Taste of Cincinnati 2008 • Fifth Street, from Race Street to Broadway in Downtown Cincinnati
Like all good hungry people in Cincinnati, we made our way downtown over the weekend for the Taste of Cincinnati 2008. With five blocks of side-by-side vendors serving small, inexpensive dishes of everything from overpriced water ($3.25 for a bottle!) and beer to burgers, crab cakes, and chicken curry, the ToC was a ton of fun and a great chance for us to sample a few new places.
First victim, please…
Arloi Dee: Thai Bistro & Asian Cuisine • 4920 Socialville Foster Rd. • Mason, OH 45040 • (513) 229-3996/7
We don’t usually review places outside 275, but Arloi Dee is only about 10 minutes further, the menu at ToC looked good, and I was pretty hungry, so we’re making an exception. I ordered the Chicken Curry with Rice from a a list of traditional Thai selections including Veggie Phad Thai, California Rolls, and Spring Rolls. The Chicken Curry was delicious—loads of flavor and plenty of kick to leave you looking for the closest watering hole if you’re a spciy-heat-lightweight. The rice was well cooked, the chicken was tasty, and the curry left me wanting more. So while you can’t necessarily judge a restaurant by its $4 sample at a fair, I wouldn’t hesitate to stop by if I was in the area.
Bangkok Bistro • 3506 Erie Ave • Cincinnati, OH 45208 • (513) 871-0707
With the edge of my hunger satisfied, we started looking for some smaller, appetizer-like dishes to try. That’s when we discovered the dollar-spring rolls at Bagkok Bistro. In the few hours that we spent at ToC, I don’t think we saw anything that came close in value to these spring rolls—and they were a pretty decent size, too! The problem was that while nothing touched them in terms of value, almost everything beat them in terms of taste. The spring rolls were pretty bland and lacked any semblance of seasoning or flavor. Even the accompanying chili sauce didn’t have much taste to it. That said, the spring rolls certainly didn’t leave a bad taste in our mouths; rather, they just didn’t leave any taste at all—kind of like eating a slice of plain bread. I hate to jump to conclusions based on such a small sample, but since the point of ToC is to advertise, I can’t say I’ll be looking to find Bangkok Bistro anytime soon.
At this point we'd like to send a shout-out to the Greater Cincinnati Water Works, the only vendor kind enough to give out a much desired treat for free! OK, it was water, but still the stall next door had bottles of the same H2O (though I'm sure they'd dispute that) for more than $3! The water was clear, cold, and tasted just fine—even after we discovered it was coming from a fire hydrant. Who knew hydrant water was that clean? I was impressed. Now back to the food...
Behle Street Cafe • 50 E. RiverCenter Blvd. • Covington, KY 41011 • (513) 291-4100
Fortunately, my next stop was much more successful. After another lap of the ToC, I was hungry for more, and I set my sights the crab cakes at Behle Street. We haven’t really reviewed anything across the river outside of Newport yet, but we’re determined to fix that. Behle Street Cafe is just across the river from downtown, and based of my admittedly short experience is well worth a visit. The crab cakes that I tried were delicious. The crab was tender and deliciously seasoned. The outside of the cake was cooked just right—not burnt, but crisp enough to keep its shape even after a bite. The accompanying sauce was also terrific and added just a little bit of kick to the dish. This one’s a winner, and I hope to find it again.
Mama Vita’s Ristorante Italiano • 6405 Branch-Hill Guinea Road • Loveland, OH 45140 • (513) 697-9705
Sticking with the roller-coaster pattern, along came a dish that was one of the downers of the day. There are lots of ways to describe great bruschetta, but soggy is not usually among them. The bruschetta we ordered had fresh, ripe tomatoes, but apparently someone either neglected to fully toast the bread or just chose the wrong kind because this bread almost collapsed in our hand (good thing the mini-bruschettas were bite size). As another venue outside 275, we think you can probably skip this one.
Embrace Sweets • Cincinnati, OH • (513) 921–0079
Available at Findlay Market • 1801 Race St • Cincinnati, OH 45202
Having been disappointed by the bruschetta, we knew we couldn’t leave on a low note. In true form, we headed for dessert. On our first lap we had spotted the booth for Findlay Market, which featured Embrace’s Brownie Bar, and that’s where we headed. Embrace’s brownie bar featured their scrumptious (a word used too infrequently) brownies with your choice of any or all toppings including S’mores (mini-marshemellows and graham cracker crumbs), nuts, coconut, sprinkles, and chocolate or caramel sauces. We went for the chocolate brownie with chocolate syrup, s’mores, and sprinkles. It was fantastic. Good brownies are hard to find, but this one is worth a good search. We’ve put a visit to Findlay Market in our calendars to make sure we can find them again!
Taste from Belgium • (859) 380-6226
Available at Findlay Market • 1801 Race St • Cincinnati, OH 45202
As good as the Embrace brownie was, I still needed more. Conveniently, the next table down from Embrace Sweets was Taste from Belgium. Having been to Brussels to dine on beer, waffles, and chocolate (do you need a more compelling reason to go?), I’m always suspicious of places advertising “Belgian” waffles. Finally...FINALLY, I have found one that does not disappoint! In true Belgian form, the waffles were made with a sweet sugar and vanilla batter, and topping them with chocolate sauce never hurts :-) The waffles were perfectly browned, and never became even remotely soggy from the chocolate sauce. They were absolutely delicious! There was one small detail that they really need to fix, though—Hershey’s does not equal Belgian chocolate sauce. The waffle was terrific, but adding Hershey’s syrup to such a great dessert wasn’t exactly the cherry-on-top we wanted. Nonetheless, we’ll be looking around the city for these waffles in the future.
We were going to meet some friends at Taste of Cincinnati. We didn’t pick a place to meet, but basically left it as “it’s only five blocks. We’ll find you.” What we failed to account for was the wall-to-wall crowd packed into five blocks, sometimes walking at a normal speed, sometimes barely walking, and sometimes standing in line for a few minutes for food that was (hopefully) really worth it. My one complaint about this awesome event, where almost fifty restaurants set up booths with small tasting portions of a few dishes available for sale, was that it was not restricted to local establishments. Given the name of the event, “Taste of Cincinnati,” I was surprised to also see restaurants that exist all over the country. We avoided those.
Pompilios's • 600 Washington Ave. • Newport, KY 41071 • (859) 581-3065
I started with a bang. I saw the Pompilio’s booth, and remembered that it has been recommended to us right here on Restaurants and Reservations. They had a dish that looked delicious to me, so I decided to give it a try. The Cheese Tortellini with Three Cheese Cream Sauce was a little heavier than what I should have started with at this food fest, but it was definitely worth it. The portion was generous for tasting, so I can only imagine the portion sizes at the actual restaurant. The sauce was not only cheesy, but had more flavor, vegetables, and a kick. I loved it, and only wished I had some good bread to sop up the extra sauce!
My next stop was the Bangkok Bistro booth where they had dollar Veggie Spring Rolls. That seemed like a deal, so we each got one. Sadly, that meant we were each disappointed. They had very little flavor, even for veggie spring rolls. The sweet and sour sauce was equally uninspiring. A similar one could be found in any grocery store. All in all, they were hot, which was nice, but highly unexciting. An all around letdown, especially because Bangkok Bistro is one of the few restaurants whose booths we visited that is close to where we live, but we likely won’t be heading over that way any time
After these dishes we ran into my friends, heading the other direction. One told me, “Best hamburgers I have had in a long time were at the Rusty Bucket tent. I am definitely going to be going there sometime soon.” Another recommended the Sam Adams summer beer, and after my sip of hers, I’ll second that recommendation. So since we didn’t get to the Rusty Bucket booth, I’m passing along his words of praise.
Then we took a Wii Fit interlude. They had those tents set up towards the middle of the fair, and had a pretty constant flow of traffic in the 8-ish stations they had set up for trying it out. I played soccer badly, not quite avoiding the shoes thrown at my head, while missing the headers of many of the soccer balls. He wobbled to get balls into a hole, with slightly (only slightly) more success. Not edible, but lots of fun. And then I was hungry again.
We considered the honey roasted corn on the cob, but the line at Eddie’s Southern Style BBQ was so long that we decided we (okay, I) didn’t have the patience. My friends had recommended that, too. Next time. Also with a really long line that we didn’t feel like waiting in was Indigo, with a pirate-themed booth that does not resemble the Hyde Park restaurant at all.
Bella Luna Cafe • 4632 Eastern Ave • Cincinnati, OH 45226 • (513) 871-5862
We got to the end and turned around to go back to some things that had looked good, but we skipped the first time through. I got Portobello Ravioli with a Gorgonzola-Red Pepper sauce from Bella Luna’s. Yum. It was one giant ravioli, so while the portion was smaller than that of my tortellini, it was delicious anyway. The ravioli was so over-stuffed that I didn’t feel deprived by having only one, and there was a perfect amount of cheese on top. Coming from a cheese-lover, that means there was a lot. I’m looking forward to going to the real Bella Luna’s to have more!
Mama Vita’s Ristorante Italiano
As we headed toward some good desserts we had seen earlier, we wanted one more little thing. We thought that the Mama Vita’s bruschetta would fit the bill, so we stopped there to split an order (four small slices of bread topped with tomatoes, garlic, and basil). After the first bite, neither of us was happy. The bread managed to be soggy and stale all at once. The tomato mixture on the top was good, and I should have just eaten that without the bread, but I pressed on anyway. I’m considering giving them the benefit of the doubt, that they were preparing lots of brushcetta for this event, and making the toasts individually for each order was impossible. And yet, some of the other booths managed to have their dishes come out quite perfectly, so chances are we won’t be driving out to Loveland any time soon to give Mama Vita’s another try.
Finally, it was time for dessert. We started with the brownie bowls at Embrace Sweets, which was part of the Findlay Market booth. They describe it as a brownie sundae without the ice cream. We got chocolate syrup and s’more toppings (mini marshmallows and graham cracker crumbs) and sprinkles. I think it would have been even better with ice cream, but that’s just me. The brownie was decent, but hard to taste on its own underneath all the stuff on top. It was pretty good, but nothing too exciting. I’d happily eat something else from Embrace that was less covered up with stuff to really see how good their baked goods are, because it was hard to tell from this one. It was really only half a brownie, a small triangle, so naturally, we had another dessert afterwards.
Taste from Belgium
We went to the Taste of Belgium part of the Findlay booth to have waffles. They were giving out samples in front, so of course we sampled before we got in line. The sample was fantastic! It tasted like a good waffle with lots of butter and a bit of vanilla (I think) and sugar, possibly right in the batter. We ordered the one with chocolate syrup. Unfortunately, we realized after we ordered that the chocolate syrup was Hershey’s Syrup. Now, I have a bottle of it in the fridge, because it makes yummy daily chocolate milk. But when I’m topping something even a little gourmet, or ice cream, or anything where I’m really going to taste the syrup itself, Hershey’s is the last thing I use. It’s not exactly the best chocolate syrup out there. So the waffle lost points with me for that. With a good chocolate topping, it would have been amazing. Instead, it was just pretty darn good. I’ll take it, and I’ll visit them again when I finally get to Findlay Market…eventually.
Also, I’m already looking forward to the variety of food and people-watching available at next year’s Taste of Cincinnati!