Best Of 2020

Le's Phot & Sandwiches
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Le's Phot & Sandwiches

Obviously, Vietnamese restaurants are not chili parlors, but in Cincinnati the dining concepts engender a similar fervent fan base — a sort of culinary cult wherein diners revere a favorite hidden gem or mom-and-pop spot as offering the best pho. (Pho is not a 3-way but it is a bowl of steaming noodles so there’s probably some parallel to draw there.) Sadly, two of the most beloved family-run Vietnamese spots shut their doors this past year: Clifton Heights’ Cilantro Vietnamese Bistro and downtown’s Le’s Pho & Sandwiches. Both had a slew of loyal clientele who would extol the virtues of their treasured eatery’s menu above all others, and patronage definitely wasn’t the reason either restaurant gave for shutting their doors. Cilantro’s last day of business was Jan. 31 and they said in a Facebook post, “We owe our success and continuity over the past 16 years of business to you, our customers. We’d like to thank everyone — from those who helped build the foundation of the business, to our various staff members over the years, to our regular customers — for being a part of this incredible journey with us...It will be a strange feeling waking up Saturday morning knowing that Cilantro will not be opening, but it’s a decision we know is right for us and our family at this time.” The restaurant closed for a short time in March 2018 (restaurateur Simon Verderame bought it and reopened the space as High Steaks steak and frites shop; that closed after five days) before reopening in July of that year. Le’s closed its storefront at the end of February for similar reasons to Cilantro. For those who work downtown, Le’s tiny corner of Court Street was likely a familiar and favorite lunchtime destination. Husband and wife Hai and Le Bui and their family made the food fresh every day and their daughter, Huyen Bui-Gauck, said closing when the restaurant’s lease ended in March felt right. She said her parents are getting older and suffering from different health issues, and she has a nine-month-old son at home with whom she wants to spend more time. “It is such a hard decision because we have really grown so close to our customers,” she said to CityBeat in an email. “I know it might sound weird but with most of them they have become much more than just customers. We have seen people through so many stages of their life. Some people I know about their medical conditions and if they need to stay away from certain foods because an ulcer or a new trendy diet they want to try. I have seen people at the beginning of their pregnancies all the way until their children are graduated high school or college. It truly is an end of an era.”

Eats
Illustration: Taylor Speed


Best $10 Lunch Deal
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

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.

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
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

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.

2. The Eagle              

3. Incline Public House

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
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Baby Cheezus
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

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.

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.

2. Bruegger’s Bagels

3. The Bagelry

2. City Barbeque

3. Lucius Q

4. Montgomery Inn

5. Pickles & Bones Barbecue

6. Sweets & Meats BBQ       

7. Pontiac

8. Just Q’in BBQ

9. Bee’s Barbecue

10. Midwest Best BBQ and Creamery