Best Bites of 2015

CityBeat dining writers’ favorite food finds from the past year

click to enlarge Tacos still top the popularity list this year, including these from Frida 602 in MainStrasse.
Tacos still top the popularity list this year, including these from Frida 602 in MainStrasse.

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ityBeat dining writers are paid to eat — they’re not paid exorbitantly, but, regardless, these intrepid gastronauts spend their year eating, drinking and reporting back on the latest restaurants, food trends, pop-ups and Queen City culinary wizardry to either mildly entertain you or help you decide where to eat dinner. So as 2015 draws to a close, we asked our writers and reviewers to recap the year and list their favorite food finds — dishes, drinks and diamonds in the rough — of the past 365 days. Spoiler alert: We’re all still really into tacos.

Katie Holocher

Favorite New

Restaurant

Bar: Pearl’s. Besides the fact I could drop-kick a soccer ball from my front yard and hit their porch, Pearl’s is my favorite new establishment to crop up this year. While the space might be narrow, it boasts an open and inviting atmosphere. My new family of three has been such regulars there that we one time showed up without our 5-month-old, and the bartender asked, “Where’s Harry?” 3520 Eastern Ave., Columbia Tusculum, 513-832-0485, pearlscincy.com.

Favorite Old Restaurant: Nada. I have never once been dissatisfied or disappointed at Nada. From my go-to hongos tacos to the guacamole with jicama to a new favorite, carnitas tamal, and fried egg brunch option, I literally like everything on the menu. 600 Walnut St., Downtown, 513-721-NADA, eatdrinknada.com.

Favorite Meal or Dish: Taste of Belgium ’s chicken and waffles. This is one of those dishes that when I want it, I want it bad. However, I normally have two things standing in my way: one, my husband is never craving it when I am, and two, the wait at any location usually kills me. But this dish is the Grand Poobah when it comes to the perfect combination of spicy and sweet, sturdy and soft and salty and sugary. My alliteration senses go nuts for this one. Multiple locations including 1135 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, authenticwaffle.com.

Favorite Cocktail: Bouquet’s groppino. This is one classy slushie. With strawberry and melon sorbet, vodka, champagne and an accent of mint, I could drink this by the vat. 519 Main St., Covington, Ky., 859-491-7777, bouquetrestaurant.com.

Favorite Suspicious Dessert: Buona Terra’s sweet corn gelato. I normally wouldn’t trust a vegetable in my dessert, but this one was worth the risk. It blew my mind on so many levels I called into question nearly everything I once believed. 1028 Delta Ave., Mount Lookout, 513-386-9356, buonaterragelato.com.

Anne Mitchell

Favorite New Restaurant: Frida 602. A hot new spot in MainStrasse by the owners of Otto’s, Frida is a great place to get to know mezcal, the smoky cousin to tequila. Try the Xibalba, a fierce beauty of a cocktail, with mezcal, vermouth, cherry liqueur, blood-orange liqueur and orange juice. Among the eats are some real gems, including the Brussels sprout tacos, and the steaming antidote to winter chills — a big bowl of pozole. Sneak into the men’s room (named for Frida Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera) and check out the wallpaper. 602 Main St., Covington, Ky., 859-815-8736, facebook.com/frida602.

Favorite Old Restaurant: Oriental Wok. The Oriental Wok is classic, in a Vegas sort of way. It’s big, it’s red, it’s dragons and paper lanterns and lots of brass. But it’s also the impeccable hospitality of the Wong family, who makes everyone, even people picking up carryout, feel like their most valued guests. And the food is fantastic — from their one-of-a-kind shrimp cheese rolls, to classic General Wong’s chicken, to sea bass with garlic and ginger sauce. 317 Buttermilk Pike, Ft. Mitchell, Ky., 859-331-3000; 2444 Madison Road, Hyde Park, 513-871-6888, orientalwok.com.

Most Surprising Find: Unwind Wine Bar. If the idea of a “wine bar” sounds slightly feeble, prepare to be surprised. I was dragged to Unwind to hear my friends in MUSE, Cincinnati Women’s Choir, sing. I didn’t expect a treat for my mouth as well as my ears. First of all, their wine flights are served in proper wine glasses in these crazy racks that really showcase the vino. Their featured flight of the day is an exceptionally good value. Then, their menu of small bites — everything I tasted impressed me. The best bite? Surprise! A vegetarian taco of roasted veggies with black bean mousse and poblano crema. So rich and good! 3435 Michigan Ave., Hyde Park, 513-321-9463, unwindhydepark.com. 

Best Summer Beverage: MadTree’s Sol Drifter. This summer blonde isn’t a bombshell; it’s just the perfect session drink for a sunny day. If you’re skeptical of “fruit beers,” don’t be. Even though Sol Drifter has a hint of strawberry, it’s not the least bit intrusive — there’s plenty of hoppyness for balance. And if the pink can is too girly for you? Seriously, drag yourself out of your cave and have a beer. 5164 Kennedy Ave., Oakley-ish, 513-836-8733, madtreebrewing.com.

Best Remedy for Iron Deficiency: The New York strip steak at Jimmy G’s. Feeling run down? Food is the best medicine, and Doctor Jimmy has the cure — grilled over a hot hardwood fire. Oh, there are few things in life as satisfying as perfect steak, and at Jimmy G’s, you’re getting damned sexy bone-in, cuts-like-butter, seasoned-to-perfection beef. Treat yourself. You deserve it. 435 Elm St., Downtown, 513-621-8555, jimmy-gs.com.

Best Sweet and Savory Dessert: When you get sick of hearing about elections this year — which may be now, understandably — head for the only non-political Presidential place in town. The Presidents Room is a hidden gem downtown. Well, it’s right across the street from CityBeat’s office, so it’s not hidden to us, but since it’s on the second floor of The Phoenix, it might not be on your radar. It should be, if for no other reason than that the pine nut tart is a dessert with more buttery goodness than all the candidates combined. 812 Race St., Downtown, 513-721-2260, thepresidentsrm.com.

Pama Mitchell

Favorite New Restaurant: The best new restaurant has got to be Mita’s. What I like most about it, frankly, is the ambience: the center-of-everything corner location with windows to take it all in, the spacious feel of the dining room, the open kitchen. And the Spanish and tapas-themed menu is unique for our city. 501 Race St., Downtown, 513-421-6482, mitas.co.

Favorite Old Restaurant: Favorite restaurant is going to depend on the occasion. For fine dining you still can’t beat Orchids at Palm Court, a truly special and memorable meal every time you’re lucky enough to eat there. Otherwise, I’m a fan of Abigail Street for the octopus and/or the gnocchi. Orchids at Palm Court, 35 W. Fifth St., Downtown, 513-421-9100, orchidsatpalmcourt.com; Abigail Street, 1214 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-421-4040, abigailstreet.com.

Favorite Meal or Dish: We like our neighborhood upscale standby La Poste for crab cakes, creamy mushroom ravioli, the seasonal prep of chicken and/or the nightly special seafood. La Poste has always been a fun place to try many different wines, and they’ll pour half glasses if you want to sample as many as possible. 3410 Telford St., Clifton, 513-281-3663, laposteeatery.com.

Favorite Bar or Cocktail: I can’t go too long without a Mad Anthony cocktail from The Littlefield in Northside. It starts with whiskey, adds housemade basil-ginger syrup and soda — a special twist on ginger beer. Crave worthy. 3934 Spring Grove Ave., Northside, 513-386-7570, littlefieldns.com.

Other Best Bites: Vegetarian tacos at Bakersfield washed down with a bourbon drink called the Red-Headed Stranger (includes bitters, cayenne pepper, ginger liqueur and a garnish of candied ginger), even if I have to wait an hour for a table. Also, figs stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon at Enoteca Emilia, savory and sweet and perfect with a glass of Falanghina, a fragrant Italian white wine. Bakersfield, 1213 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-579-0446, bakersfieldtacos.com; Enoteca Emilia, 2038 Madison Road, O’Bryonville, 513-834-5773, enotecaemilia.com.

Garin Pirnia

Favorite Dish/New Restaurant: Lobster bisque at Mita’s. I was excited when chef Jose Salazar announced he was opening another restaurant, because trying to get a table at the chef’s namesake spot in OTR on Tapas Tuesday is an ordeal. Salazar expands his take on Latin cuisine to a much bigger space downtown, and unlike Salazar they take reservations. Currently on the menu is a lobster bisque filled with chunks of lobster and drizzled with black olive oil — I didn’t know that existed. 501 Race St., Downtown, 513-421-6482, mitas.co.

Favorite Old Restaurant: Cheapside. Cheapside was one of my fave restaurants of last year and it continues to be so. Every time I’ve lunched there, the food and their coffee drinks have been very satisfying. I don’t usually like squash, but I’ve had their spaghetti squash grilled cheese a couple of times, and it’s quite good. 326 E. Eighth St., Downtown, 513-345-6618, cheapsidecafe.com.

Favorite New Bar: Sundry and Vice. L.A. transplants combine a tavern and speakeasy atmosphere and shake up a variety of fresh and innovative cocktails. Plus, they have boozy milkshakes and bloody marys served with pickle-juice ice cubes. And they have old-timey prescriptions for cocaine on their wall. 18 W. 13th St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-721-VICE, sundryandvice.com.

Favorite Bloody Mary: Blood Rush at the Overlook Lodge. The newly opened The Shining-theme tavern’s bloody is aptly called Blood Rush, and is crafted with a housemade spicy mix, smoked vodka, fresh dill and topped with Bud Light foam out of a seltzer bottle. This isn’t your typical bloody, served in a pint glass with a bendy straw that takes two minutes to chug — this one comes in a refined coupe cocktail glass (curved) and is meant to be sipped and savored. And after taking a few sips, your buzz will be on. 6083 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge, 513-351-0035, theoverlooklodgecincinnati.com.

Favorite Snack: Cincinnati Chili & Cheese popcorn from Purrfectly Popped. A West Chester husband-and-wife team makes several different types of popcorn and sells them at Blank Slate’s taproom and events around town. They make interesting flavors such as margarita, cookies and cream, honey-butter sea-salt and the savory Cincy Chili & Cheese (meatless). It’s got a kick to it, but the cheesiness far surpasses the spiciness. It only takes a mouthful to become addicted. Also, you can’t go wrong with the cat theme. purrfectlypopped.com.

Favorite New Coffee Drink: Caffe Frizzante from Urbana Café. Located next door to The Nation in Pendleton, Urbana Café’s first storefront has a longer menu than they do at their Findlay Market cart location. Taking inspiration from Italy, they make a drink called Caffe Frizzante: espresso poured into a highball glass and doused with fizzy San Pellegrino. The combo of the water and the coffee generates a refreshing soda. 1206 Broadway, Pendleton, 513-813-3133, urbana-cafe.com.

Ilene Ross

Favorite New Restaurant: While it’s not exactly a sit-down restaurant, I’m obsessed with the new Blue Oven Bakery Toast Bar at Findlay Market. Thick slices of fresh Blue Oven bread are toasted and slathered with yummy things like sweet cream and homemade strawberry jam or homemade peanut butter and honey-roasted peanuts. It’s always my first stop before Saturday-morning food shopping. Findlay Market, 1801 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, blueovenbakery.com.

Favorite Old Restaurant: Maribelle’s eat + drink. Maribelle’s is my neighborhood hangout, and chef Mike Florea’s ever-changing casual yet sophisticated menu can always be relied on to please everyone at the table with the best available ingredients prepared flawlessly. The cocktails are delicious as well. 3235 Madison Road, Oakley, 513-321-9111, maribellestavern.com.

Favorite Dish: Beef tartar at Jean-Robert’s Table. Beef tartar is one of my very favorite French dishes, and it’s really difficult to prepare correctly. The quality of the beef itself is of utmost importance since the dish is served raw, and it must be chopped and seasoned perfectly or else the taste and mouthfeel are a complete disaster. I order it wherever I go, but no matter where in the world I am, it never compares to chef de Cavel’s impeccably prepared dish. There’s no place like home. 713 Vine St., Downtown, 513-621-4777, jrcincy.com.

Favorite Bar: Hands down, it’s a tie between cocktails at The Palm Court for ambience and the bloody mary at The Anchor-OTR. If I’ve got out-of-town guests, I’m taking them to The Palm Court to totally knock their socks off. The wow-factor of that room is undeniable, and they really know how to mix a drink. Also, it’s the perfect room for a first date or proposal. Trust me.

If you haven’t tried the bloody mary at The Anchor-OTR, you need to put this drink in your life. The liquid portion is perfectly spiced, and then they shove more seafood than can possibly fit in the glass on top. If you don’t have room for a drink and a meal, this should be your new go-to. The Palm Court, 35 W. Fifth St., Downtown, 513-421-9100; The Anchor-OTR, 1401 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-421-8111, theanchor-otr.com.

Favorite Place to Wait Up to 45 Minutes for a Table: That’s a lie, really. I don’t ever like to wait for a table, but if I have to, it’s gonna be Sugar n’ Spice for breakfast. I get hangry really fast, and the nice folks at Sugar n’ Spice are pros at dealing with hangry — while you’re waiting for your table or counter spot, nice ladies will walk around and pass out food. Yes, before you’ve even ordered your giant omelet, Wispy Thin pancakes or, in my case, corned beef hash and poached eggs, you’re treated to trays of brownies or fried mac n’ cheese. No lie: Last week those brownies greeted me in the parking lot before I even put my name on the list. 4381 Reading Road, Avondale, 513-242-3521, sugar-n-spice-restaurant.com.

Favorite Fastest Home-Delivery Food on the Planet: Suzie Wong’s in East Walnut Hills. I have absolutely no idea how they do this, but I can order my udon noodles with seafood, hang up the phone and it’s at my door, hot, fresh, and delicious in North Avondale in less than 15 minutes. Sometimes I think they know I’m going to call. 1544 Madison Road, East Walnut Hills, 513-751-3333, suziewongs.com.

Favorite Dinner and a Show: CineBistro in Liberty Township. Cocktails and delicious, well-presented, well-priced food served while I relax in my luxury recliner chair and enjoy a movie. Best of all, it’s over-21 only, so there are no small feet kicking my chair from behind. It’s one of the best date-night inventions ever. 7514 Bales St. Liberty Township, 513-463-0470, cinebistro.com.

Favorite New International Cuisine Found Locally: Nepalese food at Bridges at Findlay Market. Fans of Indian cuisine will notice similarities with Bridges’ offerings of samosas and chicken tikka masala, but take note of the subtle spice differences in this South Asian neighbor. A brick-and-mortar is coming soon. Findlay Market, 1801 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-374-9354.

Favorite Diamond in the Rough: Stone Bowl. As my son recently reminded me when he took me to one of his favorite restaurants: “You taught me that the worst-looking places are often diamonds in the rough, mom.” And he’s right. I did teach him that, and Stone Bowl’s somewhat slapdash appearance really does belie its tasty food. The mostly Korean menu — sometimes there’s sushi — offers up delicious pancakes, noodles and rice dishes; it’s the perfect family-friendly fare if you can keep small fingers off of the piping-hot stone bowls. 3355 Madison Road, Oakley, 513-533-9600, stonebowloakley.com.

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