Best Of 2021

For its 150th anniversary, Graeter’s released a special birthday cake-flavored ice cream. Described as a “blend of cake pieces and sprinkles in cake batter ice cream,” it’s like Funfetti in a cone. Or cup. Or pint.

Over-the-Rhine’s Dunlap Cafe started making their own grown-up “happy meals” for carry-out during the pandemic. The perfect lil’ combo pack included an entree with a side of fries, Twizzlers, a Dunlap Koozie as a prize and an adult beverage — a beer, hard seltzer or a cocktail. Entree options included cheeseburgers, chicken tenders or a fried chicken sandwich. And the meals came wrapped and organized in a cute branded box, ready to devour in the car, or at home — if you could wait that long.

The Northside Yacht Club really wasn’t fucking around this year and in February 2021, they brought back their deep-fried cheese coney, also known as the “Cincinnati chimichanga.” The now-annual infamous Midwestern monstrosity features a chili cheese coney topped with more chili and cheese, wrapped in a flour tortilla and then deep-fried (they also make vegetarian and vegan versions). But to really kick things up a notch, and give people a goal to strive for as the pandemic approached the one-year anniversary mark, NSYC invented a coney-eating challenge. The “5 Coney Food Challenge” asked intrepid idiots to scarf down five deep-fried coneys and a basket of fries in 69 minutes. If you triumphed, you got a free T-shirt and your name on the wall of fame. If you failed, you had to pay $69 for your meal and your photo was added to the wall of shame. Only one person — Randy “Rando” Sullivan from Hamilton — was able to do it.

While Cincinnati’s super popular Asian Food Fest was canceled in 2020, fans were still able to enjoy a ton of local Asian eats in the fall. Asian Food Week ran from Nov. 2-8 and more than 20 eateries from across Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky offered either a special $20 prix fixe, three-course meal or a secret menu item. As Asia encompasses an extensive collection of cuisines, so too did Asian Food Week with offerings from Vietnamese, Hawaiian, Indian, Chinese restaurants and more. Both Asian Food Fest and Asian Food Week were started by the Asian American Cultural Association of Cincinnati.

Findlay Kitchen’s Yee Mama offers wonton kits that include a dozen Hong Kong-style wontons, your choice of sauce, herbs for garnish and instructions for how to cook them.

Launched in 1920 by Harry T. Kaiser Sr., the West End’s Kaiser Pickles celebrated 100 years of fine brining in 2020. Using farm-fresh produce, the company produces 90 million pounds of pickles (and peppers) per year and is still a family-owned operation. You may have even tried their pickles without knowing it: They produce them for local deli chain Izzy’s.

Camp Washington Chili offers a Cincinnati-chili-infused melt — essentially a grilled cheese sandwich with a ladle of chili in the middle.

Fans of Proud Hound Coffee can pick up their beans at shops throughout the city or grab a drink via their multi-colored truck, which they park at various events. But the ethical roasters also sling damn fine brews via pop-ups at their Silverton-based roastery on Saturdays. Lucky for us, Proud Hound’s first brick-and-mortar location is in the works.

Camp Washington’s Mom ‘n ‘em coffee is now offering a coffee subscription, so you don’t have to leave home for that perfect cup. Named one of the best coffee shops in America by Food & Wine, you can have the Ferrari Bros. beans delivered to your home on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis. Opt for their house blend, a community blend, a seasonal variety or even decaf.

Roughly five years ago, a bright blue-and-green soft serve truck parked itself smack dab in the center of Walnut Hills. With its colorful branding and playful slogan, “Life is hard enough, your ice cream should be soft,” Green Man Twist quickly became a soft serve staple in its community. However, this ice cream food truck serves more than just creamy whip, slushies and hot dogs — Green Man Twist’s core mission is to serve its community as well. As a nonprofit, the creamery gives 100% of profits back to the community through entrepreneur training, affordable housing and education initiatives.

The curry pan at Kiki College Hill is a sort of fried, breaded dumpling, which chef Hideki Harada has described as a “curry donut.” Stuffed with potato, onion and carrot, the savory, crispy veggie ball has a flaky crust and is seriously addicting.

Farmer Nate’s Hot Sauce — crafted by Nate Nunemaker — is a line of locally harvested and processed hot sauces. Launched as a way to preserve the massive amounts of peppers and other vegetables he harvested in Covington, flavors include Kentucky Tang, Smokehouse Habanero and, our favorite, the Curry Jalapeno. Reminiscent of a really nice chutney, it offers a pleasant sweetness beneath a quick flash of heat.

Not surprisingly, plenty of Cincinnati restaurants, bakeries and other food purveyors made it on some national “best” lists this year. Here’s a sampling: Northstar Café in Liberty Township and Two Cities Pizza Company in Mason both made Yelp’s “Top 100 Places to Eat in 2021” list; Findlay Market’s Eckerlin Meats was named as one of the “100 Best Butcher Shops and Meat Markets in America” by Food & Wine; Cream + Sugar Coffeehouse and BlaCk Coffee Lounge were on Yelp’s “Black-Owned Businesses to Watch in 2021;” Over-the-Rhine restaurant ESSEN made PETA’s “Top Faux-Fish Dishes of 2021” with their bagel and lox; Esquire listed Covington’s Bouquet Restaurant as one of the 100 restaurants America can’t afford to lose; and OTR’s Allez Bakery was named one of the 100 best bakeries in the nation by Food & Wine.

The Governor diner in Milford makes a hearty and satisfying egg hoagie, topped with scrambled eggs, cheese, caramelized onion, salsa verde and peppers. Get it for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Price Hill’s Maya Indian Restaurant isn’t a vegetarian Indian joint (whereas Amma’s Kitchen in Roselawn is), but the menu boasts more options for the non-meat-eating set than most; 28 different dishes are listed under the “vegetarian specialties” header. The more unique offerings include paneer bhurji, vegetable mango, gobi manchurian and a buttery, creamy, you’ll-eat-the-whole-serving-at-once paneer makhani. Maya also offers a special mushroom tandoori appetizer that is crispy and spicy and kind of sticky — like General Tso’s chicken — and a great way to switch it up if you ever tire of samosas.

The Northside Yacht Club is no stranger to mock restaurant franchise pop-ups, having previously transformed into other edibly-themed entities like SkyRosa’s — a Skyline and LaRosa’s mashup — and, perhaps most infamously, an Applebee’s. But Nihilist Arby’s took it a step further, actually getting permission from Punk musician and Nihilist Arby’s Twitter account operator Brendan Kelly to open the inspired eatery. For one week, NSYC served a menu that mimicked the Arby’s menu with 24-hour sous-vide dry-rubbed beef, Sixteen Bricks onion rolls and mornay sauce made with UrbanStead cheese. They also offered curly fries, a vegetarian/vegan seitan steak option and a boozy Jamocha shake. Each meal was complemented by a nihilist message from Kelly’s Twitter, including, “Whatever, assholes. Death approaches and time and agency are illusions. You’re already dead. Please continue to eat Arby’s in 2020.”

Chef Kayla Robison of Arnolds Bar and Grill makes a perfect fake Popeyes chicken sandwich featuring a mammoth slab of cauliflower, breaded and double-dipped in a Southern-style buttermilk batter, with Frank’s RedHot hot sauce and Cajun spices. It’s then fried and topped with pickles. And it always sells out.

Maysville, Kentucky-based Springcreek Farm presents a tongue-scorching twist on a cookout classic: Kickles. Pick them up at the Covington or Fort Thomas farmers market. They also carry more traditional flavors, like dill and bread and butter.

The Northside Farmers Market implemented some new technology to make the weekly Wednesday market more safe, socially distant and efficient for shoppers this year. Customers can now order and pre-pay on the Farmnivorous app for curbside pickup or even limited delivery.

Downtown-based Lola’s coffee offers springy floral tea lattes: either a rose matcha or a lavender matcha. Get them for a dollar off during “latte happy hour” from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.