CMH Gourmand – Eating in Columbus & Ohio

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Alana’s: Adios, Au Revoir, Auf Wiedersehen, Arrivederci, Aloha, Annyeong

Posted by cmh gourmand on March 10, 2017

How do you describe Alana’s to someone who never dined there? Bohemian, eclectic, eccentric, artisan (before the word was over saturated), whimsical? No one word suits the place nor do the series of words I threw out touch the surface.

The doors are shuttered at Alana’s and the kitchen has thrown in the towel. The bar made it’s last call. Alana’s is closed for the count.

Alana Shock and husband/co-owner Kevin Bertschi launched the restaurant just over 18 years ago. The restaurant was housed, in a house but the previous tenant was A La Carte which was where college students dined if they wanted to upgrade from (of the era) the Cooker and wanted a fancier name than Casa di Pasta. Alana took care of the back of the house. Her kitchen experience including a stint in New Orleans and some very fine dining spots. She supplemented this with weekly trips to local markets (ahead of the trend or fad for some) for the freshest ingredients. Kevin took care of the wine, curating (before that word was over saturated) one of the better wine collections in the state and some of the best pricing as well. The bar offered creative cocktails with the same focus on ingredients and technique as the kitchen. The bar itself was upgraded in 2008 when the bar which had previously been tended at Jai Lai and Stache’s was installed on site here.

One aspect that has been part of the atmosphere from day one has been a lack of pretense. Another ongoing feature would be service (if occasionally uneven and in the case of one long time server perhaps a little unhinged) in the style of fine dining but in an atmosphere which was always informal. The walls and interior hosted a hodgepodge of colors and art. The atmosphere was always quiet and comforting with well-considered and eclectic music lightly playing in the background. To give you a sense of the food and the style it was served in, take a look at the (PDF may take a few clicks) menu below (from the second to last night of operation).

Alanas Menu

Reports and rumors of Alana’s demise started in 2015 and continued through December 2016 At first it was going to change locations, then it was sold, then the deal fell through, then it was going to be around another few years, then on the chopping block again. I found out definitely at an unlikely place in an unlikely manner, while having lunch with my wife at O’ Reilly’s in Clintonville (a favorite spot for Kevin and Alana). I saw them at the bar. Kevin told me I had better come in that weekend (February 25th) because it was likely to be their last, the paperwork had just been signed. Familial and professional obligations caused me to miss those dates but there was a short reprieve in transferring the space so an extra weekend became available and I was able to dine in on their second to last night of business. I am happy to say, everything selected from the menu for my last meal was exceptional which ensured my memories of my last meal at Alana’s would be memorable. In particular, while many places offer cheese plates, this is one of the few restaurants, in the world (I’ve been around) that really delivered a consistently exciting cheese plate – with delicious and hard to find cheeses. Alana came out not once but twice offering small bite sized Amuse bouche which were always a fun and interesting through the course of the evening. I can’t say there was a time that I did not see her do so herself. It was one of many quirks about the place that was amusing to most.

As you are reading this, you may wonder why you did not hear of Alana’s. For many food focused people it was in their top ten lists for nearly two decades but there were some barriers to Alana’s being fully mainstream. A big part of that was former Dispatch Restaurant writer Jon Christensen refused to list Alana’s in the top ten for many years. This was attributed to Alana’s interaction with a guest and Christensen determining that such treatment (if as alleged was true) disqualified providing any acknowledgment of the place. In addition to this incident, I heard a few stories over the years involving interactions with both patrons and staff but never saw such firsthand. The best tale, which may or may not be true but reads like a tall tale. The story involved a customer that may have taken too many special requests to an extreme so Alana walked across the street to a convenience store to get a microwaveable burrito to serve as an answer to one of those requests. If that truly happened, then I would just say it was a great story. As a personal aside, I always thought of Jon Christensen as the Gertrude Stein of Columbus Food writers – repetitive to the point that each of his reviews read like a template, bland and boring writing which did nothing to inspire a person to seek out a place or provide any insight to the spirit of dining therein. Those attributes to his writing, I feel may indicate that as a diner, he would have never understood Alana’s even under the best of any circumstances. To those that mattered and those that cared, Alana’s was a destination and in some cases a community not just of food but thought. If that worked for you, then you took the side of eccentric quirkiness and enjoyed the journey.

Alana’s will be missed but I think we will still hear stories of Alana and Kevin as time goes by.

Posted in food | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Kenny’s Meat Wagon (Truck, 2.0, Kenny’s Mikewagon)

Posted by cmh gourmand on March 2, 2017

Let’s start with some mobile food math. What happens when you take this:

Flat Top Pizza

Then add one of these:

Kennys Meat Wagon Cart

The end result equals this, the breakaway favorite of the winter 2017 food truck season, Kenny’s Meat Wagon (2.0).

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I have enjoyed watching this transformation of both businesses over the last four months. Mike from Flattop was a client of mine when I was at the Food Fort. I watched him transform from a guy helping out a friend with a hot dog cart, to taking a wild idea of trying to grill a pizza on the same flattop grill of said hot dog cart (I was there to orchestrate the first field trial) to slowly building a food truck to deliver said pizza to the masses. I was also at the Food Fort when Kenny started his cart. I helped him get his first site placements and became used to his extreme indifference to adversity. I watched Kenny slowly grow as well. This unique idea of using Flattop as the (almost literal) flatbed to boost us Kenny’s Meat Wagon was a novel idea. I was embedded in this enterprise for two reasons. First, my original plan to escape my Shawshank Redemption like existence as an employee of the state was to create a food truck rental program similar how this arrangement kind of works. When that idea and my ownership of O’Betty’s 2 in Athens failed swiftly and miserably I fell in to the Food Fort. Second, I was in communication with the team weekly as this whole enterprise evolved so I was very interested in seeing how it might work for a great number of reasons.

Kenny’s Meat Wagon has established a reputation on serving big, man sized sandwiches with lots of fresh ingredients and exceptional locally sourced breads. See a few examples below.

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Kenny’s Meat Wagon started as a cart in 2013. Being a bit under the radar and a smaller profile cart he won notoriety at several food trucks events including best food cart in Columbus in 2014 at the Columbus Food Truck Festival, in 2015, best overall vendor at the Q FM 96 food truck festival, in 2016, 2nd place overall in the Columbus Food Truck Festival.

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In the late fall of 2016 inspired by a spin of the Lend Lease Act between England and the USA during World War Two, Kenny’s Meat Wagon brokered access to the Flattop Pizza Truck (with the arcane knowledge of its owner Mike Cryan) thus Kenny’s Meat Wagon (2.0, Truck, Kenny’s Mikewagon) was born. This true Meat Wagon has been pounding the pavement pretty hard over the winter, something Kenny could not do in cart format. His timing was good since he was also expanding his family with a second child concurrently. The truck offers a more expanded menu than the cart could as well as the capacity to serve more people in a shorter period of time. I checked in with Kenny to find out more about his Meat Wagon.

1) What was the tipping point for you to start Kenny’s Meat Wagon?

I had been working an office job for 8 years and not going very far. I really didn’t like the office life and wanted to do something else but I felt stuck. I had always wanted to get into the restaurant industry but the thought of cooking someone else’s food and working crazy hours didn’t sound great to me. My wife had been pushing the food cart idea for a while. We saved up as much as we could, then, one day while staring out the window of the office I decided to go for it. My wife backed me 1000% of the time and we jumped in feet first. My last day in the office was a Thursday, we got married on Friday, took a little honeymoon and I was a full time food cart owner/operator when we got home

2) You operated as a cart for over three years, what are the pros and cons of operating from a cart vs. a truck. Is there anything you miss about being a cart operator?

I have to say that there’s not a whole lot that I miss about running a food cart! I had a ton of fun and got to work some really fun events and meet a countless number of amazing people. But, it is hard, physical work, hot in the summer and nearly impossible to operate in the winter. The food truck has given me the opportunity to run through the winter. It has also allowed me to expand the menu in ways that I never could with the cart. It has opened the door to use ingredients that I could never use on the cart. The thing that I do miss the most about the cart is not having the face to face contact with the regulars I’ve built up over time. I’ve met some really amazing, interesting people over the years and I’ve had some great conversations while cooking their food. I also think that people really like to be able to watch their food be prepared in front of them.


3) What type of culinary experiences did you have prior to starting the cart?

I had no professional cooking experience when I started the cart. I had never gone to culinary school. I am pretty much completely self-taught when it comes to cooking. I grew up helping my mom in the kitchen, reading recipes and helping as I could. I started to really learn watching Alton Brown on the Food Network. He really got me interested in the science of cooking, and how and why you use different techniques in the kitchen. I practised as much as I could. Anytime friends or family had parties, tailgates, etc. I would always jump on the opportunity to “cater” the event and try new things. Everyone I knew became guinea pigs in whatever experiment I was on at the time. They enjoyed that most of the time but trust me, not everything is a winner! Just learn and adapt and keep on moving!

4) When did you know that you loved to cook and wanted to do so for a living? Do you have strong food traditions in your family growing up?

I enjoyed food from a very early age. As I was getting out of high school and beyond is when I really stared to realize that cooking was my future. We didn’t really have strong food traditions growing up. My mom did make sure that we always had really good home-made food on the table every night. She had her core recipes that she stuck with (some that I still cook today), and she would experiment when she could. Being around and having good food so often is what really got me interested in cooking. Without my mom, I don’t think I would be the cook that I am today.

5) Most of your menu is sandwich based and often skews toward items like Italian Beef Sandwiches as well as what objective people such as my wife consider to be the best Italian sub in the state of Ohio. What inspired your choice of sandwiches? Do you have Italian family connections where you grew up? Did you discover Italian Beef while in Chicago?

I’ve spent my whole life making everything into sandwiches. Having pasta for dinner? Butter some bread and eat it like a sandwich! Breakfast? Pile it all between your toast and eat it like a sandwich! I discovered Italian Beef on my first trip out Chicago and I was hooked. The au jus soaked bread with tender, thin sliced beef with giardiniera and roasted peppers immediately became my favorite sandwich. I started trying to recreate it as soon as I got home. When starting the cart I needed something that no one else had and Italian Beef was it. The rest of the menu has come since then based on my favorite things to eat. I put a ton of thought into every item on the menu. Everything on the menu has been tested and tweaked countless times before you even see it as a customer. Quality is not something to take lightly. Our THE Italian Sandwich that you referenced has been an evolving sandwich for the last 3 years. We’ve finally gotten it to where I’m 100% happy with it. It is absolutely my favorite sandwich on the menu.

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Kenny’s Meat Wagon Facebook
Kenny’s Meat Wagon Instagram
Kenny’s Meat Wagon Twitter

Phone: (614) 425-0556

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Rooks Tavern – Sunday Brunch

Posted by cmh gourmand on February 22, 2017

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Let us first set the stage for a culinary adventure you may choose to pursue. Mention Chittenden Avenue to Ohio State graduates and different memories will materialize based on what era they traveled the area: parties, PARTIES, the demarcation line between safe and very unsafe, questionable housing, etc.

The Chittenden Avenue of today is different, well mostly, I did see some nice kids roaming the street cleaning up some post Saturday trash. Anyway, I don’t often get out of the house and when I do, it is not typically during prime time which is why when I spied that Rooks Tavern has a Sunday Brunch I knew I had an opportunity to pursue. As I have mentioned too many times to count I have virtually no interest in breakfast and brunch is not much more appealing but add in some BBQ and problem solved.

My first impression had nothing to do with Rooks food, I was happy to see that parking was easy and for times when it may be more competitive, Rooks has a sign pointing guests to a nearby lot. Walking in, I liked the look of the place, took a gander at the very impressive equipment on site for the art of BBQ and sauntered up to the bar. I immediately felt at home with one of my favorite food truck friends showing up to serve me.

First as a public service I should mention while this place celebrates BBQ there is a lot in the menu that would please any palate even vegetarians and vegans. But that is not my thing (although I was a 17 meal a week vegetarian for a couple years). I had one meal on my mind before I got in my car that morning, I wanted the Texas BBQ Plate (also billed as the Austin Hangover). Diners have the option of a 1/2 pound or full pound of either pulled pork or brisket both smoked eighteen hours piled on the plate. It also comes with with potato salad, house made pickles and peasant bread. I’m a fan of Austin but I have not danced with a hangover for almost a decade but I thought I was ready for this dish.

Rooks BBQ

As you can see, I opted for the brisket, they nailed it. It was perfectly tender, had fat where it needed it for flavor and was expertly dry rubbed. The potato salad was OK but it was way too fancy for my tastes, I wanted something more peasant style, like the bread: simple, starchy and filling.

For the sake of balance, I also opted to try the composed salad. The combination of ingredients change every week. The salad features a base of either pasta or grains (mine was grains) with seasonal vegetables (check out those carrots!) and a splash of smoked onion vinaigrette. I really enjoyed this salad noting a zen like sense of peace after finishing it.

composed salad

A few other notes. The cocktails and local beer selections are a big upgrade from anything else you would find neat the OSU campus. The two house BBQ sauces – Texas and Carolina style are true to their origins. The guys in the kitchen are hardcore about what they do. I spoke with chef at length and he is on the right track with Rooks

Rooks

Rooks is open for Sunday Brunch from 10 am to 3 pm. Feel free to go there any other times you choose and let me know what you think.

Rooks Tavern Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Posted in BBQ, breakfast | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Pit BBQ Grille

Posted by cmh gourmand on February 19, 2017

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I’m always on the look out for an authentic BBQ place and as many have experienced, those spots are often off the beaten path. In the case of The Pit, it is a bit out of the mainstream of the city but not the typical dive that I gravitate to. The Pit is also a bit more upscale than most of the hidden BBQ finds I have written about in the past. There is also a small bit of celebrity associated with the The Pit mainly in the aspect of financing by some sportsball celebrities from OSU by the names Chekwa and Browning. One hails from the south and the other from Cleveland and he brought in two childhood friends to help out.

Some logistical footnotes before we begin and/or before you start your own journey of discovery. The Pit is buried inside the Northern Lights Shopping Center in North Linden. The front of the shopping complex is ringed with almost every fast food chain. The snaking ring of stores on inner part of the complex are fronted by a series of hodgepodge intersections and poorly delineated and marked parking areas that seemed designed to facilitate accidents and road rage. This is exacerbated by a large number of drivers that are either very old, very young or very new to driving, all wandering around this area trying to figure out how to drive as well as where they want to shop which makes this maze like parking lot a potentially hazardous journey. So here is an insider tip, from Cleveland Ave., turn where the A&W is located and that will lead you to the straightest and safest path to The Pit.

A few items fast tracked the Pit to the top of my to eat list. My cousin-in-law Greg mentioned the place to me a few times. Greg makes the best non-restaurant ribs in town and knows a lot of people who know BBQ. He had not dropped in yet but his sources had high praises. In my research of the online menu I spied a Polish Boy (a little known sandwich from Cleveland) and Turkey Ribs.

The possibility of a good Polish Boy in Columbus made a trip a high priority. The potential for Turkey Ribs made the trip a necessity. I have seen Turkey ribs on the menu at a handful of places but those spots never had them available on my visits.

The good news. The Pit had turkey ribs. It is a 20 minute wait for them but the turkey rib is a thing to be experienced. At the Pit these are big, meaty servings of meat that definitely taste like turkey.

turkey-ribs

There was a rib tip special on the day I visited. For $5 I got a generous serving of rib tips and some fries. The rib tips were perfectly cooked – tender to the bone, flavorful, and meatier than most I have tried in the past. The fries were not the typical airy, flavorless, out of the freezer fries often featured to save money and time, these Pit fries were fresh-cut and fresh out of the fryer. This was a great value for the price.

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As for the Polish Boy, I would have preferred the sausage to be more spicy and flavorful as well as cooked a bit longer in order have just a trace of gristle. This version not as messy as other Polish boys I have tried but I am happy to have it on a menu in Columbus. The cole slaw on this was a bit of a surprise but I will get to that later.

polish-boy

As is my typical modus operandi for BBQ sampling I tried as many side dishes as possible. In many things in life it is “the devil n the details” for BBQ evaluations the devil is in the sides. My favorite of the bunch were the baked beans. Most places mess up by making the beans too watery or dumping a bunch of unneeded junk (peppers, large pieces of onion) in the bean base. These baked beans were made of slow cooked beans, a lightly spiced sauce and a trace of meat to flavor the mix. The consistency was thick and the flavors were balanced.

The greens were more firm than what I am used to. More often greens are cooked to the point of limpness, these leafy greens were still a little rigid. There was not much flavor to them but there was a giant slab of meat hidden under my pile.

Mac and Cheese is an easy dish to make but so few places execute this it well. The key is to keep it simple and slightly saucy. The Pit version was dense and cheesy the overall flavor was bit bland but with a bit of pepper or BBQ sauces added in this version beats most you can find in local restaurants.

The cole slaw was surprise. This interpretation here is different that any other BBQ place I have tried. There is a mix of large leaves of leafy green and purple cabbage with a light and slightly tangy sauce. It was good although very different and I found the pieces to be just a but bigger than mouth-sized which caused some problems when trying to eat the Polish Boy.

cole-slaw

So there you go, more than a few things that I think will entice you to give the place a shot. There is a good amount of inside seating. The interior looks a lot like a Chipotle with some metal sideboards and industrial looking wood finishes. Please comment if you pop in to The Pit.

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The Pit BBQ Grille Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Posted in BBQ | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

You’d Rather Rax, But Thought They Were Through

Posted by cmh gourmand on February 13, 2017

In December 2016 it was brought to my attention that Rax still existed. Crack business reporter Dan Eaton was my source. However, he did not respond to my request for an interview (you know how the liberal Elite Media are). I also contacted the owner of most of the remaining Rax Restaurants and did not hear back from him.

As a Columbus native, I have vague memories of Rax from the 1980’s. I often confused the brand with Arby’s. Both focused on roast beef sandwiches but in that era Rax had shakes that my female friends obsessed about and they had a salad and food bar that exceeded the depth of Wendy’s had to offer. Columbus was a fast and casual food boom town in this era with the likes of Wendy’s, Damon’s, G.D. Ritzys, Cooker, Mark Pi’s, Max & Erma’s, Charlie’s Steakery, BW-3 (back when we called it that) and more expanding throughout the Midwest and the world. In the case of most – they grew too fast, got top-heavy with management and big-headed on the need to saturate the market. Most died out through the late 1980’s and 1990’s, were restructured / went bankrupt multiple times and scaled down to a few locations instead of several hundred or were never to be heard of again……

Or maybe not. Cooker had a rebirth (and died). There is one G.D. Ritzy’s in Huntington West Virginia. My beloved Zantigo (so much better than Taco Bell) still exists in Minneapolis. There is always hope.

For Rax, let’s pop into the Wayback Machine for a quick Rax refresher. The restaurant concept began in 1967 in Springfield Ohio as Jax. (Note Arby’s started in 1964 in Boardman Ohio). The concept was sold in 1969. It was then known as RIX. It rebranded as Rax and opened the first franchise under the Rax name in Columbus of course. By the late 1980’s there were over 500 locations in 38 states. The death spiral started shortly thereafter with Chapter 11 bankruptcy filed at the end of 1992. Wendy’s started to acquire some locations to transform them into Tim Horton’s.

My current research shows that eight to 10 Rax restaurants remain. Several are owned by one company with one rogue / independent operation in Bellefontaine. Over the last two months my travels took me near two Rax locations so I decided to investigate.

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My first exploration took me to the Rax in Lancaster. The Rax location here is located a few miles east of Downtown. This may be an original location of from the glory days of the Rax empire. The phrase Endless Salad Bar which was a company slogan in the olden days is painted over on the sign. The furniture and carpet inside do look like they date to the 1980’s. The staff wear Rax uniforms. The cups also sport the Rax logo but everything else is generic – sauce packets, sandwich wrappers, etc. The menu seems to feature the core menu items of Rax of days of yore: baked potatoes, curly fries and shakes. There is also a special offered, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a bowl of chili. I ordered a regular Rax to test out the signature menu item. The roast beef was sliced paper-thin, has a light brown / gray color to it had a very specific smell and taste to it. My recollection of meals at Rax 30 years ago was that the key was to load up on sauces. I took that exact approach in the modern day, covering part of my sandwich in generic BBQ sauce, part in generic Horseradish sauce and I left a small section plain so I could fairly assess the sandwich.

rax-lancaster

I tried the twisty fries and a shake. All in all, OK.

Having not heard back from Dan Eaton or Rax World HQ, I decided I needed to try another Rax to see if I really would rather Rax.

Another opportunity presented itself on my way to Family Donut Shoppe and Wittich’s Chocolates. Traversing south on SR 23, I spied a bill board for a Rax in Circleville.

Pulling into the spot, I noted some indirect irony. I had to do some googling to confirm my suspicions. The original Rax location in Circleville was taken over by a Tim Hortons. The current Rax (circa 2011) replaced a former Wendy’s location.

rax-circleville

This location (being newer) was little more upscale than the Lancaster location. It featured more furniture. The signage and branded items (shirts, cups, etc.) were exactly the same, right down to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich with bowl of chili special.

I tried a regular Rax here and a BBC (Beef, Bacon and Cheddar) which is reported to be the big seller in the chain. I’m glad I scouted out Rax but mainly as an homage to history, I think I would rather Arby’s instead.

Posted in culinary knowledge, Ohio, Road Trip | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Back to Family Donut Shoppe for a Burger…..

Posted by cmh gourmand on February 8, 2017

Readers may recall several mentions of Family Donut Shoppe in my multiple explorations of SR 56 on my way to Athens. I will come clean, in the spirit of glasnost (all hail President Putin), in addition to my normal investigations I have been scouting the area to buy property for a combination Bigfoot Sanctuary, Pony Ranch and Tiny/Little House court. Anyone that wants to donate to the cause, contact me directly for investment opportunities.

Anyway I vowed I would head back to Family Donut Shoppe for what looked to be a good burger. I did try on the day before Thanksgiving only to find…after driving all the way there, that a business that is open 24 hours a day…decided to close early and I missed them by 15 minutes. It was a long drive home.

I tried again last week with better results. The hamburger was well worth the $2.30 I paid for it. It was a handmade patty on a fresh bun and liberally doused in mustard, ketchup and pickles by request. You can see a photo below.

family-2

I saw a hand written sign for vegetable soup on the wall so I ordered that as well. It was well worth the $2.25 for at least a 12 ounce serving of soup in a reuseable plastic bowl. The soup broth was homemade with a large volume of frozen vegetables cooked into it and a very generous proportion of ground beef. There was some cabbage thrown in for good measure. Vegetarians beware, old school vegetable soup is often not entirely made of vegetables.

family-1

And of course I ordered a selection of a dozen plus donuts to take home to share. These donuts are exceptionally good. Fans of my Ohio Donut Trail may know that Family Donut Shop is considered among the top three donuteries of the thirty-three I have evaluated around the state of Ohio (to date). The dilemma with these donuts is that I have not been able to evaluate these head to head with Donald’s Donuts and DK Diner on the same day. I did take these donuts to a few hardcore fans of Donald’s Donuts who had tried some of those a few days previous. They too are torn. It is only 82.7 miles from door to door of these two spots so if I get DK Diner donuts before I leave Columbus and sample all three after arriving in Zanesville I may someday have an answer for this critical issue. In the meantime, we are certain that Family Donut has the best custard filled donuts (neither Donald’s or DK offer this style).

In you go to Family Donut Shoppe (only 15 minutes from Chillicothe) please call ahead. While they are open 24 hours, on the very odd chance they opt to close early you do not want to be left holding an empty bag at the mid point of your journey. Let me tell you it is a bitter drive home (but pretty if you take SR 93) without donuts or the satisfaction of a burger in your belly.

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donuts at Family Donut Shoppe

Posted in donuts, hamburgers, Ohio, Road Trip | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Sparanos: The Secret of San Margherita & Home of the Heavy Duty Pizza

Posted by cmh gourmand on January 30, 2017

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Until just a few months ago I had limited experience with Sparanos. I think I tried them once when they had a location in Grandview near the old location of Bono Pizza. I recall it being good but the service was apathetic at best. I may have tried a piece at a Pizza Grand Prix back in the day. So while I was aware of Sparanos my memories gave me no incentive to seek it out. I knew they once had a location on Hague Ave which another pizzeria took over but closed less than a year later. They seemed to have some history but I could not find out much about them.

A few months ago, I received a call from Smokehouse Brewing letting me know their power was out. Since I had a tour scheduled there in a few hours, this caused some significant trepidation. As I formulated some back up plans I called the guests only to find out one had a birthday that day and several were on the Interstate in the middle of a three-hour drive to get to Columbus just for the tour. The show MUST go on. I contacted Craig at Sideswipe Brewing to ask for a favor. Could he open an hour early for me and did he know a pizza place that delivered to his brewery. He had a few but mentioned that customers really seemed to like Sparanos. So that made my plan.

I called in the order, prepped my guide and joined to the group at Sideswipe to pay for the pizza and make sure all went well. While I did not have a chance to try the pizza it looked great. The guide said the group loved it and wanted more information on where they could find a location for more. This boded well so when I had a planned substitution for Smokehouse the following month, I decided to try the same plan again. However, my professional code of conduct dictated that I throughly sample Sparanos if I was going to intentionally feature them with Sideswipe.

On my first reach mission, I had a hard time finding the Sparano’s. It is tucked in the middle of a bargain built retail strip with a bar on one side, a gaming store on the other and minimal signage. It would be easy to drive by and never know it was there.

I tried a Meatball Sub and a medium pizza with pepperoni. Both exceeded expectations. The meatball sub featured very good (fresh, flavorful, probably house made) meatballs, tasty sauce and a perfectly toasted and fresh bun. The pizza was well-balanced. What caught my attention was the crust. The dough was cooked just right in the base and had just enough crispness in the outer crust ring.

As I was waiting for the order above, I noticed the place was pretty spartan, five or six small two top tables lining the edge of the kitchen. The walls displayed multiple 1st, 2nd and 3rd place banners for wins at Slice of Columbus competitions spanning over ten years. So it seemed other people liked this place too.

A delivery for a side project took me back to the same part of town the next week so I figured I would give Sparano’s another try on the fly. I was in a rush so I ordered a Heavy Duty Pizza instead of a Heavy Meat Pizza. The Heavy Duty is pepperoni, sausage, ham, mushrooms, onion, green peppers, banana peppers and extra cheese. Sparano’s is pretty serious about the Heavy Duty, they trademarked the term. The Heavy Meat (what I meant to order) is Pepperoni, ham, ground beef, sausage and extra cheese. So the two are not that different unless you are me. I hate green peppers and onions and I hate them the most when they are on a pizza.

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Having figured out my mess up after the pick up, I was mildly despondent. However, the sub I ordered cheered me up quickly. The Michael Angelo is Sparano’s special recipe sub and as my quick consumption confirmed it is also a work of art. I was not able to break the code of the special recipe but the sub had a great bun (once again), fresh ingredients and a lot of meat. Based on this one eating, I’m firmly convinced this sub is a firm tie for first with Susie’s Sub Shop as the best sub in town.

Now back to the Heavy Duty and the travails of my tasting preferences. I’m not sure how Sparano’s cooked the Heavy Duty but I suspect it is a two part process. It was incredibly easy for me to pick the onions and green peppers off of the pizza. They were barely integrated into the cheese, in most cases they just had a sear to them like something shish kabobed instead of the typical wilted vegetables that are so integrated into cheese that the cheese looses flavor as it merges withe the (wretched) flavor of green peppers and onions. Like playing doctor in the game operation I was able to remove the offending toppings with surgical precision and enjoy the my lightened version of the Heavy Duty. What really stood out to me among the remaining toppings was the sausage. It is perfectly cooked, neither over nor under done, had a balanced amount of spice and is loaded on in moderately bite sized pieces. I look forward to trying the Heavy Meat next time.

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On my way home from the second trip I took a different way home. I notice that Johnnie’s is almost right across the street from Sparano’s! And just over the train tracks and around the corner is Casa di Pizza. All three of these spots are located within a small section of town known as San Margherita. This area has a lot of history to offer and three great places to eat.

The proximity of these three businesses creates a great hobbit style triple lunch opportunity which in my case would be Sparano’s Michael Angelo sub with a 10 Inch Heavy Meat Pizza, a Johnnie’s Roast Beef sandwich and some ribs from Casa di Pizza all to consume at my leisure on top of Shrum Adena Mound. That would make for a great afternoon and a wonderful extended meal.

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Sparano's Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Posted in Best Pizza in Columbus, pizza, Sub Dude | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Yellow Brick’s “Tristanos” Deep Dish Pizza Test Drive

Posted by cmh gourmand on January 15, 2017

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There is no shortage of pizza options in Columbus but there is an absolute dearth of deep dish pizza of any quality grade. In the past I opined that only three were worth mentioning: Meister’s, Wholly Joe’s and Tristanos. As much as I love Meister’s, I had a very slight preference for Tristanos. Last year word came out that Lou Tristano had finally sold his business. It was long overdue, Lou makes great food but is/was a threat to himself and his employees operating a food based business.

I was sad to lose Lou and in my opinion (whether deep dish or not), one of the best pizza makers in Central Ohio. I then saw hints of a salvage operation by Yellow Brick Pizza to learn some of his Chicago based secrets of Lou before he passed the pizza peel to others. Facebook showed traces of Lou teaching Yellow Brickers how to make some of his recipes and by report the learning curve was looking good.

I don’t know when or if Yellow Brick may open a Grove City satellite in Tristanos old spot but when I saw they were offering Tristano’s Deep Dish as a special in Old Town East I knew I had an obligation to observe, investigate and act. I also think highly of Yellow Brick so I believed the Tristano’s legacy to be in good hands.

A few things you should consider before you do your own research. You can not pre-order this pizza. It will take at least 40 minutes to make – more if the place is remotely busy and a two topping Deep Dish pizza will knock you back $31.18.

The waiting is not such a bad thing, because it means someone is making it right. In order to be to objective as possible, I asked two research assistants to try a slice with me (after I fed them other pizza so hunger pangs would not influence their thoughts).

My crack team included Matt Prime. This was his opinion:

Rated it a solid 4 (on a scale of 5) noting: good crust and sauce that really complimented the spice in the sausage and a great cheese to toppings ratio. Easily one of the best Chicago pies I’ve had in Columbus in recent memory.

Also in the team was Mister Doctor who opined: Good pie Jefe.

I also brought a slice home to Mrs. Gourmand, while my two on site research assistants had never tried Tristanos, Mrs. Gourmand shared every Tristanos experience with me during my brief exile in Grove City. Her opinion was that it was good but she could detect significant differences in the sauce. Mrs. Gourmand is Italian and makes superior sauce. She also has an olfactory sense unparalleled by any other human. She can smell things that even my dog would miss. If she sniffed this out as not quite the original I will accept that as gospel.

Yellow Brick Tristanos Deep Dish Pizza

Now for my assessment. The visual presentation of the deep dish was on par with Tristanos. The slices were thick and pie like. There was a signature recurring twist in the crust ring and a foldover filled with a trace of cheese in the crust as it rises from the bottom to the top. The pepperoni were laid out in thick rows between the crust and the cheese. The pie was significantly cheesy with evidence of such presented below.

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Assessing flavor, taste, etc., based on a pizza recipe I had not had sampled in almost a year is tough but based on my memory I’d say the Yellow Brick interpretation of Tristanos is about 91% on target. Mulling over the experience for 24 hours, I believe part of the difference I noted was due to the toppings I chose. Lou made his own sausage which added a trace of spice to the mix that I doubt could be replicated by anyone else.

I also tried a slice of pizza the next day using the time-tested cold pizza test. That slice was also assessed be a very good pizza.

In recap, using subjective and objective methods as well as a team of tasters, I proclaim the Yellow Brick Tristano’s Deep Dish Pizza one of the top three of its type in Central Ohio.

Posted in Best Pizza in Columbus, pizza | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Grandview Theater – Get There

Posted by cmh gourmand on January 10, 2017

Grandview Theater

While this is and has always been a food first blog, this is not the first time I have written about a theater, nor the second nor the third. I have written about Studio 35 before, While not a food purveyor in any sense it has a long history as a local craft beer supporter and destination. So let’s do a recap on Studio 35 because it is the key to what makes the Grandview Theater tick.

In the world of megaplex movie theaters with multiple screens, extensive concessions, IMAX, 3D and other options it is hard for a neighborhood single screen theater with mo on site parking to survive. In fact most have not (nor have many drive in’s sustained either). The plucky Studio 35 continued on through the 80’s, 90’s and now in the 21st century looking for ideas to make the business responsive to the needs of the community. Owner Eric Brembeck took over the reigns after years of stewardship of Frank Marzetti and then John Conti. (Some historical notes: originally called the Indianola Theater when in opened in 1938, the name changed to Marzetti and then John Conti renamed it Studio 35 (because they showed 35mm films). Also of note, Studio 35 was the first movie theater in the nation to get a liquor license (in 1972).

Now that we have been through the wayback machine when Eric Brembeck took over the theater was still limping along so he and his team started to focus on what customers connected with – mainly craft beer and special events. The bar developed a reputation for a finely curated craft beer selection. In addition to movies paired with special beer tastings, Studio 35 started to develop other special events most notably the Dudeathon (a tribute to the film The Big Lebowski). And file under if you can’t beat them, join them, the theater invites the public to come watch OSU games for free.

The theater was renovated a few years ago to make the bar much bigger with more seating and tabs and to make everything much more comfortable.

Now that the back backstory is completed let’s finally talk about The Grandview Theater. I have a long relationship with this spot as well. It was favorite destination for me when it was a Drexel Theater. When the previous owners took over in 2012 (?) I met them while I was at ECDI and tried to brainstorm ideas to help them keep the theater afloat. Both owners worked all day and ran the theater all night but their passion for the art of movies did not balance out the demands of keeping their business sustainable while burning both ends of the candle. Enter new owner Eric Brembeck who thought he could take the Studio 35 model and adapt it to Grandview. His first step was to acquire something the theater lacked – a liquor permit. After he obtained that, a lot of demolition and construction later we have the new Grandview Theater.

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There is a lot to like. The layout of the space is fun and functional with plenty of movie posters and such to decorate the space. The bar is deep in seating and beer selection. While popcorn is the main attraction for on site food there is an array of different seasonings to sprinkle or smother on as you see fit. Pizza can be ordered in for delivery just like at Studio 35.

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Moving into the theater itself, the seats are wide, deep and comfortable with wide aisles between seats. There are tables at the top of the seating area so you can dine while enjoying the cinema. All in all everything works well and recreates the magic of Studio 35 using the same focus on connecting with the community and being a neighborhood hangout that just happens to have movies too. Here is where civic duty comes in. Independent businesses like this contribute to the character of our neighborhoods as well as our sense of community. If you want places like this to continue they have to survive and thrive so that they are not constantly trying to rub two pennies together to keep the marquee lit. All you need to do is drop in for a beer and/or a movie once in a while. The Grandview Theater has made this an inviting place do so. So, just do it.

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Rockmill Tavern in the Brewery District

Posted by cmh gourmand on December 29, 2016

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Rockmill Brewery opened to the public in Lancaster in September of 2010. I was there shortly thereafter in November of 2010. It is interesting to reflect how much the world and in particular my world has changed in the span of just six years. In the world of local craft beer, imagine if you will the thrill when Rockmill nudged central Ohio breweries closer to the number ten. At my last count, we can expect to see well over forty microbreweries in Central Ohio by spring.

With all of these changes afoot, owner Matt Barbee knew he needed to get a bigger footprint in the Columbus market and he realized the best way to do that was to establish a taproom(s). An attempt to open a location in German Village fizzled out but another location he had in the works in the Brewery District found some solid traction and uncommonly launched close to on time.

Rockmill Tavern opened it’s doors to the public at the end of October this year. This was pretty amazing turn around, the previous occupant, World of Beer closed without warning on October 31st 2015. Barbee had much of his attention devoted to making the prospective German Village location come together so the Brewery District tavern was fast tracked as the other project got sidelined. The space has a lot of history that fits well with his concept. The space was literally made for beer. The original occupant of these hallowed brick walls was Hoster Brewing Company. Up until 1919 this address on Front Street was part of one of the largest breweries in the state churning out up to 500,000 barrels of beer per year. Rockmill’s production is a bit below that number (by about 490,000 or so). The particular space the tavern fills was once part of a stable for 125 horses for Hoster Brewing. So it is fitting that Rockmill’s logo is that of a horse. This truly was a match that was meant to be.

I am excited about this development for many reasons. I have stayed in touch with Barbee since our first meeting years ago and have always been impressed by his vision and focus on how he wanted to grow the brewery and engage with the community. As for the Brewery District, I feel that the opening of Rockmill Tavern marks the official rebirth (3.0) of the Brewery District. If you are not a native of Columbus then you are probably not aware that the Brewery District was the place to be in the 1990’s. And in the early 2000’s it very quickly became the place to flee. A few businesses stuck it out and in the last year the area has seen a significant upswing with the success of Copious, Arepazo and other new hot spots.

The main downfall of the World of Beer location was a lack of food. Some failed attempts were made to try to coordinate with food trucks but those efforts were…uncoordinated. Barbee saw the potential in the space but knew the key was to squeeze in a kitchen to churn out something better than fried fare and wings if he wanted guests to stick around for more than one beer. He ensured a slam dunk for food by engaging great talent in both the front and the back of the tavern. In particular, Chef Andrew Smith, most often cited for his work at Salt and Pine but in my book, well respected for his work at the Rossi.

As for the food, they have nailed it. Open a short two months, I have seen Rockmill Tavern listed as the best new restaurant of 2016 as well as noted on the short list of best overall. Not bad considering they have just started cooking. I can only speak to the lunch menu but looking at dinner and brunch offerings I see nothing to fear in this line up. I shared lunch with a few members of the Columbus Ale Trail team and was lucky to be in the company of two young ladies that share the same affinity for Brussels sprouts and beets that I do.

I’ll start with the sprouts. While they seem to be ubiquitous to any new menu in town I rarely find them executed to my liking. Those that I sampled at Rockmill Tavern were cooking to my loving. The portion size was perfect. They had just a bit of char to them and a trace of carmelization. They tasted fresh and flavorful with just a hint of crunch and chewiness.

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Moving on along, the beet salad was a slam dunk. I don’t often fret about presentation but in the case of this salad it certainly looked good enough to eat but more importantly the layout of the ingredients made the salad easy to enjoy. The goat cheese was an ample portion and placed in such a way that I could easily control how much or how little I wanted with each bite. The beets themselves were cooked to pure perfection. I could not have been happier and I commit to ordering this salad whenever I am at Rockmill Tavern, even when I am not there to eat.

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Here is an insider tip. I usually don’t get excited about biscuits. In my world I associate them with breakfast more often that lunch, brunch or dinner. More importantly, I encounter bad biscuits 90% of the time. Finally, I found a biscuit worthy of this quote -> Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits. – Carl Sandburg. The addition of a bit of cheese and a lot of love has produced the finest biscuits in the city. And since readership of the blog is down, I am going to give my readers a little insider knowledge (but don’t spread this around). If you know Cheryl Harrison (and you probably should because she is a good idea) then you should know that she LOVES these biscuits. If she had her way, they might become a form of currency.

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And last, but not least, the Tavern burger – made from good ground beef and not dolled up too much but I did appreciate the ciabatta bun and the bacon jam. It continues along my burger mantra of keep it simple to make it special. A burger should just be a burger but most places threw this belief out the window years ago. Don’t pitch this burger, pinch it in your hands and hold on to it for dear life until you finish it.

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In conclusion, most importantly, I am very happy for Matt Barbee. The Rockmill Tavern is a place and space that truly reflects his passion(s), not just for beer but the design of the interior and the rugged feel it projects connects with both the history of the building and the history of his brewery. When I met him six years ago, I enjoyed a great afternoon at a time when I really needed to reconnect with the good things he had going on in Lancaster and I feel all of those elements have successfully landed in this Brewery District space. (And extraneous note, I am writing this piece sitting next to my co-pilot on that first Rockmill trip – my dog CMH Tobias). Go for the food and stay for the beer and equally important, stick around in the Brewery District and help rebuild the area, one beer or bite at a time.

Rockmill Tavern Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Posted in beer, restaurants | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »