I am writing this in the Cincinnati airport (which is technically in Kentucky, go figure) after spending the past two and a half days in Sharonville, OH for a business trip. This meant staying the night in a city away from home without my wife for only the second time since we’ve been together, and it was the first time since we’ve been married over five years ago.
And just like any other married guy who finds himself as essentially a bachelor for a few days, knowing that my wife was nowhere nearby, there was only one thing on my mind…only one thing that I knew I could do without any repercussions or penalty as if I was still a single man…
Eat whatever I want.
OK, maybe that’s not entirely true. I’m sure that when she reads this blog I’ll get in trouble. She’ll give me “that look” and make me feel terrible for eating like a pregnant woman for two days and not buckling down on my diet. But what am I supposed to do? Being on the road for two days means that I’m going to have to eat up to six or seven meals in restaurants and away from home.
That means none of my wife’s amazing home-cooked food. None of my hometown favorites or safe-havens, either. Instead, I need to discover new places in this strange city.
I’m not one of those people that find themselves in a new place and looks for somewhere like a T.G.I.Friday’s, Ruby Tuesday’s or any other chain restaurant named for a day of the week. I love to find the hidden gems or places that only locals know about. I’m the guy that tells visitors to Philly to avoid getting a cheesesteak at Pat’s or Geno’s and instead sends them to the lesser-known but infinitely-better Gooey Looie’s or Jim’s Steaks. I’m the guy for whom shows like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Man vs. Food were made.
When my boss and I checked in at the hotel Monday evening we asked the woman working the front desk for the best typical Cincinnati place to eat. She immediately mentioned that the biggest Cincinnati dining experience was eating either a “4-Way” or some Cheese Coneys at Skyline Chili. A “4-Way” was explained as being a bowl of spaghetti topped with a form of thin chili with shredded cheddar cheese and either onions or red beans. The Coney is the same local chili, onions and mounds of cheese served on top of a hot dog with mustard.
It was nearing 9pm and neither I nor my travel companion had eaten anything since noon, and the thought of a chili cheese dog didn’t sound so great. So we passed on that idea and instead found a nearby English Pub with award-winning Fish & Chips and a Reuben that could go toe-to-toe with the finest Jewish delis on the East Coast. It also didn’t hurt that the pub had several dozen beers on tap and a 50-cent Buffalo Wing special.
Tuesday morning began simple enough with a breakfast at the nearby Bob Evans and a business lunch with our client at a local chain restaurant called Stone Creek Dining Company. The Spicy Italian Beef sandwich I had was a very tasty, jalapeno relish-laden version of a standard French Dip and the sweet potato frittes were excellent. But the star of the show was the spicy red pepper-balsamic vinaigrette dipping sauce concoction that was served with the oven-fresh bread.
Dinner gave me and my boss the opportunity to finally try Skyline for the city’s signature dish. Upon entering Skyline Chili it reminded me of a McDonald’s with servers. The look and ambiance said fast food but the service we received said five star. The food was somewhere in between.
Not knowing for sure if the “Datsa Gooda Italian Police” would haul me away for ordering spaghetti and chili, I decided to go for two of the Coney Dogs with the works and split an order of the Chili Cheese Fries. The hot dogs were small and the mustard was unrecognizable. The chili itself was sweet and mild, with and almost cinnamon aftertaste. The combination wasn’t bad, but I would put the Skyline Chili Coney Dog up against any corner store cheesesteak from Philly any day of the week and not worry a moment about losing in a showdown. After being relatively unsatisfied, my boss and I decided to go for it all and split an order of the 4-Way Pasta. Strangely enough, I enjoyed that much more – even though we opted against getting the red beans added to the dish (making it a 5-Way).
With one half of our True Taste of Cincinnati adventure complete we decided that we had no choice but to head over to Graeter’s for their famous Black Raspberry Chip ice cream. This creamery, which specializes in a technique that creates what’s called French Pot Ice Cream was the highlight of the two-location meal. The texture of the ice cream wasn’t anything unexpected but the flavor was wonderful and definitely unique. Unique in a good way, not like that girl you know with seven different hair colors and the piercings that make her face look like a connect the dots puzzle.
Just before leaving on Wednesday, the office we were visiting offered me a taste the last of the Cincinnati food finds: pizza from LaRosa’s. Basically it’s a round thin crust (firm but not crunchy) pizza that is sliced in squares as opposed to triangular pieces. The sauce is sweet and plentiful while the cheese is provolone instead of mozzarella. Much like sex, it is almost impossible to have really bad pizza. But LaRosa’s wasn’t anything special and rather ho-hum. I’ve had microwaveable Tombstone pizzas that were more memorable and it’s certainly a ways off from being anything close to my favorite pizza from Nino’s.
So now I write this with a full belly and a mind that is content with doing my own version of the Cincinnati Taste Tour. I can say that I’ve done what any visitor to any new place should do, and that is I ate like someone who lives here. Granted, someone who lives here isn’t getting anything that is nearly as tasty as the foods that Philadelphia and its suburbs are famous for. But it was nice to try what makes a city famous when it comes to food even if it’s not that great. There is a certain amount of fun in being able to eat like someone who was going to the electric chair the very next day.
Which, considering the likelihood of my wife killing me when I get home because of what I’ve been eating, is oddly appropriate.