Inching Back To The Norm At The North

Yesterday it was a brisk but bright day in Columbus. The B.A. Jersey Girl and I both had a hankering for some Momo Ghar dumplings and their killer sauce, so we decided to brave the stiff fall breeze and hike up to the North Market for lunch. It’s the first time we’ve been there since some distant time in the P.P. (Pre-Pandemic) Period.

I’m pleased to report that the North Market was bustling when we got there and decked out in its holiday finery. There were lots of shoppers downstairs, and diners like us looking for our lunches, and when we had purchased our dumplings and went upstairs to eat most of the tables in the large dining area were occupied. We grabbed one of the few open tables and proceeded to dig into our dumplings (which were exceptionally delicious, as always) and enjoy our lunch. Even when we left at about 1 p.m., and I snapped the above photo, there were still latecomers upstairs eating and lingering at their tables, and some shoppers downstairs, too.

I wouldn’t say the North Market is back to its normal, P.P. traffic and trade–yet–but I was heartened by the cars in the parking lot and the number of customers in the building. Of course, we wore masks when we were downstairs buying our lunch, in compliance with the order issued by Columbus’ mayor, but it was still great to see so many people out and about–Delta, Omicron, or other COVID-19 variants be damned. The North Market is a civic treasure and its businesses, like other Columbus small businesses, deserve our support. Yesterday’s experience suggests that other people share that feeling.

We’re gradually getting closer to the P.P. normal. And as more people get out and get back to their old habits like going to the North Market for lunch–and rediscover delights like Momo Ghar dumplings–the trend will grow stronger. It has been, and will be, a prolonged process, but we’re definitely getting closer.

Our Changing Skyline

For years now, the skyline of downtown Columbus has stayed pretty much the same.  For decades, it’s been the Nationwide complex of buildings to the north, the courthouse and municipal buildings to the south, and the cluster of high-rises surrounding Capitol Square and the LeVeque Tower in the middle.

All of that is now changing, and rapidly.  As I mentioned recently, there are construction cranes all over the downtown area.  Every day I walk past a construction site at the corner of Rich and Third Street that is taking the place of what used to be a grassy expanse adjacent to Columbus Commons that was home to kickball games and exercise groups.  Soon it is going to be the location of a 12-story mixed use building with retail on the ground floor, a few stories of office space, and residential units.  There are similar multi-story, “mixed use” buildings under construction up and down High Street, filling in most of the surface parking lots that have been an eyesore on Columbus’ main north-south street and helping to bridge the “skyline gap” between the taller buildings in downtown Columbus.  And the city is abuzz about the recent announcement of a 35-story skyscraper to be built next to the North Market — an addition that will really change the look of the skyline.

Columbus isn’t Manhattan, where the construction of a 35-story building wouldn’t merit much attention.  Here in the heartland, a 35-story building is a pretty big deal.

But, to my mind, the North Market high-rise announcement, and the other construction projects aren’t the biggest sign of how things are changing in downtown Columbus.  Instead, the most compelling indicator is the money that has been poured into refurbishing the crumbling, crappy Long Street garage, where I used to park my car until the structure was condemned by the city.  Amazingly, a new owner purchased the building and has been working on it for months, giving it a spiffy blue metal and glass facelift and adding a car wash option for parkers.  You know your downtown area is heading in the right direction when developers are willing to put money into a derelict parking garage in the expectation that the conversion of surface lots into buildings, and the influx of workers and new downtown residents, will make a better parking garage a profitable enterprise.

What’s going on in downtown Columbus is pretty amazing, and we’re going to be seeing the results of the changes every day as we drive, and walk, and bike, into work.


Hot Chicken Takeover

IMG_5027There’s a new sensation drawing throngs of diners to the North Market.  Called Hot Chicken Takeover, it appears on Thursdays in an otherwise unused space on the second floor, deftly serves thousands of hungry Columbusites eager to savor some delectable yardbird, then vanishes again until the next weekend approaches.

Yesterday when the Ex-Neighbor and I arrived the check HCT out the line was already long, and a look of bug-eyed chickenlust was on the face of every would-be patron.  A friendly worker handed us a menu, and the E-N and I scanned it as the line moved along.  We quickly decided on our choices — both featuring waffles — as the tantalizing scent of fried chicken hung heavy in the air and workers called out the names of people whose orders were ready.  In the meantime, some lucky souls were seated at long tables covered with red and white-checked table, already attacking their food with frenzied glee.

IMG_5028I got the thigh and leg combo; the E-N went for a chicken breast.  We both chose waffles over bread (which costs a bit extra) and selected the “hot” flavor (HCT has four seasoning options, with “hot” being second behind a mouth-burning level described on the menu only with a curse word) and took our seats.  After a few minutes of pleasant conversation, our styrofoam containers of crunchy goodness arrived, and we dug in.  The chicken smelled wonderful and tasted better than excellent — piping hot, juicy, with tons of flavor and a rising, accumulative heat level that left me greedily sucking my fingers and nibbling on bones searching for final scraps of meat until the E-N discreetly advised me, with just a hint of embarrassment, that I needed to wipe my face and start acting my age.  The spicy chicken goes perfectly with the sweetness a waffle and syrup, and the mac and cheese side dish, which is light and bright and not leaden with cheese, is a fine complement.

When we left a sign advised that HCT had sold out of two of its options, and by the end of the lunch hour it was all gone.  No surprise there!  When a place that serves fried chicken this good pops up — even if only in a mysterious, only-on-some-days, end-of-the-week way — it’s going to be ridiculously popular.  Now we know why.

Columbus Microbrew Festival

This afternoon I stopped by the North Market to pick up some wine and cheese to consume tonight — it is a holiday weekend, after all — and I picked up a flier for the Columbus Microbrew Festival.

It’s the 8th annual Festival.  The 8th!  I’ve been blissfully unaware that the Festival even existed, so I’ve missed the first seven.  The very thought gives me an empty, gnawing feeling.

As any reader of our little blog knows, I am a big supporter of local businesses and downtown activities. I also love beer, so the Festival is right up my alley.  My question to our readers — and I’m thinking here of the Biking Brewer — is:  what is appropriate behavior at a Microbrew Festival?  Are attendees supposed to sip the brews and comment daintily on the “nose” and whether the taste has hints of raspberry and anise, or is it acceptable to guzzle every adult malt beverage within reach and thank the ancient gods that they taught the fine art of brewing to our ancestors?

I’m also very intrigued by the names of some of the microbrewers who will be participating in the Festival.  Who wouldn’t want to sample a porter brewed by Weasel Boy Brewing Company, or Thirsty Dog Brewing Company, or Seventh Son Brewing Company?  What central Ohioan wouldn’t feel compelled to sample the product of Mt. Carmel Brewing Company, or Buckeye Lake Brewery?

If you’re intrigued, too, mark your calendars — the Festival is September 13, 14, and 15 at the North Market.

North Market, Friday Night, April 26

IMG_1180It’s been a long week, so to get the weekend started right, I made a stop at the North Market.  I love the Curds & Whey cheese counter.  It sells all kinds of cheese and other goodies that make for an excellent Friday night tasting.  I typically ask the proprietor to make some selections for me, and tonight I’ll be noshing on some Morbier, Mimolette, and kalamata olives.  Then I stopped by the wine shop, where there are always interesting and reasonably priced selections.  Two bottles of red and $22 later, I was on my way home.

Now I sit, sipping some wine, getting ready to open the cheese, and feeling like the weekend is ready to open before me like a spring flower.

North Market Lunching: Firdous Express

Your life has been a bit bland, you say?  Your dulled taste buds have a hankering for a little Mediterranean flavor, and you are hungry, besides?  Then wander over to the North Market to Firdous Express, across from Hubert’s Polish Kitchen, let your eyes feast on the many freshly made, piping hot, ever-changing entrees that are displayed beneath the glass, and know that you have come to the right place.

Firdous has something for just about everyone.  They feature stews and spicy concoctions made with chicken, lamb, and beef, a vast array of different vegetables, different salad options and rice options, excellent hummus, and pita bread.  As is true throughout the North Market, lunch is reasonably priced, and you get great value for your buck.  Lunch at Firdous, with drink, comes in at about $10, and for that you get an entree over rice and a salad or hummus with pita bread.  (Guess which I pick?)

When I visit Firdous I usually favor a tender, cubed chicken in a lemony sauce that tastes fantastic over a bed of rice and lentils.  On my most recent trip, however, I decided to branch out and went for a delicately spiced stew of meat and tomatoes, along with my standard side of rice and lentils and creamy hummus and pita bread.  It was excellent — I’d expected nothing less — and I left a happy man.

North Market Lunching:  Hubert’s Polish Kitchen

North Market Lunching:  Nida’s Sushi

North Market Lunching:  Kitchen Little

North Market Lunching: Hubert’s Polish Kitchen

If I had to pick one word to describe the food at Hubert’s Polish Kitchen, that word would be “hearty.”  This is a place to go if you are hungry.  Hubert’s offers unabashedly meat-oriented fare with no apologies, and it is tasty fare, indeed.

The proprietor, Hubert, is one of the nicest guys you’re likely to meet.  He proudly told me on one of my visits that his food is prepared using recipes that he got from his grandmother.  She obviously was a darned good cook!  On a typical day you are likely to find some combination of breaded chicken cutlets, kielbasa, different types of stews, pierogi, goulash, Polish cole slaw, mashed potatoes, leek salad, dumplings, and cucumbers and sour cream, among other goodies.  The service is fast and friendly, and Hubert just might insist that you give a new concoction a try.  After you make your purchase, he’ll ask you to come back and let him know how you liked it.

My typical selection from Hubert’s is the breaded chicken cutlet with mashed potatoes and sliced cucumbers with sour cream.  The cutlet is man-sized, well seasoned, tender and juicy.  The mashed spuds are excellent, and I usually ask to have a bit of stew poured over the top.  With a diet Coke, the price tab comes to about $10 — which is a pretty good deal for a full belly and a happy encounter with the nice folks behind the counter.

North Market Lunching:  Nida’s Sushi

North Market Lunching:  Kitchen Little

North Market Lunching: Nida’s Sushi

Nida’s Sushi is an unusual place.  Tucked away in one of the interior lanes in the North Market complex, Nida’s Sushi feels like it is in a different country entirely.  With cramped counter space, countless porcelain cats strewn across the counter, and people working hard in a tiny kitchen area, you feel like this place would fit comfortably in just about any side street off the Ginza.

The colorful beverage cooler

Nida’s offers sushi, soups, curries, traditional oriental fare, and a curious selection of other foods.  This is your place to visit if you want to get a large can of fiery wasabi peas, seaweed salad, squid salad, sweet rice cakes, or bags of unknown snacks.

And the beverage cooler features the most eclectic offering of refreshments you are likely to find anywhere in Columbus.  The drinks come in just about every color of the rainbow — although green seems to be especially popular — but I don’t know precisely what flavors are available because many of the containers have only Japanese labels.  Some of the packaging makes the drinks look disturbingly like bottles of mouthwash.  Perhaps for that reason, I haven’t been brave enough to reach into the cooler, grab a drink at random, and take my chances.

The chicken Pad Thai

The food is pretty good and reasonably priced.  I particularly like the chicken Pad Thai, which is served in a no-frills styrofoam container with a plastic fork.  For only $7.25, you get a large portion that is chock full of  well-flavored chicken, noodles, egg, peanuts and crunchy bean sprouts.  The sign above the counter says the Pad Thai is the “best authentic in Columbus.”  I don’t know whether that is true or not, but it is tasty.  Add a diet Dr. Brown’s — or, if you are a more adventurous type, one of the unknown liquid concoctions from the colorful cooler — and you’ve got a good North Market lunch.

North Market Lunching:  Kitchen Little

North Market Lunching: Kitchen Little

Today's cassoulet lunch

For some months now, a group of us have gotten in the habit of walking from downtown to the North Market for lunch.  We get some exercise and fresh air along the way, and once we reach the market we face a cornucopia of excellent lunch choices — and we are supporting local businesses, besides.  I’ve sampled the cuisine at many of the North Market establishments, and I think its time that other downtown Columbus workers give the place a shot.  So, I will be starting a periodic series on North Market lunch options in hopes of encouraging our handful of Columbus readers to wander down to the Market for their midday meals.

The order area at Kitchen Little

Today The Cave Dweller, the Conservative, and I visited the Market.  I felt like something hearty, and when I am in that mode I beat feet to Kitchen Little.  At Kitchen Little, they serve meat — and lots of it, too.  The food is all locally sourced, and it is fresh and flavorful.  Kitchen Little partners with certain local farms (they are helpfully listed on the blackboard above the ordering area) and the eatery and its partners always offer interesting, and often exotic, lunch options.  On any given day you might find something made with buffalo, or rabbit, as well as the Kitchen Little staples — or, as they call them, the “usual suspects.”

Ah, the “usual suspects”!  For my money, you can’t beat the cassoulet for quality, taste, and value.  The cassoulet meal comes with two sides, and they are pretty good, too.  Kitchen Little usually offers several vegetables, macaroni and cheese, beans, and several different potato options.  Today I got the cassoulet, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, freshly baked bread with butter, and bottled water for $10.  The cassoulet was tremendous — loaded with sausage chunks, multiple tender cuts of meat, and beans, in a rich sauce.  The mac and cheese was well prepared, firm and not too cheesy, and the mashed spuds were well whipped with a delicate flavor.  Terrific value for $10.

Kitchen Little is a bargain — a kind of hidden secret of fine food, locally raised and carefully prepared, tucked away in a corner of the North Market.  You really need to find it.