"What is your favorite restaurant?" was the question posed to me recently. You'd think the answer would come easily for a food blogger, immediately. It didn't. I stared at her blankly a few seconds, my eyes piercing through her skull, as though the answer could be found somewhere on the back of her head.
I stalled, managing a weak and predictable, "Jeez, there are so many, I'm not sure I could narrow it down..." reply. My heart began beating rapidly. A bead of sweat formed somewhere just above my right temple, threatening to roll down for all to see.
"Well, how about just in Cincinnati?" she helped, yet still I wavered. How does one exactly define "favorite?" Am I overthinking this? How much beer had I drunk? Should I have more? It really sucks that Harry Morgan just died. I wonder if anyone else at this table remembers M.A.S.H. Mash. Mashed potatoes. I really like mashed potatoes. But I can't think of a restaurant that serves really good ones. Am I still fumbling over this question? "Mule fritters!" Wait, did I just say that out loud?
Whenever I'm asked this question, a voice tells me the person is expecting an answer they'd never considered, something off-the-wall, something profound. They are not looking for me to say, "I really like how multidimensional a Skyline cheese coney can be."
Later, after I had time to ponder my Cincinnati favorites, I realized it wasn't necessarily the restaurant I loved per se but a very specific dish served there. It was something I ordered consistently, repeatedly. And so...
Here are some of my favorite Cincinnati dishes (in no particular order):
Hongos Tacos at La MexicanaLa Mexicana
642 Monmouth St
Newport, KY 41071
These simple mushroom tacos are as tasty as they are addictive. I typically order three tacos at a time at La Mexicana: either two hongos tacos and an al pastor, or two al pastors and an hongos, depending on my mood. It's the rich, fresh mushroom flavor, the hand-made corn tortillas and just the right amount of onion and cilantro that make this so memorable. Wash it all down with a Mexican Coke and it's the kind of meal a convicted killer would ask for on injection day.
Lamb Vindaloo and Kashmiri Naan at DusmeshDusmesh
944 Ludlow Ave.
Cincinnati, OH 45220
You've had Naan before, but probably not like Kashmiri Naan. It's filled with nuts, coconut and dried fruit, lending a blissful sweet/salty compliment to any dish. Coupled with the Vindaloo's spicy-sauced, tender lamb and potatoes, you've got a meal that an Indian convicted killer...
Dolsot Bibimbap at Sung Korean BistroSung Korean Bistro
700 Elm St.
Cincinnati, OH 45202
Cincinnati is truly blessed to have so many Asian restaurants serving really good Bibimbap. Riverside Korean, Asiana Korean (in West Chester), Suzie Wong's, The Painted Fish and Korea House all produce pretty memorable ones. But the one version of Dolsot Bibimbap I most often crave can be found at Sung Korean Bistro. Served in a very hot stone bowl, the pleasing variety of vegetables, perfectly seasoned Bulgogi beef, fried egg and crusty rice made crispy from the heat of the bowl make this dish one of the heartiest comfort foods you'll find in the city.
Salmon patties, poached eggs and home fries at Sugar N' SpiceSugar N' Spice
4381 Reading Rd.
Cincinnati, OH 45229
For more than 70 years, Sugar N' Spice has been the diner of choice for many a Cincinnatian looking for a great, hearty breakfast. Their huge, Chipotle burrito-sized omelettes are legendary; however, if a gun were put to my head and I had to choose one thing off their menu to exclusively order, it'd be the salmon patties, served with two eggs and a choice of potatoes or grits and toast. There are just too many fond childhood memories tied up in those salmon patties for me not to love them, with their crispy outside and melt-in-your mouth inner core. Slap their tops with a little bit of ketchup and you've got yourself one of the few bright points of my childhood.
Tsebhi Beghie, Hiwswas at EmanuEmanu
6063 Montgomery Rd
Cincinnati, OH 45213
What did he just say? Tsebhi, who? It can all be found at the East African restaurant, Emanu. If you like eating with your hands and sopping up meaty juices with bread, you may like Emanu. Most people either hate or love Injera, the flat, spongy traditional bread of the Ethiopian region. Food arrives resting on this bread, and several rolls of it are also served on the side. Tear off a piece and use it to cover, grab and pick up morsels off the plate.
The Tsebhi Beghie, aka "Beg Watt," is lamb simmered in a spice-laden red pepper sauce. Hiwswas is a combination of vegetarian dishes, including spiced collard greens; yellow and red lentils; and a side of carrots and beans. The whole interactive, sharing experience usually leaves us quite full and quite giddy. The best part? After eating all the items off the plate, you're left with the underlying Injera bread, which has been soaking up all those tasty juices.
"Elvis" Gelato at Europa Bistro & CafeEuropa Bistro & Cafe
616 Main St.
Covington, KY 41011
This little Covington gem is one of our all-around favorite restaurants in the area. If you walk into the place for the first time, you may not realize it's anything more than a small deli; there's no overt seating in the front room, just a long row of glass display cases. Rest assured there's a full dining room in the rear, with a menu the Europa owners update weekly. We've never had a bad or even so-so meal there, and their rotating varieties of fresh gelato are a must. Their "Elvis" gelato: chocolate, peanut butter and banana, is among our favorite flavors.
Oyster Po-Boy at New Orleans to GoNew Orleans to Go
Food truck - various locations
One of my favorite food trucks in the area, New Orleans to Go offers authentic Cajun and creole cuisine, with bold flavors and even bolder portion sizes. They don't often have it on the regular menu due to sourcing and costs, but when they do offer the Oyster Po-Boy, it's like a piece of heaven took up residence in my mouth. The oysters are fried with a crispy, light-tasting batter, served on a crusty, yet delightfully chewy baguette bread, finished with just the right ratio of tomato, lettuce and mayo. The oysters have a clean, earthy flavor that evoke rushes of happy New Orleans memories.
There are plenty of other area favorites I could list and perhaps, in time, I will. But I hope this helps answer one of the top questions I always seem to struggle with off-the-cuff.