Judging the Best of Taste of Cincinnati

Food gluttony usually occurs on the last Thursday of November or maybe Jesus’ B-day, but at 9 in the morning on a Monday in May? However, food gluttony is exactly what I just experienced.

I had been asked to represent CityBeat as a judge at the annual Best of Taste of Cincinnati competition. Never mind that I was a our default representative as everyone else on our dining section team was busy, I was still pretty damned psyched to be one of the judges.—- You see, for over a decade I worked for a restaurant that always participated in Taste of Cincinnati, and I suffered through every Memorial Day weekend in the heat and rain, usually rain, out on the streets selling my wares. One year we were actually lucky enough to win the “Best Damned Dish,” and, trust me, that can mean big bucks for the winner. So it was with confidence and experience that I drove up to Sysco in Evendale in the rain early on Monday morning.

It started out awkward enough. Upon arrival the organizers didn’t have my name and had no idea that I was supposed to be one of the judges. Sigh. As I wandered around searching for coffee, they got their act together and realized that, yes, I was supposed to be there and that I was assigned to judge the entrees. That was pretty awesome, but it was also the category that had far and away the most dishes to taste. All together there were about 30 entrees to consume.

The judges were quickly herded into an adjacent room so as to not see the cooking and preparation going on in the main room by the restauranteurs. We were explained the rules and the judging point system and told that we would begin eating at precisely 10 a.m. We were to judge each dish on a scale of 1-7 on three characteristics — uniqueness, presentation and taste. The dishes were all numbered and the restaurant of origin was completely unknown. This was going to screw with my game plan of making sure that a chain restaurant didn’t win anything. But, I was sure that I could tell if the dish came from a chain. Come on, of course I could.

When the food arrived, it came at us fast and furiously. I think they just brought in food as it was ready, but the first five dishes that I tasted were all pork. There was blah pulled pork, OK ribs, sausage drowned in mustard so I have no idea how it really tasted, a slightly better pulled pork and then god awful ribs that I deemed inedible. Like the marathon, this should have been about keeping a steady pace, but no I really ate too much from those first few dishes. Rookie mistake!

There were hits and misses along the way. I really liked a crispy pad thai dish that just missed the cut of being an award winner, but I had to suffer through a blackened fish and dirty rice dish. Cutting through the mundane, we settled on six dishes to re-taste and determine the three winners in the entrée category. Yeah, six dishes that we had to eat again! The judges for the Vegetarian category only had a total of six dishes all told.

So the winning dishes, and the ones that I think you need to try over Memorial Day weekend, are all really good. In third place was lasagna from Krimmer’s Italianette Pizzeria in Deer Park. It is a traditional lasagna, but it is hearty, flavorful and loaded with ricotta and mozzarella. I’ve never eaten there, but if this is any indication of the quality of their food I have to try the place out. Second place was from Bella Luna. Bella Luna was the big winner of the day as they took home five awards, including “Best Damned Dish” for their Prime Rib Cannelloni which unfortunately I never got to taste, as by the time we were finished judging the entrees all of the cannellonis had been devoured by the other slacker judges who had less dishes to taste. Bella Luna presented a Pulled Pork Shank over an amazing squash puree. This is a pretty elegant dish for eating out on the sidewalk, but the puree alone is worth whatever they will charge for the plate.

OK, so the big winner in my category was a burger. Really? Yeah, I said a burger. Awesome street food, but this wasn’t just any ordinary burger as it was juicy, perfectly cooked, had this unique taste and was served on a grilled bun. Huge bonus points for the grilled bun. The burger oozed cheese and was topped with grilled sweet onions and a fresh chunky tomato and herb sauce. I was pretty confident that I knew what restaurant had prepared that luscious burger when I gave it a perfect score. Did my taste buds prove me right in not awarding the prize to a chain restaurant? Hell no. That great burger came from Claddaugh Irish Pub with 15 locations in five states. Oh well, try it because there is no doubt it’s the best of the entrees. And that unique taste? It turned out to be Jameson.

I had a great time gorging on all the food, and I really hope that I get another chance next year to redeem myself and make sure that a chain restaurant doesn’t win yet again. Oh, and I also got a cool gift basket and a $25 gift certificate to one of the competing restaurants. Well worth the gluttony.

Here's the complete rundown of winners:

Appetizers
Best of Taste: Bella Luna, Prime Rib Cannelloni
Award of Excellence: Mac’s Pizza Pub, Mini Reuben Mac-over
Award of Merit: Habanero Latin America, Chicken Taco

Soups/Salads
Best of Taste: City BBQ, Gumbo
Award of Excellence: Arloi Dee Thai Bistro, Chicken Lettuce Wraps
Award of Merit: Courtyard Café, Baked Potato Soup

Seafood
Best of Taste: Bella Luca, Lobster Ravioli
Award of Excellence: Washington Platform, Southern Fried Oysters
Award of Merit: Habanero Latin America, Baja Fish Taco Platter

Entrees
Best of Taste: Claddagh Irish Pub, Jameson Burger
Award of Excellence: Bella Luna, Pulled Pork Shank
Award of Merit: Krimmer’s Italianette Pizzeria, Lasagna

Vegetarian Entree
Best of Taste: Taz Restaurant, Falafel Sandwich
Award of Excellence: J Gumbo's, Bumblebee Stew
Award of Merit: Courtyard Café, Black Bean Burrito

Desserts
Best of Taste: Bella Luna, Bread Pudding
Award of Excellence: Claddagh Irish Pub, Bread Pudding
Award of Merit: Pizza Tower, Funnel Cake Fries

Best Damn Dish
Bella Luna, Prime Rib Cannelloni

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