Friday, May 29, 2009

Newport Pizza Company

Newport Pizza Company
601 Monmouth St.
Newport, KY

When I learned that our neighborhood was getting a new pizza house, my first thought was, "Do we really need another one?" Forgive me for being a bit jaded, but with several other independents and franchises already servicing the area (Pasquales, Dewey's, Donatos, Papa Johns, Pizza Hut etc) I figured the market was already saturated.

Newport Pizza Co. - the new kid in town

Regardless, the lure of a new pizza parlor within walking distance of our house is red rag to a bull. Our first visit found restaurant staff airing a Pearl Jam concert on the flatscreen TVs. The music was loud, and the concert was on the whole time we were there. I'd have rather heard a variety of artists, but no biggie. A repeat visit later in the week found a good selection of college rock playing at reasonable levels and a Reds game on the TV.

The restaurant has several vegetarian appetizers (asiago spinach dip, garlic bread, french fries, and fried mozzarella sticks); one vegetarian sandwich served hot or cold on a toasted hoagie; several salads and a pair of vegetarian specialty pizzas: the Lotsa Mozza and Roma (fresh mozzarella, roma tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic and olive oil) and The Zeus (fresh baby spinach, feta cheese, roma tomatoes, roasted garlic, olive oil and asiago cheese). All pizzas come in two sizes: 12" and 16".

Side Salad at Newport Pizza Co.

On my first visit I tried a side salad and the Veggie Ortaggio hoagie served cold, while Steve and Pete opted to try two of the non-veggie specialty pizzas. I'm not sure how appealing a raw veggie sandwich on a buttered, toasted bun is to most people, vegetarian or not, but I'm a big fan of raw foods and really enjoyed the contrast of crunchy vegetables and soft, lightly toasted bread. The sandwich was chock full of the kind of toppings one normally finds at a pizza place (mushroom, green pepper, olives etc) but also the occasional unusual one, like broccoli. It was a little like Subway, but more fun.

Veggie Ortaggio Sandwich on toasted hoagie
The Monmouth Pizza
The BBQ Chicken Pizza

The guys were knocked out by their choices of BBQ Chicken Pizza and The Monmouth, so much so that I was somewhat jealous that I hadn't ordered a pizza as well, something I rectifed on a second visit with The Zeus.

The 12" Zeus

This is a damned good pie. The crust was perfect - thick enough not to crumble like a saltine, yet not so thick that your jaws get tired of chewing. I also liked the use of slightly salty feta and asiago cheeses as an alternative to mozzarella. Nice!

The menu doesn't mention alcoholic beverages - nor did the server on our first visit - so we had no idea that the restaurant had a liquor license until we noticed a couple bottles of wine sitting on a ledge behind the counter. I questioned the wait staff and learned that they have quite a few bottled imports and craft beers on hand, as well as a couple of house wines.

An undersized air conditioning unit coupled with a large bank of windows means the restaurant can get stuffy on sunny days, although they have taken measures to curb the heat by installing curtains. Whether or not that will alleviate the problem remains to be seen, but it shows that owner Lee Kinzer is mindful of customer suggestions and is working to make his place the best pie house in town. He's got my vote.

Newport Pizza Company on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Myra's Dionysus

Myra's Dionysus
121 Calhoun St.

Vegetarians cannot go wrong at Myra's Dionysus. This restaurant has been serving up great veggie fare for years and there is a reason for their staying power when so many other places go bust: great food at great prices served in an friendly, unpretentious atmosphere.

The restaurant's prime location in the heart of the University of Cincinnati no doubt helps the bottom line, but it's the jawdropping amount of vegetarian fare that keeps me returning year after year. From the astonishing number of wholesome, veggie/vegan soups to the remarkable list of Mediterranean-inspired sandwiches and rice dishes, it is obvious that the folks at Myra’s are old hands at vegetarian/vegan fare. I do not know how long the restaurant has been in business, but judging from the dark wood paneling, hand-painted signs and other hippie touches, I’m guessing they opened in the mid-70’s.

Not every item on their vast menu is available everyday because food is prepared in small batches of daily specials and can sell out. Their menu lists approximately 30 soups, for instance, but not every one of them will be on offer. It's best to call ahead to find out what's cooking if there's a certain something that's got your jones.

Homemade hummus and garlic oregano pita points

While Myra's menu is skewed heavily in favor of vegetarians, they do offer a couple of chicken dishes and spiced meat gyros for those not interested in a veggie meal. For those not adverse to mock meats, they offer a FBLT (faux bacon/lettuce/tomato) sandwich and a green salsa burrito filled with soyrizo.

Even though the Turkish Imam Bialdi dish of eggplant and tomato sounded divine, and past experience of their baked tofu had me waffling about what to order, in the end I had to feed my craving and go with the falafel pita sandwich.

Awesome falafel sandwich

It's a simple sandwich comprised of fried chickpea patties garnished with tomato, romaine lettuce, and pickle that is really packed with flavor thanks to the interplay of the spiced patties and the bright tahini lemon sauce. Delicious.

Be sure to leave room for dessert when visiting Myra's. You'll see the chilled deli case of home made desserts as soon as you walk through the door - stop and have a look. Chances are that something in there will strike your fancy. For me, it was a coin toss between key lime pie and vegan lemon-blueberry pound cake, although there are plenty of chocolaty goodies too. While I found the vegan pound cake delicious, it was almost too sweet for me. I like my desserts on the sharp side, and the iced topping on the cake overpowered the tart blueberries and lemon.

Vegan lemon-blueberry pound cake

The student-friendly prices and hours (open til 10 p.m. Sunday and weekdays, and 11 p.m. on weekends) make Myra's a popular haunt, although parking along Calhoun can be hit or miss. Save your meter money and park in the free lot at the corner of Calhoun and Scioto. In a city famous for chili and goetta, Myra's Dionysus is a real gem for the non-meat eater.

Myra's Dionysus on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tom's Pies

Tom's Pies
915 Vine St.

UPDATE 2010: This restaurant has closed.

I spend a lot of time doing research at the downtown library on the weekend and each time I enter and exit via Vine Street I pass by Tom's Pies, a tiny little joint specializing in home-made pot pies. I’d picked up a menu during one of my library visits and noted a vegetable pot pie on the list, but I never seemed to be able to catch the restaurant open for business. I soon discovered that this is because the restaurant is only open weekdays from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., although there is an evening carry-out service if you call ahead. So when I happened by one weekday afternoon while dropping off some library books and saw the OPEN sign, the lure was too strong to resist.


Owner Tom Wolfe made his mark in the pot pie business around fifteen years ago when he began delivering his scratch-made pastries to the Reds clubhouse, where he quickly became a team favorite (see his testimonial page for details). His pies were so popular that his fame grew to the point where eventually he opened up shop downtown.

The pie case - almost empty

He keeps it simple, using only the freshest ingredients: there’s a chicken pot pie, a veggie pot pie and his signature staple, the chicken alfredo broccoli pie. Make it a meal with a side of coleslaw and cornbread.

Blissfully filling and affordably priced, the veggie pot pie’s flaky crust is generously stuffed with chunked vegetables simmering in thick, creamy stock. It is coma-inducing comfort food.

A piping hot veggie pot pie

Soon everyone will have a chance to enjoy his pies in the comfort of their own home, as he's just inked a deal with bigg’s supermarkets, where his scrumptious savories will be on offer as heat & eats from the deli. Although Tom modestly protests that he isn't much of a businessman, the integrity and care that goes into each crusty creation is unmistakable, and it's wonderful to see a nice guy with a great product persevere.

Tom's Pies on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Food, Inc.

Steve and I got around to watching the film Fast Food Nation a few weeks ago. We'd both read investigative journalist Eric Schlosser's book of the same name, which examines the local and global influence of the United States fast food industry.

Now filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the veil on the nation's highly mechanized food industry in the new documentary, Food, Inc.

The University of Cincinnati Department of Environmental Health's Center for Environmental Genetics will host a one-time screening of the film next Thursday, May 21 from 4:30-7 p.m. at Kresge Auditorium.

Admission is free and given on a first-come, first-served basis.

For more information on the screening:

Monday, May 11, 2009

1st Wok

1st Wok
90 Alexandria Pike
Fort Thomas, KY 41075
tel: 859-572-9900

"Excellent Food and Amazing Prices - Nobody Beats 1st Wok"

So said the menu we found hanging on our door recently. I looked it over found and that they also list fast delivery, use 100% vegetable oil only and use no MSG. There were plenty of vegetarian choices too, so Steve and I decided to give them a try the next time we were out that way.

1st Wok Fort Thomas

The restaurant is in a small strip center that's not easily seen from the road because it sits on a hillside behind a Dodge dealership. Although the $4.50 lunch buffet was still on offer when we arrived, we opted against it since the dining room was empty and we had no idea how long the items had been languishing in the warming trays.

I inquired about whether or not the hot & sour soup was vegetarian or chicken-based and the server said that it was vegetarian, so I opted for it as a starter and chose Ma-Po Bean Curd as my entrée, which was described by the server as bean curd in a spicy brown sauce with carrots and peas.

I'm pretty sure I was served the wrong soup, because it was neither hot nor sour. Someone in the kitchen was also heavy handed with the cornstarch; the consistancy was so coagulated that I pondered turning over the bowl to see if the soup would mold like Jell-O.

Not hot & sour soup

Unfortunately the entrée also disappointed. Although I was initially pleased to see that the tofu wasn't deep fried (as it is in so many Chinese restaurants) I soon found it quite problematic because it fell to pieces when I tried to pick it up with chopsticks. Why in the world would they opt for soft tofu over firm for this dish? Answer: because it wasn't stir-fried, it was nuked! And what I thought would be sliced carrots stir-fried with snowpeas turned out to be diced peas and carrots of the frozen variety. If I had preserveered with the chopsticks, I would have still been sat there.

I guess I was expecting something a little more sophisticated than frozen mixed veg microwaved with tofu and sauce, but I was wrong

Steve's Chicken in Garlic Sauce lunch special wasn't much better, although he said that the chicken - when he could locate a piece - was quite tender and juicy. The menu notes spicy dishes with a red chili symbol, yet his dish had no spice to it at all, nor did it taste of garlic. The specials come with a choice of fried or white rice, and soup or an egg roll. He selected the egg roll and found it to be of the microwave variety; rubbery on the outside and blisteringly hot inside.

We finished our meals and tried to get our server's attention so that we could get our bill, but she was sitting at a table near the front of the restaurant poring over stacks of paperwork, oblivious to us. We eventually went to the cash register and stood there talking until she looked up and realized we were there. We opened our fortune cookies in the car. Mine said: "Your everlasting patience will be rewarded sooner or later."


1st Wok on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

El Rancho Grande

El Rancho Grande
6601 Terhune Drive
Middletown, OH
Tel: 513-705-0454

What better way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo than with a visit to an authentic, family-owned and operated Mexican restaurant? I stopped in to El Rancho Grande in Middletown with my friend Gail, to catch up on things and sample the delicious margaritas while we were at it. The restaurant has grown from a humble beginning inside a former Howard Johnsons to a purpose-built, free standing building just off State Route 122, and the enterprise has grown to encompass seven locations, including Sharonville and West Chester.

El Rancho Grande Mexican Restaurant

I hadn't been to the restaurant since they had moved house, but some things remain constant - there are still friendly servers, a bustling atmosphere and tasty drinks. The restaurant sports several hand-painted murals depicting scenes of Guadalajara, giving the new building an old world ambiance. That I was able to photograph one of them is down to getting there as soon as they opened, because the restaurant does such a roaring trade that normally all the surrounding tables are filled.

Hand-painted murals decorate the cheery restaurant

Gail and I weren't bothered that it wasn't yet noon. We ordered a round of margaritas anyway. Tequila features heavily in El Rancho Grande's drinks selections, although there are also an impressive number of Mexican beers on hand. Draft beer is limited to Budweiser and Bud Light, with several different sized pitchers available. The restaurant also has the usual Coke-family of soft drinks and non-alcoholic frozen drinks. The restaurant's happy hour runs 3-6 p.m. daily.

Go for the margarita specials!

There are five vegetarian specials on the menu:
1. Bean burrito and cheese enchilada with rice or beans
2. Burrito with mashed potato, cheese quesadilla and guacamole salad
3. Mushroom quesadilla with rice and beans
4. Bean burrito with melted cheese and mushrooms, rice and beans
5. Vegetarian fajitas - sauteed bell pepper, onion, squash, tomato and mushroom served with lettuce, fried beans, rice, guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo.

I went with #2, as I wanted to see if it was as good as a similar dish that I make at home on occasion. It was decent, but relied heavily on enchilada sauce to carry the flavor. When I make mine, I add diced onion, sour cream and avocado to the mashed potato so that the reliance on sauce is minimal. El Rancho Grande's mashed potato burrito was simply mashed potato rolled in a flour tortilla, smothered in enchilada sauce and baked. Not bad, but not all that great either. I was also disappointed in the guacamole salad - mainly because it tasted like it had gone off. After one bite I left it untouched.

Mashed potato burrito with refried beans and guacamole salad

I hope this visit isn't an indication of what happens when a good family restaurant mutates into a chain. Perhaps I would have enjoyed my meal more had I chosen something else, but that doesn't excuse the restaurant from serving ruined guacamole. That's just wrong.

El Rancho Grande on Urbanspoon