It all started with a chicken sandwich.
My husband and I were sitting at the bar of a well-known local restaurant, peanut shells peppered about and the glint of a neon sign reflecting off the beer bottle in his hand. He had taken us to Terry’s Turf Club, utterly familiar with what the restaurant was known for: its signature burgers, which are absolutely worth the wait and cramped seating.
But my husband, being my husband, chatted up the chef and asked for his recommendation of what to order anyway.
“Recommendation? The chicken sandwich,” the chef said.
And my husband, being my husband, gave an immediate one-word answer: “In.”
Since then, we have only eaten chicken sandwiches at Terry’s. Consisting of a heaping chicken breast, bacon, provolone cheese, lettuce and peanut sauce, the sandwich is what consistently draws us to the electric glow of that East End burger dive, time and time again.
And while it seems sacrilegious to go to an establishment rightfully known for one thing — a signature dish — only to sit down and order something else, the best off-reputation eats don’t just begin and end with the best chicken sandwich at a burger joint. No, no. In a city with a growing population of well-established specialty eateries, it’s not surprising that so many of them are also home to other noteworthy signatures.
So, indulge me if you will as I bring you the “Off-Reputation Round Up,” aka a list of places with an avid following for one dish and a recommendation of another excellent menu item to try.
• First up, we’ll head down the street from Terry’s Turf Club to another Cincinnati staple, Eli’s BBQ. Known for barbecue, and pulled pork in particular, you haven’t done Eli’s right until you’ve had the 2 All-Beef Dogs. You’ll still get a barbecue fix because the two smoked franks come in a bun with Eli’s famous sauce, however the flash fry preparation and pork crispins and coleslaw toppings will make you forget that Eli’s is known for anything else. 3313 Riverside Drive, East End, elisbarbeque.com.
• Once you’ve had Eli’s hot dog, you might find yourself hankering for another dog, which means your mind might wander in the direction of Senate. Yes, Senate is known for gourmet hot dogs, but they also have the best mussels in town. The Mussels Charmoula features bivalves served in a tomato and saffron broth that is both thick and flavorfully vibrant. I’ll go so far as to say they are the best mussels in the city. And I would definitely pick them as my “last meal.” 1212 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, senatepub.com; 1100 Summit Place Drive, Blue Ash, senateblueash.com.
• Once you’ve finished the best mussels you have ever had, you could bop across the street to Bakersfield. Famous for its tacos, this time you should skip those and order the short rib tostada. This little Mexican sandwich features the most delicious braised short rib, served on a crispy tortilla and topped with a fried egg, cilantro-buttermilk dressing, hot sauce, black beans and queso fresco. While this tostada is still in the Mexican-food genre, know that it’s worth passing up an order of al pastor tacos to order this instead. 1213 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, bakersfieldtacos.com.
• Not to mess with your tacos too much, but there is another modern Mexican eatery you should visit and skip the entire taco section of the menu. Nada, a Latin-American cuisine powerhouse in downtown Cincinnati, will do everything right that you want it to — tacos, margaritas, guacamole, etc. — but you should definitely order the Nada Sliders. The sliders feature angus beef patties, cheese, onion, jalapeño and crema and will have you asking, “Taco who?” 600 Walnut St., Downtown, eatdrinknada.com.
• Then there is Sotto, Nada’s neighbor and sister restaurant under the Boca Restaurant Group umbrella. Sotto is the place that comes to mind when you’re in the mood for great pasta. And their pasta is unbeatable — you should definitely go for the pasta — but just make sure to stay for the donuts. The ricotta donuts are powder-sugar-dusted fried balls served with a trio of sweet sauces — caramel, chocolate and pistachio. Even if you’re stuffed, order them. You won’t regret it. 118 E. Sixth St., Downtown, sottocincinnati.com.
• Before focusing too much on the sweet, consider Krueger’s Tavern, with its housemade sausage stars. This OTR eatery also has the most delicious kale salad. It is called the Simple Kale Salad and while it is seemingly simple, that is not at all how one would describe the taste. The salad consists of nothing more than Tuscan kale, breadcrumbs, parmigiano reggiano and lemon vinaigrette, but those four pieces pack a whole lot of punch. 1211 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, kruegerstavern.com.
• When thinking of meat-shining establishments, one place that should certainly come to mind is OTR’s The Eagle (a Thunderdome Restaurant Group eatery, along with Bakersfield and Krueger’s), where it’s all about the fried chicken. And while it is hard to look past all the ways in which you can indulge in some deep-fried bird, do so because you’ll land upon the grilled cheese. Forgoing poultry perfection in order to just have a sandwich featuring three cheeses, apricot preserves and granny smith apples may sound crazy, but you’ll thank me later. 1342 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, theeagleotr.com.
• Then there is also the ahi tuna versus a steak at downtown staple Jeff Ruby’s, the chili over the burger at Zip’s Cafe in Mount Lookout and a trip to a Taste of Belgium outpost solely for an oatmeal cookie and not the chicken and waffles.
But again, in a city whose food identity is slowly but surely putting itself on the map, we should continue to support and celebrate each and every place that has staked a claim as an expert in something. However, as we continue to return time and time again, it might be worth taking that left turn toward something seemingly off-reputation.