The Best Meal In Cincinnati
The only thing The Post is more passionate about than The FC is gorging ourselves on all the outstanding food Cincinnati has to offer. Outsiders might bristle at the variety, quality and accessibility of amazing eats around these parts, but the truth is impossible to ignore. With that said, The Post contributors set out to answer an important question: If you could go out for only one meal in Cincinnati, where would you go? Whether you’re a Cincy lifer, or just in town to watch your team tie FCC at TQL, give these places a taste...
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a highbrow guy with a highbrow account, so I’m not going to waste your time with any of the “local favorites.” Instead, I’m going to take you to the best meal in the city: The five-course tasting menu at Nicola’s. Now, I know some folks out for an expensive meal might prefer, say, The Precinct, but when you go to a steakhouse you’re just paying for ingredients. At a place like Nicola’s, you’re paying the kitchen for putting food together in a way that you simply cannot.
The menu rotates, but you’re sure to find two staples. First, for those who aren’t gluten intolerant - which is everyone, because gluten intolerance is fake - Nicola’s has the best bread bowl you’ve ever had. Second, and worth the price of admission alone, is the perfectly cooked gnocchi. (Vegetarian versions of the menu are available for those so inclined.) And while the house Negroni might look appetizing, I’m going to tell you to get the wine pairing. The pours are generous and, if you’re nice or it’s your birthday, they might even throw in an extra glass or two of whatever happens to be open.
So I’m telling you, you can eat whatever slop the others are trying to dish out any day of the week, but if we’re going out for one meal in Cincinnati, it’s going to be at Nicola’s.
Chief War Pig
To be very clear, the Chief loves fine dining. There are few pleasures in life more reliable than a good steak from Ruby’s or the short rib ravioli at Sotto. But, if you’re asking me to recommend one meal in Cincinnati, I’m not sending someone to a place with white linens and a goddamn dress code. Not the Chief’s style.
For my money, you're always gonna have your best time at the bars that fall into that weird middle area between “Dive” and “Pretentious Gastropub.” Cincinnati has a lot of great choices in this space (Rich’s Proper, The Oak, Knockback’s, Local Post, etc.), but "The Hi-Mark" on Eastern Avenue will always be my favorite. So, with that in mind, give me their Chicken Torta, with a basket of Nacho Fries and a PBR tall boy. It should tell you how good this is that they use crinkle-cut fries (objectively the worst kind of French fry) and I still recommend it. Best bar food you can get in the entire city, but far enough away from downtown as to never be annoyingly crowded. They’ve also got the benefit of being owned by the same people who do Pho Lang Tang, which helps explain the existence of a better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Bahn Mi on the menu. Plus, there's skee-ball in the basement, which automatically bumps any place up a full star ranking.
Welcome to Cincinnati, now please leave immediately. We don't want you here. Anything that contributes to traffic, even development or progress, we hate. So, seriously.. turn around.... and go to Evendale where the best restaurant in the Greater Cincinnati Area resides, Sichuan Chili. Bring some TUMS, a stick of gum, and a glass of milk. Order the Sichuan Sizzling Beef, extra spicy and prove your worth to the gods above and below. Currently their dining room is closed so you'll have to eat this in your car or back at the hotel. You can't go wrong with any dish there but for ultimate value, peep the Sichuan Dumplings in chili oil. They're massive, and the chili oil from Sichuan Chili is on point, perfect balance of hot and savory with a touch of chili crisp. The Dan-Dan Noodles are also a great choice if you're on a budget. Both dishes come with a generous amount of chili oil/crisp as well as a ridiculous amount of minced garlic and green onions on top (remember that gum). While you're at it, get an order of the dry chili fish filets; it simply doesn't make sense how good these are.
For a bonus selection - the Bo-Bo beef, extra spicy. I consider myself a journeyman spice-lover, and found this dish a pleasant journey, but such is the ephemeral experience of that trademark Mala flavor you get from Sichuan cuisine - you're in for a special, physiological response a number of hours later. I lovingly refer to this phenomenon as "hot-dick". Yes, that's right.. food so pervasively hot it turns your central essence into an intimate furnace; quite the exhilarating experience you'd be a fool not to try.
Grace of India
Cincinnati has an incredible wealth of Indian restaurants. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches bestowed upon this random midwestern city that we have so much (mostly) Northern Indian cuisine to choose from. My gateway drug was Chicken Vindaloo. In fact, I found it so joyous that I never veer away from it.
“We get it Jonah, you like vindaloo.”
You don’t get it. The somewhat incestuous nature of Indian restaraunt ownership in this city means there’s no guarantee the way YOU like a dish is the way that dish will always be. Someone buys your favorite spot, and suddenly the vindaloo is like the previous place you didn’t like as much. Just as likely, one you’ve written off after a bad experience is suddenly revived by owners from a past favorite. It’s hard to keep up! For me, one has remained consistent in making the best vindaloo for the longest: Grace of India. Placed precariously on the corner of Blue Rock and Cheviot Rd in White Oak, GOI is the GOAT. A rich, thick sauce in a near burgundy / maroon color, GOI’s vindaloo runs circles around some of it’s thinner, watery brown eastside brethren. This luscious liquid tickles your taste buds over rice, or wrapped tightly in a perfectly charred piece of nan. Maximum spice level is a must, and ordering a 1 out of 6 is extremely frowned upon…. by me.
Don’t waste my time listing your Amol, your Ambar, SWAD, Dushmesh, Shaan, Adeep, Elephant Walk, or Baba… I’ve had them all! I am not your guide for tikka masala, or rogan josh. I’m your local vindaloo sherpa who is telling you the only vindaloo that truly matters right now is being made in White Oak. You have one meal to eat in Cincinnati, and you are eating vindaloo at Grace of India.
Camp Washington Chili
Ok, I’ll be that guy. Look, if you only have one meal in Cincinnati it might as well be about as Cincinnati as you can get. No chains, local cuisine, beloved institution, and a little variety is what you’d be looking for. I’d recommend this place to locals and to tourists. The undisputed champion of the “Cincinnati Single Meal”: Camp Washington Chili. No, no, no whatever chili parlor you just thought of is not better and you’re very wrong. If you even say the word “Dixie” in a conversation about chili you lose about 15 faction points with me.
Camp Washington Chili, it’s the obvious answer because it’s the obvious answer. You simply cannot top it. A diner started by immigrants who brought back a taste of home and put a new spin on it to survive in their new country. If the American Dream had a flavor, it would be Cincinnati Chili. And sweat. But thankfully Johnny Johnson doesn’t add sweat to the chili. And if you’re going to have Cincinnati chili, the best Cincinnati Chili in Cincinnati is in Camp Washington, Cincinnati.
For the actual meal, I’d suggest getting a gyro with chili cheese fries. You get a taste of the old country and the new with this combo, it’s also extremely approachable to outsiders who will eat “garbage plates” and “chili dogs” but scoff at Cincinnati chili. And locals who only eat at Skyline will be shocked to learn there is a touch of ethnicity in their favorite food. Wash the whole thing down with a local beer, which is uncommon to find in a chili parlor, and you’ll turn your gut into a Cincinnati melting pot. Delicious. Since Camp Washington is open 24/6, if you happen to visit in the wee hours of the morning, goetta is on the menu, but you know you’re going to try the chili and cheese omelette because of course you are you animal. Other food might be better, but it won’t be more important to the city. And that’s what wins food arguments. Right?