Gangs of students and their parents are swarming UC’s campus these days. They’re there to get oriented — figure out where to buy books, how to register, where to work out, how to scope out the frat party with the best beer. You know, college stuff.
With all the “studying” in their future, they’ll also need to know where to find some good eats close to campus. The Calhoun/McMillan area has always had some fine local choices like Floyd’s Mediterranean Restaurant, Pomodori’s Pizzeria, Myra’s Dionysus, Mac’s Pizza Pub, Currito’s and Baba Budan’s (239 W. McMillan St., Clifton Heights, 513-221-1911).
Baba isn’t always thought of as a lunch spot, but it’s my most recently found hidden gem. The space — large, cool and dimly lit — is an oasis from a sticky Cincinnati summer afternoon. Unlike most coffeehouses, with well-earned reputations for slow, inefficient service, Baba’s staff is casual, friendly and on top of things.
Along with a solid cup of coffee, the restaurant offers sandwiches and wraps that include the tried and true turkey, chicken pesto, chicken salad, falafel and roasted vegetable. Their salads include chicken Caesar and Greek options, while nibblers can order platters like the Mediterranean ($7.95). All the salads and sandwiches are $5.95 and the “chips” that come with the sandwiches are a variety of crunchy bagel chips rather than the usual greasy potato chips. Baba’s also serves beer and wine so you can go back later and enjoy an adult beverage while you watch the live music they offer several nights a week.
If you want healthy but are feeling a little more adventurous, check out the more recently opened Bento (212 W. McMillan St., Clifton Heights, 513-381- 5905). The restaurant is named for one of the two lunch options it serves, one is a single-portion meal ($4.99) that comes in an Eastern version of the TV-dinner tray with separate compartments for rice, a protein and one or more pickled or cooked vegetable sides.
Bento offers a choice of stir-fried beef, pork marinated in a spicy sauce, a pork cutlet or a chicken cutlet for the protein. Then you can choose Style A, the more traditional option, or Style B to fill out the sides. Style A includes gyoza (Japanese dumplings), fried sweet potato, kimchi and a seasonal vegetable. Style B is gyoza, a green salad, potato salad and vegetables.
The other lunch dish is Bi bim bop ($6.95). Bento’s version is healthy with a choice of beef or tofu, plus greens, been sprouts, carrots and mushrooms, all finely diced and served with an egg and a side of hot sauce. Both lunches come with a side of miso soup and the temptation to finish your meal with some frozen yogurt or a low-fat smoothie ($3.75).
If you want to throw the diet out the window or need a good hangover cure, Five Guys Burgers and Fries (210 Calhoun St., Clifton Heights, 513-559-9900) is your man (men). Lunch at the restaurant requires a few more people than five to prepare, cranking out meals with two huge grills, eight fryers and a gaggle of employees shouting take-out order numbers over the general din. The space is sharp, decorated in red-and-white diner-style tile with 50-pound bags of potatoes and crates of peanuts as added atmosphere, but the take out bags should come with a “buyer beware” label. The grease on that bag of burgers President Obama recently lugged into the White House wasn’t photoshopped!
The Guys, a Washington D.C.-based chain, has locations in about 25 states now. Their Web site boasts that they don’t freeze anything, use only peanut oil and only Idaho potatoes. The menu is small with fries and Cajun fries ($2.59 for a small order and $3.99 for a large) made from those potatoes, as well as hamburgers, cheeseburgers, bacon burgers, bacon cheeseburger (there is a smaller version of each of these as well), kosher style hot dogs, cheese or bacon dogs, bacon cheese dogs, veggie dogs and grilled cheese. The fries are greasy (in a good way) and salty. While they gave me lettuce instead of pickles for my small hamburger ($3.39), the burger was completely satisfying, and the kosher hot dog ($3.19) gives northern Ohio’s Tony Packo’s a run for its money.
Toppings include mayo, relish, onions, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, ketchup, mustard, jalapeno peppers, green peppers, A-1 sauce, bar-b-q sauce and hot sauce. The Guys assert that there are more than 250,000 possible ways to order a burger at Five Guys. We’ll let all you incoming math majors do the long math to figure those out!