The Random Restaurant Tour (XV)

We’ve got a taco war brewing in downtown Columbus.  Condado opened a few years ago and has become a fixture on the east side of High Street, right next to the Columbus Commons.  Now Tio’s Tacos and Tequila has opened on the west side of High Street, just down the block.

Last week the lunch bunch paid our first visit to Tio’s and came away favorably impressed. Tio has a totally different vibe than Condado.  For one thing, it’s much quieter.  Condado goes for more of a bustling street taco approach; Tio opts for more of a traditional restaurant feel.  Consistent with that, there’s an actual menu of taco options, rather than the Condado build-your-own taco checklist.  That’s not to say one approach is better than another — they’re just different.

As for the tacos?  They’re very good.  So good, in fact, that JV and the Bus-Riding Conservative staked out the aggressive position that Tio’s tacos are better than Condado’s.  The Unkempt Guy and I, being less impulsive and more thoughtful by nature, weren’t quite willing to go so far after only one visit, but we admitted the tacos were excellent.  At the recommendation of our server we all got a spread of three, which turned out to be just right for a moderate lunch.  My favorite was the taco on the right, above, which substituted a folded slice of jicama for the taco and was filled with crunchy shrimp and covered with chipotle sauce.

Who will win the downtown Columbus taco wars?  I think the real winner will be the downtown lunch crowd, which now has a choice when they feel the call of the taco.

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The Random Restaurant Tour (XIV)

Yesterday Dr. Science and I were supposed to have lunch at a restaurant on the south side of town.  When noon rolled around, however, the rain was absolutely pouring down, so we needed a central destination to minimize the downpour effect.  Let’s see — he’s just south of the Statehouse, and I’m just north of the Statehouse.  Hey, how about the Statehouse?  You can’t get more central than that!

Fortunately, there is in fact a place to eat at Ohio’s seat of government.  It’s located in the “basement” of the Statehouse, reachable through the Third Street entrance.  You walk past the map room and the shouts of schoolkids on a field trip, turn right at the main hallway, and then look for the place where the staffers are heading, tucked away in a few rooms on one side of the hallway.

The restaurant is a breakfast and lunch spot called GRAZE.  As the name suggests, GRAZE is all about farms and pastures — specifically, the “farm to table” concept in which Ohio eggs, dairy products, and proteins are featured.  The menu includes breakfast items, sandwiches, soups, salads, wraps, and bowls, and the goal is for customers to obtain “a protein packed and nutritious lunch for less than $10.”  You start in the room with the kitchen area, place your order at the counter, watch the food preparers go to work, move down to the cashier’s station, and settle up on your order, and by the time you get your tray and water cup your freshly made food has appeared.  You then head into one of the adjoining rooms to find a table and eat your lunch.

I went for the lamb gyro bowl — without the romaine, tomato, and cucumber, of course — and it was really quite good, with moist, shredded lamb, tasty pickled onions, brown rice, lots of feta cheese, and tzatziki sauce.  It definitely hit the spot, and at $9.50, it also met the “under $10” test.  I gladly consumed it all.

As I sat relishing my meal, I thought idly about the name “GRAZE,” its clear bovine connotations, and its suitability for a restaurant name — but then I realized that horses also graze, and I obviously needed fuel for the afternoon’s race.  I concluded that GRAZE was a pretty good place to tie on the old feedbag.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XIII)

Some restaurant locations just seem star-crossed.  A new place opens up at the spot, seems to do well for a time, then closes, the building stands vacant for an extended period, and after a few years you’re trying to remember how many restaurants have actually operated in the space.  So it is with a building at the corner of Spring and High in downtown Columbus, which once was a Wendy’s, and at one point was a nice tapas-type place with a bar and outdoor seating.  Hey, has it been anything else?

Well, now the building houses Haveli Bistro, an Indian restaurant.  Hope springs eternal!

JV and I visited the HB yesterday for lunch.  The place was jammed with a lot of people who were angling for the buffet, and we had to wait briefly to be seated.  It seems that diners have two options — a lunch buffet, upstairs, or ordering from a very limited lunch menu, downstairs.  Because of the wait for the buffet, we chose the downstairs option, which allows you to choose from a non-vegetarian platter, a vegetarian platter, and a biryani platter.  The specific items on your plate depend upon what’s being served that day, as disclosed on a typed sheet at the front counter, and it doesn’t appear that you can choose your spice level.  (At least, we weren’t offered that option.)

JV and I went for the non-vegetarian platter, which turned out to be two chicken dishes, a chicken “lollipop,” rice, and two pieces of naan, with a dessert.  The food was served on a kind of cafeteria platter that reminded us of the Swanson frozen dinners of days gone by, except that the platter was plastic instead of foil.  (No “TV trays” in sight, however!)  I’m not sure of the specific names of chicken dishes, but they were good and served at a moderate spice level, and the chicken lollipop was tasty and not overly breaded.  I finished them all.  The dessert was a kind of vermicelli disk soaked in a sweet liquid.  I’m not a dessert guy so I tried a bite and decided I’d pass on the rest.

Lunch at Haveli Bistro isn’t really comparable to lunch at Indian Oven, with its full menu and terrific service, and my allegiance to IO as the best Indian restaurant in town, and one of the best Columbus restaurants, period, is unyielding.  Nevertheless, the Haveli Bistro is a nice option for people downtown who have a taste for some ethnic food.  Will the HB be able to exorcise the ghosts of restaurants past?  Stay tuned.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XII)

 

New buildings are going up all over downtown Columbus, and I’ve been hoping that we’ll be getting some new restaurants along with the new office and residential space. So when I saw that The Goat was open for business — even though the building it occupies is still seriously under construction — the Jersey Girl, the Origamist, and I decided to stroll down South High Street and pay it a visit.

Although the space surrounding the restaurant is a beehive of construction workers, scaffolding, and other equipment, the interior space at The Goat is finished and very pleasant, with high ceilings, an open, airy feeling, and lots of room between the tables and chairs. It’s reminiscent of a New York or LA bistro. The only downside we noted is that there were TVs everywhere, with the sound on, which was distracting while we were trying to carry on a conversation. I think there are too many TVs in America, period, but unless a restaurant intends to be a sports fan hangout — and the menu at The Goat doesn’t suggest that is the business model — it’s got to limit the idiot boxes to the immediate bar area. If I were running The Goat, I’d follow that approach and ditch a lot of the TVs. As it is, the place seems to be neither fish nor fowl.

As for the food, the menu is limited, but interesting.  I got the buffalo chicken wrap, which came with some very tasty fries.  The chicken was very tender and flavorful, and the wrap made for a substantial meal.  The only downside was that the wrap was chock full of iceberg lettuce, even though there was no mention of lettuce in the description of the dish on the menu.  This is another pet peeve of mine — a menu should disclose all ingredients in a dish, and diners should be entitled to rely on finding only what is listed when their order comes.  I hate iceberg lettuce, so I used the fork to shovel as much of it as possible out of the wrap.  Without the lettuce, the wrap was very good.  The Jersey Girl raved about her soup, and the Origamist liked her wrap, too.

I’ll go back to The Goat, which is a pretty nice setting for lunch, but I’d like it even better with fewer TVs and more information on the menu.

Our Own Urban (Fast) Food Desert

Yesterday we were having lunch at Pat & Gracie’s, a good spot just a few blocks east of the firm on Gay Street, talking about places to eat downtown, when we realized with a start that there are no longer any of the traditional fast food restaurants in the core downtown Columbus area.

fast-food-signsOnce, this was not the case.  There are was Arby’s just a block or so away, a White Castle, a Skyline Chili, and three Wendy’s.  Now, they’re all gone.  Unless I’m forgetting one, the only traditional fast food place even remotely in the downtown footprint is a McDonald’s located at the corner of Grant & Main, just south of Grant Hospital and the Main branch of the library, on the far fringes of the core downtown area.  The closest we’ve got to traditional fast food are a few Subway shops, including one that is across the street from the firm.  If you really want traditional fast food options in Columbus, Ohio, you need to head away from downtown and head to the ‘burbs and the highways.

Why have the fast food outlets moved out of the central downtown area?  The Red Sox Fan hypothesizes that, in the modern world, fast food restaurants have to have drive-thru service to be economically feasible, and the buildings and spaces in downtown Columbus just aren’t suited for that kind of design.  There’s no doubt, too, that rents in downtown Columbus are rising — that’s purportedly the reason for the lamentable closure of the Skyline Chili once located close to Broad and High, which did a bustling lunch trade — and high rents and fast food really don’t mix.  And it could be, too, that the downtown restaurant clientele, consisting of thousands of office workers like us and people staying at the downtown hotels, just don’t want to get typical fast food for their sit-down lunch and have found really terrific alternatives to traditional fast food throughout the downtown area.  Even if I need to eat at my desk to meet a deadline, there are lots of non-fast food options nearby where I can get something tasty and interesting on a carry-out basis.

It might be a chicken and egg scenario — which came first, the departure of the fast food outlets or the opening of lots of good, unique downtown eateries like those found on Gay Street? — but these days downtown Columbus, Ohio could be called an urban fast food desert.  I kind of like it that way.

A Whiff Of Spring

After months of enduring the rude blasts of winter, the people of Columbus were ready to savor a little decent weather. So when an unseasonably warm February day saw the temperatures hit the 70s, Columbusites weren’t about to let the moment pass without enjoying the spring-like conditions to the fullest. Along Gay Street, the patrons at the bars and restaurants were happily dining and drinking al fresco, and a downtown resident had donned shorts to walk his dog.

The dog seemed to enjoy the weather, too. Let’s face it — when February rolls around, everybody’s got a little spring fever.

The Random Restaurant Tour (X)

Yesterday Dr. Science and I visited Andes Bar & Grill, one of the very newest restaurants in downtown Columbus. It’s located on Fourth Street, next to the YWCA, in a spot previously occupied by Hae-Paul’s Korean-American eatery.

Andes offers home-cooked meals of Bolivian comfort food.  At our waitress’ suggestion, Dr. Science and I both went for the chicken and rice plate, and we also split some empanadas.  The chicken was a good-sized leg and thigh that had been slow-cooked.  It was awesomely juicy and tender, making it easy to use knife and fork to extricate every last ounce of succulent meat off the bone.  The chicken was served in a kind of rich gravy, and I gladly mixed the meat and gravy with the rice, added a few dashes from a bottle of Cholula hot sauce on the table, and went at it.  The empanadas also were quite good, crisp and crunchy on the outside and moist and hot on the inside.  Dr. Science, recalling his days handling test tubes and Bunsen burners, deftly used his empanada as a kind of fence to allow his fork to retrieve every last grain of rice.

The chicken was served at a mild spice level, and after we finished our food the friendly proprietor came by to ask how we liked the food and to clear our plates.  When he saw that we had both cleaned our plates and left only a few well-picked bones behind, he beamed.  He also happens to be the cook, and we asked about the available options if you’re looking for a little additional kick with your meal.  He said that traditionally Bolivian food is served at a very mild spice level, and people can then tailor the heat of their dish to their specific taste by adding sauces that are served separately.  He said that Andes has two homemade sauces that you can use for that purpose, one that is at a moderate spice level and one that goes in, all guns blazing.

The chance to eat that home-cooked food with a fiery sauce will definitely cause me to spring on the back of my llama and head back to the Andes.