Long gone are the days when hungry visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden were limited to cheese pizza and plain burgers. You can still get those good ol’ American favorites — along with popcorn, cotton candy and Dippin’ Dots — but the zoo has seriously stepped up its dining game to please visitors’ palates in the age of food trucks and Instagrammable delicacies, opening three new dining options to be followed by a beer garden in the fall. And on May 21, they hosted a press preview day where we got to sample the new eats.
In March, the Cincinnati Zoo completely made over The Grove, its hub for all tasty things situated between Manatee Springs and Lemur Lookout. The space feels less like a food court and more like what you’d expect from the new food truck park in Cincinnati’s East End. The zoo’s first addition here was a sophisticated black-and-red food truck called The Coop.
The Coop offers crispy hand-breaded chicken tenders, chicken sandwiches and poutine. The sweet potato poutine is a complete meal in and of itself. Smothered in a country-style maple gravy, The Coop takes just-thick-enough sweet potato fries and tops them with fresh cheese curds and fried chicken.
An old shipping container at The Grove is home to Taco Caja, which serves its fare on soft, chewy flour tortillas. Taco Caja has four taco options: Both the chicken and barbacoa tacos come with salsa, sour cream, onion, cilantro and cotija cheese, and the fried fish taco is topped with an avocado slaw. But the spicy fried cauliflower is king of this taco stand.
If you’ve yet to jump on the cauliflower-everything bandwagon and are still a little suspicious of the colorless veggie, eat it fried. On this taco, cauliflower comes topped with all the garnishes of the chicken and barbacoa options and includes a smoky chipotle salsa.
Here, you can also grab a churro donut. These fluffy, cinnamon-sugar delicacies are finished with a drizzle of caramel.
Wild Burger, a retro Airstream trailer that harkens back to the days of shiny roadside diners and soda fountains that served milkshakes in a glass, is the third of the zoo’s new stations at The Grove. Wild Burger grills up four types of ground-beef burgers, all served with tomato and lettuce.
The classic Wild Burger is topped with American cheese and Wild Sauce, whereas a few others offer up a little more variety. Their flavors come from a thick fondue drizzled over the patty and include a mushroom and Swiss cheese fondue, a maple-goetta fondue and a blue cheese and bacon fondue.
As stylish as they are, these new dining options are far from a gimmick.
“We see over 1.5 million people come through every year,” says Cincinnati Zoo executive chef John Bird. With all those people to feed, he says that the zoo wanted to take a more varied approach to its food offerings. “It can be trendy (to have food trucks), but it can also be accessible.”
Of course, The Grove isn’t the only place to eat here. Cincinnati favorites like LaRosa’s and Skyline are still available, and the Base Camp Café — which has been a mainstay at the zoo since 2013 — updates its menu seasonally to keep it fresh. The spring salad mixes arugula with strawberries, fava beans, dry-aged cheddar and a Champagne vinaigrette, and the herbaceous carved sandwich stacks sliced turkey and provolone with a tomato basil aioli between slices of rosemary focaccia.
In the fall, the zoo will open The Watering Hole, a beer garden and restaurant overlooking the new Roo Valley habitat, which is currently under construction. (Slated to open in 2020, Roo Valley is an Australian-themed exhibit that will replace the current Wildlife Canyon.) The beer garden will feature a large deck that seats over 100 people, says Bird, and will fire up pizzas in a real Italian brick oven. Features on that menu will include a margherita flatbread with crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil; Brussels sprouts topped with béchamel sauce and fontina cheese; and roasted cauliflower in a savory romesco sauce with almonds and parsley.
If all goes according to plan, Bird says that The Watering Hole will open between August and October, so visitors luckily won’t have to wait too long to enjoy the new space. In the meantime, digging in at The Grove is the way to go.
The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is located at 3400 Vine St., Avondale. More info/tickets: cincinnatizoo.org.