Saucy Columbus

When you go to a restaurant and ask if they have a hot sauce, you never know what you’re going to get. Typically, it’s Tabasco sauce, or Cholula, or perhaps Texas Pete’s. But sometimes you get a new hot sauce that you’ve never heard of before. So it was earlier this week, when Dr. Science and I visited Bar Cicchetti and inquired about the availability of a hot sauce. The waiter promptly delivered this bottle of Sauce Boss Gang Spanish Chipotle Granada hot sauce.

Just a look at the bottle was promising, because the hot sauce experience is a holistic one, and names and labels on bottles are a key element. The Sauce Boss Gang Granada passed the label test with flying colors, with its uber-cool combination hand grenade/rib cage/roses presentation. And the contents of the bottle, if anything, exceeded the label. The Granada sauce is a ruddy brown and super smoky, with flecks of pepper (or some other substance) and enough heat to make you sit up and take notice without obliterating your palate. It went very well with my french fries and left me eager for more.

As I had never heard of Sauce Boss Gang, I asked the waiter about where Bar Cicchetti found the sauce. He explained that Sauce Boss Gang is a local Columbus company that make several different kinds of sauces. You can find the website here, and a list of the different sauce flavors here. SBG encourages people to put their sauces in dishes, drinks, and desserts, which raises some intriguing possibilities. I also commend Sauce Boss Gang for making sure that all of their products are attentive to the crucial label and naming tests. I’m steeling myself for a taste of the Garlic Scorpion La Jefa sauce, which is described as “fierce and flavorful.” That sounds like a pretty good option as winter approaches.

The Random Restaurant Tour — L

Yesterday Dr. Science and I decided to brave the fierce winds on a cold, gusty day to head south for lunch. Our destination was the always cool Westin Great Southern Hotel–the oldest hotel in downtown Columbus–and a new restaurant called Bar Cicchetti that has opened in the hotel’s footprint to serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Bar Cicchetti is in some reconfigured space at the Great Southern. There always was a bar there–what would be a hotel, really, without a bar?–but now they’ve opened a new room that is located just past the bar area. The room is spacious and bright and looks out over High Street. Dr. Science and I sat at a window table to fully revel in that urban lunch vibe.

The lunch menu has a lot of options that should appeal to just about everyone, from salads and pizza and pastas to handhelds–including a concoction featuring charred broccolini (involuntary shudder). Although the pizza and pasta options were intriguing, I found myself to be in a fried frame of mind, so I opted for the Milanese Chicken sandwich, shown above, and had them hold the lettuce and pickles. My choice was a winner. The chicken breast was so enormous it spilled over the sides of the bun, and it was crunchy outside, with just the right amount of breading, and moist inside. Topped with pickled onions and a nifty aioli, it was delicious. I also give Bar Cicchetti credit for providing a reasonable amount of fries, which were dusted with some freshly grated parmesan and very tasty, too. The fries were so delectably enticing that Dr. Science, always ready for a food experiment, couldn’t resist swiping a few from my plate as he gulped down his salumi sandwich.

I don’t think the word of mouth about Bar Cicchetti has spread yet, because there weren’t many patrons there when we visited. Perhaps this post will help to acquaint people with this fine new food option in the south part of downtown, which is well worth a visit. I’ll be coming back to try one of those pizzas.

By the way, in preparing this post I note that this is the 50th edition of the Random Restaurant Tour series, which began in 2017 and somehow managed to bridge the COVID pandemic and the shutdown period. Thanks to the B.A. Jersey Girl, Dr. Science, the Bus-Riding Conservative, JV, and all of the others who have accompanied me on these culinary adventures, and to everyone who has read them!

The Disturbed Among Us

Recently I was walking home from work when I was approached by a street person. We have some “regulars” in our part of downtown, and over time you get to know them, but this person was unfamiliar. I immediately noticed that she had that kind of distracted, fidgety appearance that suggested that she was disturbed, or drugged up, or perhaps both. In any case, I kept my distance, and listened as she said she was a TikTok celebrity and asked for money to make a new video. (At least, I think that’s what she said.) When I demurred, she started fumbling in her pockets and dropped an unopened soda can, which started spraying all over. At that point the light changed, and I crossed the street and was on my way.

It was one random encounter on one early evening, and nothing came of it, but it got me to thinking all the same. If you live or work in a downtown area in America, you’ve no doubt had similar experiences. We’ve lived with street people in our midst since the U.S. adopted a deinstitutionalization policy decades ago, but lately it seems that a new layer of concern has been added to the interaction between the housed and the homeless. What used to be predictable panhandling has become more uncertain, and many of us have heard or read of encounters that have turned violent. The son of a coworker, for example, was attacked and stabbed with a screwdriver by a deranged street person in Denver. I’m not familiar with any such incidents in Columbus, where the homeless population seems to be smaller than in many other cities, but you don’t need to hear many such stories to be on your guard.

It’s difficult to get precise data about crime committed by the homeless, although there seems to be a consensus that it is underreported, because many such crimes are committed against other homeless people who don’t want to involve the authorities. Data from Los Angeles indicates that the substantial homeless population in that city accounts for about eight percent of the total amount of crime in that city, but 60 percent of that crime is classified as violent crime. Also concerning is the fact that many of the homeless among us are people who formerly were incarcerated; according to a recent study, people released from prison are 10 times more likely to become homeless than the general population. Drug use among the homeless population just adds to the volatility.

The issue of homelessness obviously is a complicated one, but the failure to address it has produced a culture in urban America where a street person seeking money might become suddenly aggressive, and a random encounter with a total stranger might become violent. That’s obviously not good for our cities, for people who live and work in them, or for the homeless people themselves.

Our Downtown Light Show

Last night we legged it over to Indian Oven for dinner, and on the way back we walked through Columbus Commons. It is all decked out and lit up for the holidays. The brilliant display includes colossal outlines of Christmas bulbs–which also reminded me of the “five golden rings” from The Twelve Days of Christmas–that are strategically positioned at various points on the grounds to allow for posing-within-the-ring selfies (something we saw other visitors doing while we were there) as well as nutcrackers and an assortment of different holiday objects. With some of the lights blinking and others configured to resemble dripping icicles, it’s an active light show, too.

The Columbus Commons decorators didn’t quite attach lights to every square inch of the park–as the photo above shows, they wisely left the central grassy area open for the benefit of neighborhood dogs and outdoor yoga fans–but otherwise all of the trees, shrubs, beds, fountains, and the big stage are adorned in just about every color you can imagine. Add in a giant TV that displays footage of a burning yule log, and you’ve got a pretty impressive display. If you’ve got kids and they like light shows, it is definitely worth a visit.

My First Visit To “The Game”

In the spring of 1971, my family moved from Akron to Columbus, where Dad began working as the general manager of a car dealership. He quickly recognized that everyone in Columbus, regardless of their politics, religion, or general viewpoint, could agree on one thing–Ohio State football–and he assembled a mass of season tickets to Ohio State games so he could build relationships by handing out the prized ducats to the dealership’s business partners and other managers. Fortunately for the kids in the family, Dad had enough tickets to allow us to go to the games, and I went to my first Ohio State game in the fall of 1971.

Before then, I had only been to high school football games. In Ohio, high school football is a big deal, but going to Buckeye games at Ohio Stadium was different by orders of magnitude. The massive gray stadium, the huge crowd of more than 80,000 roaring fans, the band, and the cheerleaders all made home games at Ohio State an entirely different experience. I don’t remember who Ohio State played in the first game I attended, but I was hooked immediately. And even though the Buckeyes weren’t very good that year, Ohio State fans knew that the season could be salvaged if the Men of the Scarlet and Gray could just knock off Michigan, at Ann Arbor, in their end of the season match-up. Michigan came in as a heavy favorite, but Ohio State gave them a very tough game. The Buckeyes fell just short, losing 10-7, in a game most people remember because Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, incensed that the officials didn’t call pass interference at the end of the game, tore up a yard marker and had to be physically restrained by coaches and players.

That set the stage for 1972, when the game would come to Columbus. Both Ohio State and Michigan were good that year, and it was clear that The Game would decide which team would be the Big Ten champion. I was so excited about going to The Game that I had trouble sleeping the night before and got up even earlier than normal. At Ohio Stadium, the atmosphere was electric–far more charged than at a regular Ohio State game–and the roars of the crowd when the Buckeyes made a great play were deafening. I sat in the closed end of the Stadium, right next to the scoreboard, using a single ticket that Dad had picked up. The game was a rugged, hard-hitting defensive battle, as the Ohio State-Michigan games traditionally were in those days, but the Buckeyes pulled out the win, and the joyous celebration in the Stadium when the game ended and the victory bell rang was just short of a riot. I’m pretty sure the end of that game was the first time I was hugged by an absolute stranger.

Being a sports fan has its ups and downs–Cleveland sports fans, regrettably, have lots of bitter experience with the downs–but when your team wins a big game against its archrival, the surging feeling of absolute elation is impossible to describe. I still remember that feeling from that first Ohio State-Michigan game, on a crisp autumn day in 1972. It’s hard to believe that it was 50 years ago.

Those Annoying “Buy Your House” Texts

If you own a house–or if you formerly owned a house–you undoubtedly get them: those annoying but also unnerving texts from total strangers who address you by name and want to engage you in a conversation about selling your home. The texts are annoying because they clutter your text inbox and confirm that no form of communication is truly safe from unwanted solicitation efforts. They are unnerving because they show that, somewhere out in the internet vastness, telemarketers and potential scammers are trying to cobble together bits of information to link your name, your cell phone number, and your property holdings.

So, are these texts part of some fraudulent scheme, or are they legitimate efforts to buy a house? Apparently some house-buying texts fall into one category, and some fall into the other. The scam potential of such texts seems pretty obvious: the scammers want to knit together as much personal information about you as possible, which could be used for identity theft purposes, and hope that if they engage you in a text conversation you will divulge some personal financial information that they use to take your money. It’s hard to believe that anyone would fall for such a scam–but then who would have thought that people would fall for the Prince from Nigeria scams, either?

The article linked above, and a local report from a Columbus TV station, say that some of the texts are “legitimate” in the sense that they are from people who do in fact want to buy your house–or for that matter any house. They are flippers looking to purchase properties at bargain prices, perhaps make a few cosmetic changes, and then sell them. The texts you receive from the flippers are the modern equivalent of “cold calls,” with texts being used because no one owns land line phones any more or answers their cell phone when a strange number shows up. It’s an intrusive way to do business, which is just another reason why those texts are best ignored and immediately deleted without responding. If you want to sell your house, a local realtor who has been part of the community for years and who can give you an informed sense of fair market value is a better and safer option.

One final consideration is that, with interest rates going up and house prices going down, the “legitimate” texts about whether you are willing to sell your house are likely to stop, because no rapacious house-flipper is going to want to buy properties, spend money to fix them up, and then try to sell them at a profit in a down market. That means that, in the future, most if not all of those texts will be from fraudsters looking to cheat you in some way or another. It’s just another reason to be wary of unsolicited communications.

When The Season Turns

Every autumn, it seems, a day comes when the weather changes abruptly. One day you’re standing outside a restaurant after a delightful dinner at about 10:30 p.m., perfectly comfortable wearing a sport coat and slacks with the temperature around 60 degrees, and the next morning you wake up to weather information on your phone that looks like this.

Don’t be fooled by the optimistic “possible light rain” statement on the weather app, either. When the weather change comes, and the season seems to shift in an eyeblink, the veteran Midwesterner ignores the rain forecast and scans the weather app for the dreaded snow icon. Let’s see . . . yes–there it is, lurking on and after 9 a.m. And because the snow is forecast to fall when the temperature is just under 40 degrees, it will be that kind of wet, sloppy, immediately melting snow that soaks everything–the kind of snow that slaps the innocents with brutal, cold reality and sends an unmistakable message that the delightful fall weather is officially over, When such a snow falls, you can only shake your head sadly and move the cold weather gear to the front of your closet.

It’s hard to complain, really, because this year we’ve had one of the nicest autumns you could possibly want, with warm temperatures and, especially, dry conditions. Now it’s time to recall those brilliant days with wistful pleasure as we slosh and slop and slip and slide into the pre-winter period.

Hike Ohio: Quarry Trails Metro Park

The Columbus metropolitan area population continues to increase. Websites peg the current population at 1,687,000, and every year the area consistently adds another percentage or two of growth to that total. Because people like parks, it’s nice to know that the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department is working to meet the hiking, biking, and walking path demand of all of those new residents. Yesterday, on a beautiful and surprisingly warm morning, we decided to check out Quarry Trails Metro Park, the newest member of the 20-park Metro Park family. The park is being built on the site of an old limestone quarry, and adjacent to the site of a currently working quarry that you can see in the photo above, just west of the Scioto River on the border of Upper Arlington.

Quarry Trail is aptly named, because its quarry past (and quarry present) is evident pretty much everywhere you look. You can see the cliff-like walls of the old quarry operations in the far distance, and large rocks were a constant feature as we walked along. The park’s designers are putting the gradations created by the excavations at the old quarry to good use in other ways, too; there are several mountain bike areas that intrepid cyclists were enjoying as we walked past.

Although Quarry Trails formally opened in 2021, it remains very much a work in progress. The trail signs are temporary, and the grounds are littered with construction equipment. Our visit allowed us to get a sense of what the park’s designers were trying to do, and the plans obviously are ambitious. The configuration of the 220-acre park property is unusual, as the park is surrounded not only by the current quarry operations but also by residential neighborhoods. The park property consists of three larger areas connected at narrow points by a trail, and the park designers have worked to make use of every square inch of space.

We followed the connection trail down to a small lake created by the old quarry operations, where there are swinging benches and large rocks that were irresistible leaping-off points for the kids who were there. You can see one of the residential neighborhoods on the east side of the lake in the photo below, and a nice boardwalk area running along the lake’s edge. There were lots of people out and around, and I would guess that many of them came from the surrounding neighborhoods. I expect they are happy to have a scene like this in their backyards.

Parks are important to communities, and are worth the investment and effort. Quarry Trails was made possible because Columbus voters have historically supported funding for parks and recreation. This year, Issue 15–one of a series of bond issues on the ballot–would provide $200 million in funding for parks and recreation activities, including renovation, replacement, and new park and greenway development. I’ll be voting yes on that issue so that new parks like Quarry Trails can continue to come on line and make Columbus an even better place to live.

The Random Restaurant Tour — XLIX

Yesterday the B.A. Jersey Girl and I were looking for a lunch close to the office, because it was a day when work commitments strictly hemmed in our lunch hours. The B.A.J.G. suggested that we head over to Freedom a la Cart, located about two blocks from the firm at 123 Spring Street in downtown Columbus. It’s a place I’ve been meaning to try, because Freedom a la Cart combines catering and in-restaurant food services with workforce training for local survivors of human trafficking. You can read about the business and its important mission here,

When we arrived at Freedom yesterday, the place was hopping with diners and carry-out customers. Fortunately, we lucked out and a table opened just as we made our orders and looked for a seat. And the orders were a tough call, because the cafe menu offers an array of breakfast items and sandwiches, as well as bowls and salads. Admittedly, dodging the bowls and salads was not a tough call for me, but I wrestled with the choice between the Don’t Judge Me sandwich, the Monte Cristo sandwich, the bacon quiche, and the grilled three-cheese sandwich.

After careful deliberation, I chose the Don’t Judge Me, which featured roasted chicken, two different kinds of aioli, Swiss cheese, a mound of arugula, and on-the-sandwich potato chips on toasted sourdough bread. That’s the sandwich in the photo above, and you can see one rogue potato chip that escaped from the sandwich when a server set it down. The D.J.M. was an excellent combination of flavors and textures–the crunchy potato chips were a distinctive touch–and fun to eat, too. The B.A. Jersey Girl went for the bacon quiche, which looked light and delicate and flaky and almost made me regret my choice, until I considered that the quiche came with a salad. Since I pride myself on membership in the Clean Plate Club at lunch time, it was wise to give the quiche a pass. With the D.J.M., there was no challenge whatsoever in scarfing down every bit.

It’s a nice thing when a local restaurant is dedicated to a good cause and serves really good food, besides. Freedom a la Cart will be going onto the standard lunch rotation, for sure. Next time I visit, I think I’m going to give the Monte Cristo a try.

Hike Ohio: Blendon Woods Metro Park

Yesterday was a cool, overcast morning in Columbus–another prime day for a romp in the Ohio woods. For our weekend hike, we decided to stay a bit closer to home, and took a short drive over to Blendon Woods Metro Park. The park is a popular one and very conveniently located in the northeast corner of Franklin County, just outside of I-270, the highway than encircles Columbus.

Blendon Woods is a big park–653 acres in all–with a number of trails, family and picnic areas, and the Walden Waterfowl Refuge, a 118-acre preserve in one corner of the park. We began our day with the trail to Thoreau Lake, which is part of the Walden Refuge. When you reach the lake, the trail ends in two viewing stations where you can watch the birds and waterfowl unobtrusively. We didn’t see any ducks or other waterfowl, but we did catch a good look at a colorful cardinal, shown above, who was munching on some seeds just over the squirrel guard in a bird house next to the viewing station.

The trail to the Walden Refuge is a paved trail, and there were a number of families and birders out for a walk in the cool air. The birders are easy to recognize, because they’ve all got their binoculars in hand, with cords looped around their necks, ready to focus in whenever they hear a bird call. It must have been good viewing conditions, with some trees largely stripped of leaves while others are still displaying their colors. The non-birders among us could just enjoy the remaining fall foliage.

The lake trail is a short one, so after our return from the Walden Waterfowl Refuge we crossed the parking lot and headed onto the Sugarbush Trail, a natural trail that winds through the woods and some marshy areas for two miles. The trail was matted with fallen leaves, and you had to watch your step to make sure that you didn’t get snagged by a stray tree root, but the woods were lovely, with lots of brilliant gold and yellow in the background to frame the trees in the foreground.

The Sugarbush Trail wasn’t quite as crowded as the lake trail, but we did see a few other walkers along the way. The trail is mostly level, with only a few easy hills. The woods were quiet and cool as we strolled along, and I once again thought I should learn more about how to distinguish between the different kinds of trees you typically find in the Ohio woods. I can identify a pine tree, a buckeye nut, and a maple leaf–thanks largely to seeing the maple leaf on the national flag of our neighbors to the north–but that’s about it. Otherwise, I can’t tell a walnut from a sycamore from an elm, and I suppose it’s about time I learned.

At one point on the Sugarbush Trail, the woods take a break, and there is a meadow area with a sprawling field of wildflowers. The plants had grown to about shoulder height, and if you stood on tiptoe you could just look over the plants to get the full effect of the field and a better sense of the size of the park. As we finished our hike, a few patches of blue showed up on the far horizon. With our appetites stimulated by the cool weather and the walking, it was time to leave Blendon Woods behind and head home to make some scrambled eggs, sausage, and strawberries for our Sunday brunch.

The Buckeyes And The Bars

Today we joined a loyal slice of Buckeye Nation at JT’s Pizza and Pub to watch the Buckeyes come back strong in the fourth quarter to top Penn State in Happy Valley. We cheered lustily, did “OH-IO” chants, marveled at the talent of Marvin Harrison, Jr., and tried to learn how to correctly pronounce the last name of the newest Buckeye hero, J.T. Tuimoloau. (It’s easier to just call him “number 44.”) it was a great game, a great win, and a lot of fun watching the game with a raucous crowd.

Bar owners in Columbus love the football season because they know people will turn out to root for the Bucks, eat, and down a few beers. Today’s noon start isn’t the preferred time slot, however. Pubs like the 3:30 slot best because people come early, enjoy the game, and then roll right into the slate of night games. When the Buckeyes play at noon, however, the crowd tends to head out after the game rather than making a full day of football and feeling guilty about it. Today, a full bar had emptied out about a half hour after the game ended and excited debriefing had occurred.

No worries, though—I’m betting another shift of Buckeye fans will fill the seats tonight, to see if Michigan State can knock Michigan out of the ranks of the unbeaten.

The Random Restaurant Tour — XLVIII

It’s autumn, folks — a beautiful and wonderful time of year in central Ohio (especially when compared to, say, winter). There are many great restaurants in the Columbus area where you might celebrate this season, and we decided to head to one of the finest — Veritas — to enjoy its autumn tastings menu. That’s because some of the best things about fall are the foods and flavors that are available to be enjoyed this time of year.

Veritas is, in a word, fabulous. It’s the kind of restaurant that you like to take out-of-towners to, because you know they will leave with a positive impression of our city and its culinary attributes. The food at Veritas is reliably spectacular, filled with interesting flavor and textural combinations, and a treat for the eyes, besides. Add in a welcoming ambiance, and nice attention to every little detail that can move a meal from great to greater, and you’ve got a restaurant that can do autumn, or any season, proud.

The Veritas autumn menu is five courses. You start with a mandatory broccoli and cheddar cheese tart, then make your choices from options for the other courses. Starting with a broccoli dish was a challenge for me, because in my view it is one of the most unholy, vile, unpleasant smelling and foul tasting vegetables in the land of greenery. Any yet, the wizards in the Veritas kitchen found a way to minimize the broccoli flavor and cushion it delectably in a flaky crust and a mound of cheddary scrumptiousness. When a culinary genius can turn a food you loathe into something that you would gladly eat again, it leaves you ready for more.

For the next course I went for the carrot, yogurt, and curry leaf soup, which thick, and rich, and creamy, and introduced me to multi-colored carrots that I had not seen before. Let’s just way that these were not Bugs Bunny’s kind of carrots. And speaking of hares, the follow-up dish was a rabbit, paprika, and creme fraiche combination that featured some delectable dumplings and perfectly cooked, supremely tender rabbit. That triumph was followed by the filet medallions shown above, framed with multiple kinds of potatoes, and a root beer infused sauce that I would have gladly eaten straight with a spoon–except it went incredibly well with the spot-on medium rare meat. The different kinds of potatoes were wonderful, too.

We ended our fall feast with the almond, banana, and sourdough concoction seen below, which is the best dessert I’ve had in a long, long time. What’s that, you say? Bananas aren’t an autumnal dish? To that I say you’re wrong, because any Midwesterner knows that the fall season is full of surprises, Just as the weather can suddenly turn cold, or warm, or blustery with rain, so can a banana creation suddenly grace a fine meal.

The autumn menu at Veritas was so good that I want to go back again, to try some of the dishes I didn’t choose this time around. If the chef can make broccoli an enjoyable treat, even cauliflower is worth a try. in fact, the seasonal tasting menu almost makes me look forward to what winter might bring.

The Random Restaurant Tour — XLVII

I like trying new places, even if it means venturing out of the downtown/German Village/Short North footprint. On Wednesday night we hitched a ride with the adventurous Dr. Science and the G.V. Jogger over to the Near East Side. Our destination was the East Market, a nifty renovated trolley car barn that dates back to the era when trolley cars rattled down many Columbus streets, carting Columbusites hither and yon.

When we entered the main East Market building, a sign announced that we were in the “Historic Trolley District,” because every part of Columbus apparently has to be part of some designated district or another. The trolley cars were long gone, leaving plenty of space for shops, carry-out restaurants, a bar, and a butcher’s emporium with a smiling pig head in the window. The pig head looked happy to be there, and so were we.

We wandered around, checking out the options. There were lots of choices, including pizza, Cajun, burgers, chicken sandwiches, and Greek. We opted for a place called Koso that served Korean fare. I went for the bulgogi beef bowl, a hearty and piping hot serving of rice, beef, onions, and subtle seasonings. We took our food upstairs and ate among the old timber rafters in a nice seating area. Armed with chopsticks, I nimbly shoveled down all of my bulgogi bowl, picking up every last grain of rice and morsel of meat.

I enjoyed my first official visit to the Historic Trolley District. I’m planning on coming back and trying some of the other food options. I feel like the slyly grinning pig head would want that.

In The Top Half Of The Top Ten

Congratulations to family and friends at JT’s Pizza and Pub, which finished fourth in the voting for the best pizza in Columbus by the Pizza Connoisseurs of Columbus, a central Ohio Facebook foodie group. More than 4,000 votes were cast in the balloting, which was reported on by (614).

I’ve never had any of the pizzas that topped JT’s in the poll, but I can honestly say that I’ve had a lot of other pizzas served up by local joints, and I’ve never had one that was better than JT’s. If you’re in the mood for a pizza tonight, I highly recommend JT’s–its crust and sauce is excellent, and the topping options can satisfy just about any taste buds.