My favorite Mexican restaurants are easily Nada in Cincinnati (http://wp.me/p3jVIR-5W) and the legendary duo of Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo and Frontera Grill in Chicago (http://wp.me/s3jVIR-235). There are, of course, a myriad of Mexican restaurants, ranging from the gourmet establishments that I just mentioned to the most simple and authentic little holes in the wall, with varying degrees of success. I just reviewed one in the middle of that range called Riviera Maya in Indianapolis (http://wp.me/p3jVIR-6Q) that was pretty good, and I am staying in the same middle ground with my latest review, Chuy’s (http://www.chuys.com/) in Cincinnati. Ok, it’s technically Tex-Mex, but you get my point.
Located in the old Chi-nnati’s Pizza (one of the most underrated places I’ve ever eaten, by the way. The crust was a clone of Gino’s East in Chicago and the quality was very close), this place is huge. We went in fairly early, around 5:00 pm on the day before New Year’s Eve (which was a Monday). It was already starting to fill up, and as soon as I walked in both my wife and I were amazed at how much the place had been changed since it was Chi-nnati’s. It was divided up into different rooms (a weakness of the old place, actually, as it was almost too large before) and the décor has completely changed. Mexican tiles all over the place, including the ceiling, and completely different furniture and colors. I think they even changed the booths! Add in some pictures of Elvis and you have a kitschy place that you kind of have to love. There was music playing in the background, mostly 80’s and 90’s music, to liven the place up and the wait staff was very friendly and lively. Since we arrived during happy hour (4-7 M-F), there was a chips and salsa bar that also included queso, refried beans, and taco meat located in the back of an old car (fake, of course). What was great is that the chips and salsa bar was in the actual bar of the restaurant, which was very quickly filling up with locals (mostly women, actually) drinking margaritas (which are quite good, by the way) and seemingly having a good time.
As I alluded to earlier, the wait staff seemed friendly and ours was no different, although he did seem a bit awkward at times. However, he gave a great effort to be upbeat and on the ball, recommending the Perfect Margarita (which while these were not as good as the Bayless or Nada selections, was still an awesome margarita) and encouraging us to hit the free chips and salsa bar.
The menu was fairly big but not too large…smaller than most “more authentic” Mexican places, actually. The menus include such things as burritos, tacos, house specialties (such as chicken flautas), enchiladas, fajitas, and combos of the above. Both my wife and I decided to go with combos…she ordered Combo #1, the Comida Deluxe (cheese Tex-Mex enchiladas, chicken flautas, a seasoned ground sirloin crispy taco, guacamole, and homemade tostada chips dipped in chile con queso). I decided on the combo #5, the Chalupa and Enchilada (The first item is the Chicken Chalupa, which is a homemade corn tortilla fried and topped with refried beans, cheese, freshly-roasted, hand-pulled chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, and jalapenos. The second item was the Deluxe Chicken enchilada, which has freshly-roasted, hand-pulled chicken and cheese with deluxe tomatillo sauce). OK, that was a lot of words to type describing the two combos, and it’s how it was described on the menu. It’s pretty precise, though…the food is solid if unspectacular. Not as heavy as the more traditional Mexican restaurants, not as good as the gourmet ones. The chicken was pretty good…as described, white meat and a good amount of it. The ground sirloin was also good, didn’t seem overly greasy. The tortillas were good (my wife ordered her enchilada with a flour tortilla rather than a corn like mine had, and hers was better than mine) as well.
Overall, it’s solid, fun, and not too expensive. Our two combos plus my margarita was a “whopping” $25 and change including tax, although the margarita was $4 off because of happy hour (normally $8.95). For the price it’s a great option and a pretty fun evening.
Typically when my wife and I drive to Iowa to visit her family for Christmas, we’ll stop halfway on the way out to have dinner at a small-town Mexican restaurant and stay the night at a motel before continuing on the following morning. This year we went to Chicago first (and ate at Girl and the Goat! – http://wp.me/p3jVIR-6D), so we didn’t do our normal practice. However, on the way home, we stopped by Riviera Maya (http://www.rivieramayabarandgrillindy.com/) in Indianapolis.
When we first walked in, we were kind of blown away by the just complete over-done décor. From a faux well in the middle of the dining floor (taking away precious seating) to the random hanging wagon wheel and door with a small porch high up on a wall, along with tons of stonework and colorful Mexican art…this place is crazy. Add in a live one-man band featuring two straight songs by Allison Kraus, along with Of Monsters and Men, Gnarles Barkley (an acoustic rendition of “Crazy”), and what I believe was this guy’s version of Guns ‘N Roses’ “Civil War” and you’ve got yourself a night. Actually, I kind of loved it. When do you get this kind of craziness at a Mexican restaurant?
The menu was pretty typical for a Mexican restaurant. Other than the décor, it could have been any of those small-town Mexican restaurants that I mentioned at the beginning of the review. We started out with chips, salsa, and queso dip. The chops were a bit thick and the salsa tasted like it was from a can. The queso was standard but pretty good…not too thick, not too thin or runny. Better than the salsa.
For dinner, my wife ordered the beef tacos (3 hard shell tacos with ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese with a side of Mexican rice and refried beans) and I had the Burrito Gigante (a 10” flour tortilla stuffed with spicy chicken, rice, and beans then covered with cheese sauce; topped with lettuce, sour cream, shredded cheese, tomato, and guacamole). The tacos were pretty good, but standard. Nothing to really describe…the most normal taco you can imagine. My burrito was solid…the chicken was white meat and well shredded. The rice was well cooked and while the guac was nothing special, it added a nice flavor to the dish. I’d recommend it as a good choice if you stop here.
Overall, I’d recommend it. Fair prices, good service, and a wild atmosphere (I did enjoy the decorations and live music!) made for a good time. Basically, it’s standard Mexican done with style.
My wife and I love “Top Chef.” As big time lovers of food and dining out, it’s our favorite reality show to watch together. Most of the contestants are from the coasts…NYC, Boston, LA, and San Francisco (although one of our very own, Megan Ketover from Orchids at Palm Court (http://wp.me/p3jVIR-50) was on “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”). However, Chicago has been the one Midwestern city with contestants, and even had a winner: Stephanie Izard. She won Season 4, and was the first and only female winner until Season 10. Her first restaurant, Girl & the Goat (http://www.girlandthegoat.com/), opened to very positive reviews, and it made us very excited to try it out.
Our initial visit was over President’s Day weekend in 2013. Because we went on a holiday weekend (really, any weekend is tough), we could not get a reservation. So, we decided to just show up at 4:30pm when they open to try our luck. Being that no one under 70 years old likes to eat at 4:30 pm (to be fair, it’s 5:30 Cincinnati time, so that’s not as bad), we got in pretty quick ahead of the 6:00 pm reservations. We had a fantastic experience. Great ambiance, great service, great food. Unfortunately, I was not writing this food blog at the time, so I did not take pictures or document my experience.
Fortunately for us all, we decided to make another trip to Chicago the weekend before Christmas in 2013. We did the same drill…arrive at 4:30 and get seated before the 6:00 reservations. The building itself is nothing special. A bit outside of the main Downtown area, there are no other hot spots that we noticed (the bar near it is not very good at all). However, that ceases to matter once you walk in. The interior is very warm, with lots of wood and high ceilings. There is a bar on the left, and the kitchen is pretty open in the back of the restaurant. We got seated at one of the social tables, where 7 people including us were seated. None of our dining neighbors were very social, unfortunately (yes, Chicago does seem to lack the Midwestern friendliness of other cities in this part of the country). Even more unfortunately, the server was not all that friendly or descriptive either. Our first server back in February was not only friendly, but described the food and had a plan on when to bring the dishes out. This guy had none of that, and just sort of brought things out in the order we ordered them. Too bad, he really should have been better with food of this caliber.
There is a craft drink menu and of course wine and beer. Unfortunately, there are only a small handful of draft beers, which was disappointing, and the bottled beers were $7-$9 each. Too bad, good draft beer pairs well with this kind of food. We ordered the Goat Blue! focaccia bread (with fig butter and fennel-onion jam) and goat
empanadas (marinated sheep feta, picked golden beets, tzatziki) to start. The bread was a bit less warm than I had hoped, but was still very good, and the butter and jam were great. The empanadas were excellent. The feta and tzatziki complimented the empanadas very well, and the goat meat was fantastic.
The entrée menu is separated into 3 main parts: vegetables, fish, and meats. They are small plates meant to be shared. We ordered the Squash Wontons (with mushroom ragout), Sugo (pappardelle, rosemary, cape gooseberries), and lamb ribs (with marcona almond chopped salad and yogurt jus). The wontons were great…well cooked, the squash was the perfect consistency, and the mushrooms were fantastic as well. The Sugo (which generally means “sauce” in Italian) was probably the best of the three entrées. The tomato based sauce consisted of a blend of goat, beef, and pork. It covered very well cooked pappardelle pasta, and the added gooseberries added sweetness to the dish that made it work very well. The lamb ribs were very well cooked, and the rub on them was amazing. However, they were just too fatty for me to really thoroughly enjoy. I spent more time picking fat off of my meat than actually eating it. Plus, by the time I took the meat from the fat, there wasn’t really all that much meat anyway. That said, what was there was delicious. While I’ve eaten a lot of lamb in my life, I’ve never eaten lamb ribs, so I’m not sure if it’s a dish typically this fatty.
Overall, this is a great restaurant. However, I’d definitely say that our first visit was more enjoyable than our second visit. Great service makes for a much better experience, and our server was way better the first go-round. I’d like to think that the service is typically more like the first experience than the second, but perhaps we’ll have to go a third time to find out. Either way, the food was top notch on both visits. I’d highly recommend it if you are in Chicago.
I usually don’t like to review chains…and that’s because most chains just aren’t very good. I do, however, make exceptions for certain ones. I enjoy Yard House (http://wp.me/p3jVIR-3R), and Mitchell’s Fish Market (http://www.mitchellsfishmarket.com/) is another one I’ve always liked. It’s been at Newport on the Levee forever…since the Levee first opened in 2001. Mitchell’s is a somewhat upscale (casually elegant?) seafood restaurant that sits on the banks of Newport, Kentucky with one of the best views you could have of the Cincinnati skyline. I’ve had some great times eating there, with friends, family, and dates with my wife. As a matter of fact, my wife and I had our first date there, following a great time at the Funny Bone comedy club, so this place has a special place in my heart and always will.
When you first walk in, you can’t help but notice the nice bar on the left of the entrance. Looking in at the dining area, it’s a spacious room with a couple of dividers, but large and opened up for the most part. There is a lot of dark wood for the furniture and lower part of the walls, with lighter colors on the ceiling and upper part of the walls. Large windows which bright it up and afford some diners some wonderful views of Downtown Cincinnati complete the look, and it’s really nice, actually. There is some outdoor dining, both in the front with a view of the Levee plaza so you can people watch, and in the back where you can relax with the city and river view.
Unlike most chains, the food is where it’s at here. On this particular visit, my mother in law, wife, and myself sat on the back patio area with the river view. As always, we started with their sourdough bread, which is lightly buttered and always soft and perfectly warmed. My mother in law had the Cedar Plank Salmon (balsamic glazed and oven roasted, grilled zucchini and peppers, sautéed asparagus, sun-dried tomato pesto and goat cheese) and my wife had the Chesapeake Bay Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes (Our signature recipe, smashed redskin potatoes, sweet corn sauté). Both were really good and the crab cakes actually consisted of mostly crab, which is shocking at some places. Even the smashed potatoes were good, and definitely not a forgotten side dish. In general, the fish is really good. I’m particular to the Chilean Sea Bass (certified sustainable, of course!) prepared Shanghai Style (steamed with ginger and scallions, served with sticky rice, sesame spinach, and rice wine soy sauce). As usual, that is what I ordered and was very pleased with it. Actually, throughout my many visits to Mitchell’s, I don’t remember ever having a bad meal. I’ve had the Surf and Turf (surprisingly good steak, by the way), Mahi Mahi, and several other types of fish and have always enjoyed what I ordered. Their wonderful Sharkfin Pie (Butter fudge ice cream, honey roasted peanuts, fudge, peanut butter, Oreo cookie crust) is out of control and simply amazing.
Overall, I’d say this is the place to go if you want seafood in Cincinnati. McCormick and Schmick’s on Fountain Square is pretty good, but I’d go with Mitchell’s without a doubt. Don’t let that it’s a (small) chain turn you off…this is a quality place and I’d highly recommend it.
I mean, do I really even need to review this? Who hasn’t been to Terry’s Turf Club by now? Who hasn’t enjoyed what was named the best burger in Ohio by Food Network? Who hasn’t taken their “standard” burger, which is amazing with just lettuce, tomato, ketchup and mustard, and decided to go nuts and put a lump crab cake on? Maybe some avocado? Or some Gouda cheese? Why not go with some Italian Proulone cheese with truffle oil? That’s the beauty of this place. You can get as simple or as complex a burger as you so choose.
But before you even get to that part, you can’t help but be a bit blown away by the atmosphere. As you arrive at Terry’s, located on Eastern Avenue not far down from Bella Luna, the décor certainly jumps out at you. Huge neon signs greet you on your way in, and the kitschy style continues inside with all kinds of beer and other fairly random signs. The wait staff is typically very friendly, especially at the bar. You even get peanuts to munch on while you wait. And yes, the wait can be a bit on the weekends, but it’s always worth it.
So, the question is, are we looking at a restaurant that is just weird for show and is riding on its episode of “Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives?” Absolutely not! I love hamburgers. There are some other really good burgers in Cincinnati (The Rookwood (http://wp.me/p3jVIR-2F) immediately comes to mind), but this is the absolute king. The meat is thick, juicy, and almost always perfectly cooked. The bun tastes great and the toppings are second to none. And they even have a great beer selection so you can enjoy a beer (or three) with your date/friends/family and a phenomenal burger.
The visit that I’m basing this review on was with an out of town friend and my wife. We started with the mozzarella roll (with homemade pesto and sundried tomato puree), and then each ordered a burger. My wife ordered a classic burger with just cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onions. My friend ordered a crazy amount of toppings…a lump crab cake, mushrooms, bacon, and several other things I can’t even remember at this point. I ordered one with avocado and a Portobello mushroom. All three were amazing, and I’m still not sure how my friend managed to get all of that burger in his mouth. The thing must have been half a foot tall. The three of us also ordered fries, which are pretty good but not at the same level as the burger and its toppings. That said, still worth the order and better than most places.
I’ll keep it simple…this is the best burger I’ve ever had. This place actually out-performs the hype. In addition to having the best burger I’ve experienced, the atmosphere is fun, the toppings are great, and the drinks flow smoothly. Go eat there as soon as you can…you’ll want to go back daily.
One of the first restaurants in The Gateway Quarter, Over the Rhine’s development on Vine Street, was Senate (http://www.senatepub.com). It seems like it opened forever ago, but it was in 2010 when this upscale street food eatery was established. I’ve personally never been a hot dog lover. I mean, they’re ok, but given the choice I’ll choose a burger every time. And then I ate at Senate.
First, a little background: Chef and owner Daniel Wright (of 2012 James Beard Award winning fame) owns both Senate and Abigail Street, which is next door to Senate and offers higher-end modern Middle Eastern (which is amazing, but that is for another review). Although many new restaurants in OTR have opened up since Senate has, it’s still almost always crowded. Be it on a snowy Wednesday night in the January, or an August Saturday at lunch, there is almost always a crowd.
The main draw to Senate are his hot dogs, but they also server hamburgers, mussels, poutine, roasted marrow bones, sandwiches, steak, scallops, and duck fat or truffle (amazing!) fries. So, there is plenty to eat if you don’t want a hot dog. However, these aren’t just any hot dogs. These are serious…from the “Korean” (homemade kimchi, braised short rib, pickled cucumber, brioche bun) to the “Lindsey Lohan” (goat cheese, caramelized onions, bacon, arugula, and balsamic) to the classic “Chicago” (tomatoes, mustard, onion, neon relish, sport peppers, pickle, and celery salt), all of them are awesome. They also have a “Dog of the Day,” which obviously varies. My wife and I both had the “Dog of the Day” on this particular Saturday, which was the “Thomas Gibson” (chipotle crème fresh, house made guacamole, braised short rib, cilantro, and queso fresco on a brioche bun). It was awesome. And while my carb-fearing wife got it without a bun, it was awesome both with and without the bun. Funny enough, a guy sitting next to us at the bar also ordered one without the bun after seeing how good my wife’s order looked.
As mentioned, we sat at the bar as all of the tables were full on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. While they don’t have a huge selection of beer, it’s good enough and features choices that range from local to world-wide. There’s also a pretty nice cocktail list. My wife went with a glass of limoncello while I ordered a Rhinegeist “Truth IPA,” which is brewed in OTR. The limoncello was fantastic, some of the best we’ve tasted (including Italy, from where it originates). Our bartender was great, too…pretty attentive even though it was quickly getting busy, yet made just enough conversation to make us feel welcome while not distracting us from our food or each other. Plus, he gave us a small glass of a “Fidel Castro” (bourbon barrel aged spiced rum, maple syrup, angostura and orange bitters, burnt orange) to try. Not only was it a very well made drink he gave it to us without us even asking.
Overall, I love eating at Senate. Plus, it’s not too expensive. While $9-$10 seems like a lot for a hot dog, it’s more of a very high quality beef sausage. Plus, the toppings like the short rib and guacamole are both high quality and plentiful…you won’t be eating the hot dog with your hands. It’s a knife and fork style meal, and is large enough to be a full entrée. Ten bucks for an entrée in the city is hard to find. A negative, if you want to be picky, is that Senate gets very crowded very quickly…and really this both works for and against it. Being always full, it obviously creates demand. You want to be a part of this energetic crowd. However, it’s a small place and gets very tight. You will feel a bit crowded sitting at the bar or on the walkway side of the tables. But honestly, it’s never bugged me. Most of the Vine Street restaurants are very narrow and go pretty deep back. It’s just the style of buildings that they have to deal with. I’ve pretty much always enjoyed my time at Senate. And while there is almost always a wait, I’ll give you some advice: check in and then go across the street to wait at the 1215 Wine Bar and Coffee Lab, where Senate (or any of the other restaurants) will call you when your table is ready. It’s another awesome place in OTR and a great place to hang out and have a drink while waiting for your dinner.
Some restaurants are simply more than the sum of its parts. Pirates Cove (http://piratescovecincy.com/) is one of those. Most every “part” of Pirates Cove is either average or below average. Maybe even bad. But somehow, I always enjoy this place.
First, the good. Located at the Four Seasons Marina on the East Side of Cincinnati (not far from Riverbend), if you were dropped off blind-folded, you may think you were transported to Florida. The restaurant/bar is literally located on the marina, between a ton of mostly large and expensive boats. There’s a bar along with a stage for live music (which is almost always taking place). All around the two main attractions, tons of seats and tables allow you to both watch the music and take in a view of the inlet from the Ohio River and watch the boats come in and out. There’s even a sandy area in between the stage and the bar, helping it even more to have a very laid back feel. As a matter of fact, it’s just down the ramp from the Sandbar and 7 sand volleyball courts (which, by the way, is where I met my wife). There’s always a good mix of the boat owners and after-work “athletes” drinking, eating, and having a good time.
Now, the bad. The food is just not great. Mostly bar food like shrimp, burgers, and wraps, the selections are fairly normal. They’ve even recently added flatbreads. However, none of it is as good as you can get at other bars. Although we’ve eaten a few different entrées, on this visit my wife had the Sautéed Grouper Tacos (soft tacos with seasoned grouper, fresh avocados, lettuce, tomato, cheddar jack cheese, and Island Mango sauce) and I ordered the Cove Big Dog (quarter pound grilled Nathan’s all beef hot dog on a pretzel bun with onion, tomatoes, and banana peppers). The tacos were decent…a little too fishy and more cheese than anything else. For $13.50, you are MUCH better off eating the tacos at Nada or Bakersfield, which are both 100 times better. My hot dog was actually pretty good. The pretzel bun was nice, and the hot dog itself was quality for a hot dog. No, it wasn’t Senate, but it was good. My side of black beans and rice that came with the hot dog was decent as well. There are a few beers on draft, but nothing crazy. Sam Adams and the generic domestics made up most of the selections.
Obviously, whatever, you order here will take you far away from a healthy diet. But hey, it literally feels like you are miles away from real life and work at this place so why not eat like you’re on vacation? And really, that’s why I said it was greater than the sum of its. Like I said, the food is overpriced and not great and the beer selection is limited, but it’s just…fun. Live music, great atmosphere, and fantastic memories of playing volleyball followed by walking down the ramp to Pirates Cove for beers make it worth hitting up when you want to get away for a couple of hours. Plus, it’s a great place to have a pre-concert drink before heading to Riverbend.