and ribs. And then provided excellent examples of how to best savor each different one (with a bonus Wagyu tasting menu complemented by wines from Charles Krug Winery and dessert pairings made with dairy from Indian Creek Creamery). Wyoming Meat Market, 513 Wyoming Ave., Wyoming, facebook.com/wyomingmeatmarket.

Best Big City Food Hall

When Kroger on the Rhine opened in September, it was the first Kroger location in downtown Cincinnati proper since 1969. The multi-floor concept — and we’re just talking about the Kroger here, not the attached garage or the market-rate apartments — brings to mind the food halls of larger American and even European cities. Food halls are not quite market houses, grocery stores or food courts, they’re a mix of all three and On the Rhine Eatery is Cincinnati’s first. It’s a trend that allows patrons to wander while snacking and drinking in a community space. Located on the second floor of the grocer, the food hall is home to five favorite local concepts: Eli’s BBQ, dope! Asian Street Fare, Django Western Taco, Queen City Whip and Kroger’s 1883 Café & Bar. You order from each restaurant independently and then bring your food to the tables at the center. There’s also a full-service bar so you can grab a glass of wine or cocktail while you dine. If there’s space on the outdoor patio — there are only a few coveted tables — it’s an excellent, elevated spot to watch the world go by. Kroger on the Rhine, 100 E. Court St., Downtown, ontherhineeatery.com.

Best Bookstore on Wheels

After 25 years of teaching in various schools across the country, Melanie Moore rerouted her career to focus on inspiring a passion for reading by delivering the joy of books to cafés, flea markets and nonprofit events all from the bed of a vintage blue Volkswagen pickup truck. The Cincy Book Bus offers a unique, beautifully bound selection of reads along with a personable book-buying experience in a time where the internet offers instant gratification and two-day delivery. Moore and her husband, Tony, originally bought the truck from a cherry farm in Colorado and picked it up with cherry pits and juice stains still in the bed. It’s a manual and a little rickety, so Moore leaves the driving to Tony, who has an affinity for vintage vehicles. He’s happy to show off the book-mobile by welcoming customers into the driver’s seat or snapping photos of them with their newly purchased books in front of the bus. On days she’s not popping up at cafés and markets, she’s pulling into yard sales and shuffling through cardboard boxes or meticulously scanning each shelf in any store that sells books. She won’t pick up just anything — they’ve got to be unique and in good shape to make the cut. Though she stepped out of the education system several years ago, she still stays involved, helping schools in the area stock their libraries and participating in community literacy programs. Cincy Book Bus, facebook.com/cincybookbus.