2013 was a disappointing year on many fronts, from the botched HealthCare.gov website roll-out, to the confounding behaviors of both a crack-smoking Toronto mayor and a streetcar-hating Cincinnati mayor. In the spirit of this and all obligatory end-of-year top 10 lists, I bring you my 10 biggest restaurant disappointments of 2013. They aren't necessarily bad restaurants, but our experiences do underscore how a single encounter can leave a lasting, negative impression.
Red Sesame Korean BBQDowntown (food truck)
Cincinnati, OH 45202
The L.A. taco scene enjoys a lot of national news thanks to the success of Kogi, a Korean/Mexican fusion food truck operation peddling $2.25 tacos, $6 burritos and gigantic, $6 kimchi quesadillas. Red Sesame is Cincinnati's answer to Kogi. For me, it's the wrong answer. They charge $3 a taco and $7 for their signature burrito. I paid an outrageous $8 for their "combo," which consisted of two emaciated tacos semi-filled with a few bits of meat and lettuce abutting a small flour tortilla with a fine film of meat and cheese halved and slathered in a sauce weakly resembling watered-down Sriracha. The $8 price tag begs the question: since when is Cincinnati's cost of living higher than L.A.'s?
Kitchen 4522714 Woodburn Ave
Cincinnati, OH 45206
Heralded as a step in the right direction for East Walnut Hills' revitalization, Kitchen 452 promises a charming seasonal menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and sweets. Indeed, their regular menu highlighting Shadeau Bread and fresh, locally-sourced produce, is intriguing. Unfortunately, our sole visit didn't leave a great impression and discouraged us from returning. We'd admittedly tried the place during a pottery fair, a day that, unbeknownst to us, meant they were serving only $11 "box lunches" containing a limited selection of sandwiches, a small side of orzo pasta, a handful of pita chips and a lemon shortbread cookie. Very few sandwiches can live up to a hefty $11 price point and –surprise— this was no exception (the sandwiches by themselves average $8). The orzo pasta was bland, the pita chips no more spectacular than any other, and the cookie was, well, ok. We certainly didn't leave the place feeling we'd gotten our money's worth. Like its doomed predecessor, Skinny Pig, Kitchen 452's hours are frustrating. They're only open three and half hours a day, Tuesday-Saturday. Good luck with that.
China One3972 Red Bank Road
Cincinnati, OH 45227
American-Chinese restaurants, with their brightly lit panel of 70s-style food photos aglow above a dingy brown faux-wood Formica counter, are a dime a dozen. Located in a strip mall next to the Red Bank Road Super Wal-Mart, China One started off with the potential for being an above average example. But by our fourth visit, the place had suffered a steep nose-dive in both quality and service. The final straw came when the owner's young children were recruited as wait staff, precariously doling out our drinks and hot plates of super-tasteless food with their pre-teen fingers. Sorry, China One, but never again.
Bronte Bistro at Joseph Beth2692 Madison Rd
Cincinnati, OH 45208
If ever there were a place that screams of nursing home, Bronte Bistro is it. Visiting shortly after their recent remodel, we endured some seriously bland fare surrounded by mostly AARP card-carrying folk. I have nothing against old people per se, but if I wanted to be surrounded by a dozen of them all at once to remind me of my own mortality, I would have made an appointment at my local Bingo hall. The Chicken Avocado Wrap was generously filled with unseasoned black beans and only the smallest essence of avocado. The glazed baby carrots tucked against my lukewarm, open-faced turkey sandwich evoked childhood memories of TV dinners past, Vitamin A-packed night terrors I thought I'd blocked out forever.
Yard House95 East Freedom Way
Cincinnati, OH 45202
How many national restaurant chains will the public put up with before they finally throw their forks aside and scream, "Enough! I've eaten a river of ahi sliders and an ocean of Baja fish! We want something else!" Yard House is basically The Cheesecake Factory with a (much) larger beer selection and an impressive river view to take your mind off what you're eating. If you're 22, love beer and don't care that you can eat this same selection of shit at 50 other locations across the U.S., then Yard House is your place. And please stay there. Because the more of you who peruse their 10-pound menu, chowing down on their not-so-authentic "street" tacos, lettuce wraps and Parmesan-crusted chicken, the more seats will be available at local restaurants serving better food at nearly half the price.
Chuy's7980 Hosbrook Rd.
Cincinnati, OH 45243
I'm annoyed at the set of circumstances that brought Chuy's, a regional chain, to Cincinnati. You see, there was once a pretty damned good locally-owned Mexican restaurant at this Kenwood/Madeira location a few years ago called, Jalapeno's. It had been there for at least a decade, was very popular, and only moved out due to a leasing dispute. In 2009, a pizza restaurant called Chi-Natti's swooped in to take its place, which I'd initially grumbled about and had predicted would close in two years (it actually took four). Now Chuy's (pronounced, "Chewie's," like the Wookie), is there with its own brand of Tex-Mex.
The newly remodeled location, with healthy doses of kitschy Elvis and 50s diner nostalgia coupled with amusing, mildy creepy dog paintings, is actually fun to behold. The food is another story. I wanted to like this place, as I had its predecessors. But my "Chicka-Chicka Boom Boom" enchiladas were Fucka-Fucka too spicy, despite a liberal coating of cheese sauce that should have complimented the green chilis and tomatillos. My girlfriend's Veggie enchilada looked good, with spinach, serranos, corn that had clearly just been cut straight off the cob, green chilis, zucchini, bell pepper and squash wrapped in blue corn tortillas. But the platter was a confounding mess of bold, clashing flavors. Even the complimentary chips and salsa offered no respite from the experience: they were paper-thin and easily broke apart in the overly acidic, mildly spiced salsa. But, oh, the dog paintings.
Eli's Barbecue3313 Riverside Dr
Cincinnati, OH 45226
Yep, that's right. Eli's, with its yummy pulled pork, creamy, cheesy, addictive jalapeno grits and delicious everything, made my list. Why? Because we can no longer get in the door. Now we get a little depressed whenever we're in the mood for barbecue. We know who has the best in town, but it's not worth the hassle of plowing through the virtual mosh pit of sweaty, salivating patrons pressed around the back counter like a rabid pack of smoky meat addicts desperately seeking their next hit. Scrambling for what little seating Eli's has available is an exercise in anxiety, and wait times typically average a half hour. The easy-going, fun nature of the place is gone for us. Even the idea of ordering take-out from Eli's is enough to make me break out in hives. Still, I'm glad they continue to make money hand over fist.
Mantra on the Hill934 Hatch St.
Cincinnati, OH 45202
Early this year, we took our second visit to the delicious Mantra on the Hill for an Indian lunch buffet. Their setup was by no means the usual long counter of hot items kept warm under bright heat lamps. Mantra had somehow managed to elevate the drab Indian buffet experience but still kept the prices at a reasonable $10. The food, all secured in lovely, gleaming chrome chafing dish pans resting on white-clothed tables, was unlike any I've seen served in the many Indian restaurants throughout Cincinnati. The Palak paneer, a pureed spinach dish, looked a lot like bright green baby food, but was supremely delicious. The tandori chicken was uniquely spiced with hints of ginger that easily made it my favorite. The buffet came with a fresh, personal order of fluffy, lightly salted naan, not the forgotten, stale stuff that often gets stacked for the masses. Alas, Mantra owners decided later in the summer to eliminate the lunch buffet. They are now a dinner-only restaurant, which is a huge disappointment. Mantra's still a great place for its unique take on Indian food, but we will forever mourn the loss of the best Indian buffet of our lives.
Toots12191 Montgomery Rd.
Loveland, OH 45140
It's perhaps easy to write off a restaurant like Toot's, a regional chain restaurant and sports bar that's long been a lunch and after-work staple for many office workers off Fields-Ertel. Promising "Good Food and Fun," Toot's once had a decent lineup of tasty --albeit artery-clogging-- fried food. Baskets of frog legs, oysters, catfish, clams and lightly-battered dill pickle slices were among my favorites. Time, it seems, has not been good to the place. A constant turnover of heavy drinkers and chicken wing eaters has taken its toll. Wait staff nowadays seem poorly trained: on our last visit, water glasses remained empty and our orders took more than a half hour to arrive. Prices feel a bit steep for such mediocre food. We'll always have the fried pickles and potato soup, Toot's.
Taqueria Mercado100 E 8th St
Cincinnati, OH 45202
The Fairfield location set the standard for street tacos and authentic Mexican food in Cincinnati. The newer Downtown location, which opened just a few years ago, was rightly celebrated by urban Mercado fans who now had an alternative to the long trek up I-275. The menu is virtually identical to its Fairfield cousin, but after a few visits, we noticed an apparent change in attitude among the staff here. Wait times are excessively long. On a recent Friday night, we sat down to find the place nearly deserted: only a few other tables were occupied. That didn't stop us from being completely ignored for 10-15 minutes. After finally flagging someone down, we watched as people who'd arrived later began receiving their meals while we waited another thirty minutes for our food. From now on, we will always choose the far superior La Mexicana over this place, as our invisibility cloak has no power there.
RUNNER UP: 1077 Celestial St
Rookwood Bar & Restaurant
Cincinnati, OH 45202
We love that the former Rookwood Pottery building, built more than 120 years ago, is being utilized, and The Rookwood Bar & Restaurant offers patrons a chance to connect with an important part of Cincinnati history. Dining inside one of Rookwood Bar's several massive kilns, which the Rookwood Pottery Company had used to heat and glaze its famous wares, is a treat everyone should try at least once. But the restaurant doesn't live up to the grandeur of its bones, with shaky, inconsistent service (measured by our empty water glasses) and a menu that makes us long for the restaurant's predecessor, Porkopolis.