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Cincinnati Bites
Grilled Cheese Sandwich from Cafe De Wheels

Posted Sunday, December 14, 2014

2014 was the "Year of The Meatball" in Cincinnati. Two area restaurants open since January devote their menus to the delicious orbs: Meatball Kitchen, located in Short Vine, and Packhouse Meats, located in Newport, Kentucky.

Meatballs are a wondrous invention. If my conscience were more accommodating, I'd eat meatball subs every other day of the week. Instead, the round delicacies, often soaked in a pool of rich tomato sauce, only serve to mock me.

"You're six-foot-one and weigh 214 pounds, fatass," they sing and wiggle in cheerful unison, "eat us, if you dare!" The guilt usually gets the better of me and I end up ordering something less satisfying and boring, like a turkey sandwich.

We had enjoyed our first taste of Meatball Kitchen a number of months ago, and were eager to experience what Packhouse Meats had to offer. Packhouse is located on Monmouth Street near the 10th Street intersection, serving as the southern-most bookend to the many restaurants on the street, including Mad Mike's, La Mexicana, Pepper Pod and Mokka.

Meatballs are called "packs" here, as in "hand-packed meats." There are at least six varieties to choose from, including one or two vegetarian options. Packs can be ordered on sub sandwiches, in a bowl or served individually as sliders. They can even be topped on one of six chopped salads. Ice cream, fresh-baked cookies and floats are also available.

We admired the residual old-timey charm of the vintage building, with exposed brick, a rickety old wooden floor and high, tin ceilings. Many of the walls are covered with blackboard sporting various customer shout-outs and promotions scrawled in chalk, as well as the latest menu specials and beer lists. A garage door opens up the main dining room to the air outside during warmer seasons.

The menu itself is a bit confusing for first-timers. Armed with an erasable marker and a menu card, patrons complete a three-step process, which includes picking a packed meat, selecting from one of six gravies, then choosing to enjoy the meatballs in a bowl, on a salad or as a sandwich/slider. There are subcategories of choices depending on what is chosen in step three: bowls can include sides of pasta, polenta, mashed potatoes, spinach and several other vegetables. Sandwiches can be an 8-inch baguette, open faced focaccia or sliders. An additional grid for ordering multiple sliders of various types and meats makes the process even more dizzying.

The wait staff are well-versed in guiding inexperienced customers through the process, though I can't help but wonder if Packhouse would be better off abandoning the whole "pick everything" idea and sticking with popular, pre-selected menu options. Sometimes it's just easier on the brain to point to a numbered item and say, "I want this one."

Another curious aspect of Packhouse is their "no-tipping" policy. Customers are treated to full table service, yet they are discouraged from leaving tips. Instead, the company pays the staff $10 an hour, or 20% of their sales, whichever is higher. This is marketed as a win-win, encouraging the staff to sell more while improving business. Customers pay slightly more for their food up front instead of leaving a tip. The idea seems compelling, though I felt a bit awkward not leaving something.

Beef meatball slider with hunter gravy and buffalo chicken slider Beef meatball slider with hunter gravy and buffalo chicken slider
Quinoa meatball bowl with polenta and marinara Quinoa meatball bowl with polenta and marinara

My girlfriend ordered the Quinoa and Vegetable Pack bowl: three vegetarian meatballs served atop a side of creamy polenta and smothered in marinara "gravy." I chose three sliders: the buffalo chicken; the beef topped with hunter gravy; and a pork slider topped with marinara.

The quinoa/vegetable "meatball" exhibited a pleasingly toasty, outer crunchiness with a soft core, a textural quality we found particularly enjoyable paired with the polenta. The house marinara was assertive but not overly spicy. The accompanying breadstick in my girlfriend's dish was excessive and ignored.

While my sliders were all satisfying, the beef with hunter gravy was the clear stand-out. What is hunter gravy? It's a rich, meaty brown sauce with bits of mirepoix: onions, celery and carrots. The flavor seemed to draw from all the high points of Thanksgiving, infused in one gravy. The pork slider with marinara was passable, but I would have liked the mild pork meatball to be more akin to a spicy sausage. The buffalo sauce with bits of blue cheese hit all its hallmark notes, and the chicken meatball was not dry as feared. The slider buns were soft and pillowy, but didn't stand up well to some of the looser sauces.

Despite some minor shortcomings, Packhouse Meats showcases some inventive, versatile uses of the meatball and is a tasty addition to a Newport street teeming with popular restaurants.

Packhouse Meats on Urbanspoon
Packhouse Meats

Price: Moderately Expensive ($11 - $16 per person)
Service: Good
Rating: 3.03.0 stars






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Ratings Legend
four stars = Outstanding
three stars = Good
two stars = Fair
one star = Poor
  • From susan about Parkside Cafe:
    I eat there twice a week/carry out. the breakfast is great and, the goetta is the best in the area. I get egg whites scrambled with veggies and ham. They have good health options if you ask. best breakfast in WH
    posted: Thu., Nov 20th, 2014 @ 5:56 PM
  • From Sheila Adcox about Marion's Piazza:
    Love both Cassano's and Marions. Live in Melbourne Florida now and they don't have a clue how to make a pizza here. When ever I go home I make it a point to go to both places. Wish someone here would open a chain with crispy crust. Here it is thick crust and YUK
    posted: Thu., Jul 31st, 2014 @ 10:59 PM
  • From T. Staggs about Remezo Greek Cuisine:
    I think you got the review about right. My wife and I really enjoyed Remeos. I have tried several Greek restraunts here since I enjoyed the food in Greece. In our area, I find this one to be the best so far. It is too bad you did not try the rizogato ( rice pudding) ... it was great
    posted: Tue., Jul 15th, 2014 @ 5:59 AM
  • From Eric about Buona Terra:
    Thanks so much for this review! We are having a Gelato Donut Sandwich event with Holtman's at our shop on June 7th in Mount Lookout Square. We would love if you could come. See facebook for more details!!
    posted: Fri., May 30th, 2014 @ 10:10 AM
  • From Jessica about Incline Public House:
    I've only been once, last year for brunch, you can see my post here: http://dissolvedintosomething.blogspot.com/2013/05/incline-public-house-brunch-review.html
    I've heard their pizzas are quite good as well. I need to get back there and try it for lunch or dinner, and sit on the deck this time!
    posted: Mon., May 5th, 2014 @ 8:08 AM
  • From paul about Elephant Walk Injera & Curry House:
    Actually teff does have gluten, however the gluten in teff does not contain the a-gliadin-fraction that causes a reaction in those with celiac disease.
    posted: Thu., May 1st, 2014 @ 11:49 AM
  • From Barby about Hot Head Burritos:
    I disagree...I love the weird sauce AND the price is definitely good....excellent store made chips available, too. They are offering shrimp now.

    I will admit I usually get the veggie burrito, so maybe the meat could use some help.
    posted: Tue., Apr 29th, 2014 @ 4:32 PM
  • From Tom about Delhi Palace:
    Agree with your take on this place. Nice variety on the buffet, owners aim to please, great location. Was quite full for lunch on our visit. Hoping this one is a keeper!
    posted: Fri., Apr 18th, 2014 @ 10:44 PM
  • From Cincinnati Bites about Elephant Walk Injera & Curry House:
    Great advice, Rhapsody. Thanks for the education!
    posted: Sun., Apr 6th, 2014 @ 7:58 PM
  • From Rhapsody about Elephant Walk Injera & Curry House:
    Teff is gluten free, however most injera in this country also has wheat flour and sometimes other flours, such as barley, which are not gluten free. You should ask any restaurant if they have "teff only" injera if you have a gluten sensitivity.
    posted: Sun., Apr 6th, 2014 @ 8:21 AM
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