Arcadia in the Alley: Pearl Market

While Columbus' downtown is less imposing than other downtown areas I've visited, there's more than enough concrete, asphalt and the urban jungle atmosphere around to get one's dauber down.

Thankfully, escapes from this motif are not too far away for many.  One such escape lies in the Riverfront area, where an continuing project seeks to restore greenspace along the banks of the Scioto River.  Another escape that has become a welcome ritual lies in the Pearl Market, which operates in an alleyway between Broad, High, Gay and Third Streets from mid-May through October.

On Tuesdays and Fridays, Pearl Market sandwiches the typical lunchtime hours of downtown workers (operating hours: 10:30 AM - 2 PM.)   As a semi-regular visitor over the years, I've found the market's spectrum of vendors who regularly ply their wares here give downtown workers and visitors a solid opportunity to knock out some needed shopping before the workday ends.

While Pearl Market is built around the shopping experience, I've found the market valuable as a mental reset as well just by the simple act of strolling around.  The cornucopia of colors and smells, mixed in with a tuneful serenade from the market's musician of the day and the general bustle of mingling people, warm up the generally unremarkable and sometimes cold-feeling backdrop of faded brick or concrete walls, rear business entrances and erratic splashes of graffiti in this alleyway.

Those wanting to explore their culinary side are by no means left out.  Basics like produce, meat, eggs, bread and coffee are available to patrons; salsas, preserves and even Jeni's Ice Cream are among the food items available at this year's market.  Lunch options are also solid, with some of Columbus' more recognized food trucks (Challah, Paddy Wagon and Pitabilities) regularly setting up shop in Lynn Alley on market days; the The Good Frank hot dog cart and the Columbus Athenaeum also offer more consumer choices. Bakery-style goods also abound - I personally enjoy picking something at random from the various offerings to see what kind of magic can be created from a mixing bowl and a little oven heat.

In Greece, Arcadia is a province that became associated with idyllic nature and unspoiled wilderness due to the isolating nature of its mountainous terrain.  While no one is going to ever come to think of the isolating alleyways of Downtown Columbus as anything close to unspoiled wilderness, Pearl Market in its own way hearkens back to time where life was a little less complicated and concerns were more basic.

Pearl Market
Pearl Alley (Downtown - Google Maps)
Every Tuesday and Friday, June through October
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The Ice Cream Chronicles (Pt. 2): Jeni's From The Block

The Sign in front of Jeni's Clintonville location
In 2011, the San Francisco Bay Area was in the midst of a gourmet ice cream boom, led by the shops such as Humphry Slocombe, Bi-Rite Creamery and Ici.  It was during this time when I heard that Columbus' own ice cream maven and Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams founder Jeni Britton Bauer was having a book signing at Omnivore Books in San Francisco.

I had just been introduced to Jeni's line of ice creams earlier in the month during a visit of my then long-distance girlfriend and current spouse.  We had closed out a "date night" with a Jeni's "One Night in Bangkok" sundae, a gloriously delicious combo of bananas and Bangkok peanut ice cream, spiced with cayenne pepper, and topped by caramel sauce, whipped cream, cherries, chopped Spanish peanuts, and a fortune cookie.

My better half already was into making ice cream at home, and I thought a signed book would be a terrific surprise for her upcoming birthday.  Two thoughts crossed my mind: could I make it to the signing considering rush hour traffic and lack of parking (not a chance; incidentally, she still did get the book for her birthday courtesy of her mom) and could Jeni's actually make an impression outside of Ohio?

Well, three years later, we know the answer.  Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream pints are now available in stores across the country, including the Bay Area. Jeni's stores are now established in several major cities around the U.S.  Ms. Bauer has also just released her second book and is now in the middle of her second nationwide book tour.

Jeni's Mock Turtle Sundae honoring aviation pioneer Jerrie Mock
As hinted in my previous post, Jeni's has become one of my favorite Ice cream shops, with ten total retail locations in the Columbus metro area.  Their prices are on the higher end of the price scale as ice cream goes (just under $5 for two scoops to near $8 for basic sundaes; additional cost for sauces, waffle cones or their featured "Gravel" toppings.)   However, those prices have not stopped people from flocking to Jeni's stores to sample their often unique perennial and seasonal flavor offerings.

My spouse and I have sampled numerous creations from Jeni's and have rarely had a scoop that had a "hmmm, that's just okay" impression.  Over this time, both my spouse and I have made it routine to sample frozen confections from elsewhere, especially from shops in the San Francisco Bay Area.  We're both unanimous that Jeni's more than holds its own.

That got me to thinking: what ice cream shop that I've tried in my former stomping grounds did Jeni's remind me of the most?

After some thought, I gave that distinction to Humphry Slocombe, mainly for their own wild combinations that many would never figure would work in an ice cream. Interestingly enough, the owner of Humphry Slocombe, Jake Godby, was raised in nearby Zanesville (as detailed in this New York Times article), which only adds to this state's reputation for producing great ice cream.  However, the owners of these two nationally recognized stores take different tacks in regard to their frozen concoctions.

Godby takes a daring, more provocative approach in tweaking ice cream and food conventions in general; as stated in the New York Times article, Godby's "ice cream addresses two major grievances in the contemporary culinary scene: boredom with menus that all look the same, and irritation with the orthodoxy governing how we’re all supposed to eat (local, sustainable, organic, etc.)"  This notion is further reflected the over-the-top names/flavors featured at his shop such as Prosciutto, Government Cheese and the flagship Secret Breakfast.

In contrast, Bauer takes the more conventional (as gourmet ice cream goes,) more measured and more inviting approach. As she has stated in interviews such as this one for Scoopalicious, flavors which make the final roster are developed and tested via team effort, and has firm belief that adults and especially kids are open to new flavor ideas beyond the typical ice cream shop fare.  She is also firmly into sourcing locally at all her locations; for example, her Nashville location has partnerships with local brewer Yazoo and an excellent distiller that my spouse and I discovered on a trip into Kentucky, Corsair Artisan.

This measured approach is also reflected in the appearance of Jeni's retail stores, of which I have visited several.  Yes, each one has its own individual touches based on the architecture and structure of its housing building. However, there are certain touches ubiquitous to each one (chalkboard menus, neatly scripted and labeled ice cream descriptions and display cases, neatly manicured seating and working areas etc.) that lets everyone know that you just haven't walked into just any ordinary ice cream parlor.

Well, what about those flavors?  It's really impossible to pick out a favorite for me, so maybe it's more instructive to demonstrate my experience with a flavor that I would have looked at with a bit of askance in the past.  

After sampling the very nice Petit Saison by local brewer Rockmill Brewery for dinner, I had business over in Grandview Heights at local coffee roaster Stauf's.  When I passed by nearby Jeni's, the muggy conditions and mindset (I had had Jeni's newly released Pineapple Upside Down Cake flavor on my mind for several days beforehand) meant little resistance to drop by and sample one or two scoops.

Lo and behold, I had not known that Jeni's had also released a Saison with Sunflower Seeds and Flax flavor in collaboration with Rockmill.  I asked for a spoon sampler, and my tongue was coated with a wonderful cornucopia of sour, sweet and salty goodness melting around the unexpected but welcomed texture in the pepita and sunflower seeds.  This scoop was easily the taste highlight of the evening, and only confirmed that, indeed, Jeni's is doing something rather splendid.

Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams (featured locations only)
4247 North High St  (Clintonville - Google Maps)
Columbus, OH 43214
(614) 447-0500
- and -
1281 Grandview Avenue (Grandview Heights - Google Maps)
Columbus, OH 43212
(614) 488-2680
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Inspiration at the Ready: Special Olympics Ohio - Summer Games 2014

The Special Olympics Banner Leads The Parade of Athletes
I've discovered many great sites for discovering the cornucopia of events around the Columbus metro area.  General overall resources like Columbus Underground's Mega-Weekend post and Experience Columbus' Events Calendar come to mind for me, while blog sites like Girl About Columbus and Tania Explores Columbus add some personal flair in describing the goings-on about town.

As we enter this weekend, we also find a growing buzz in this country over the U.S. World Cup Soccer Team and its qualification for the knockout round today.  Columbus itself has proven to be particularly soccer-fanatical, ranking #2 on ESPN's broadcast of the U.S. vs. Portugal game. Ohio as a whole has proven to be a solid viewing market for World Cup game viewing with Cincinnati and Dayton also appearing in the top 25 markets on ESPN's ratings.  While it remains to be seen whether this sport will truly catch on in this country, there is no denying the enthusiasm of fans rooting on Team USA in this year's World Cup, the biggest international event this side of the Summer Olympics.

Conveniently, these mentions lead me to a set of Ohio-based individuals who I believe are worthy of equally enthusiastic cheering and strong support: the 2,500 athletes competing at the Special Olympics Games this entire weekend in Columbus.

The "Flame of Hope" burns brightly
This year's games, featuring 11 sports, will be held throughout the weekend on The Ohio State University campus (save for the Bowling and Roller Skating competitions, which will be held at Sawmill Lanes and United Skates of America, respectively.)  My spouse and I have had the pleasure to cheer on both our niece and other competitors during athletic competitions the past two years, and we are thrilled to make it three years running this weekend.

We have also been pleased to watch the Games' Opening Ceremony, held at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium on OSU's campus.  You can easily see the pride and big smiles of the athletes as they parade around the track representing their various county- or city-level chapters.  And then at the end, the ceremony is capped by the culmination of the Law Enforcement Torch Run, in which over 2,000 law enforcement officers have spent the prior week either running or biking with the torch through 200 Ohio communities.  A select company from throughout the state combine at the end to escort the torch into the stadium and pass it to the Special Olympics athletes.  Once passed, these athletes light "The Flame of Hope", which burns until the close of the games.

Columbus has another big weekend of set of events from around the metro area, from Goodale Park (Comfest) to Grandview Heights (the Grandview Hop), from downtown Powell (the Powell Festival) to German Village (the German Village Haus und Garten Tour), amongst others.  We're definitely set to visit some of these other fine events this weekend ourselves.

But if you can spare some time this weekend to cheer on and watch these athletes give it their all in their respective sports, I'm sure it would be worthwhile to you, perhaps even inspirational.  At the very least, your support would be considered worthwhile and appreciated by everyone involved with this event.

Ohio Special Olympics - 2014 State Summer Games
Friday, June 27 - Sunday, June 29
Opening Ceremony at 7 PM Friday
Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium
The Ohio State University
2450 Fred Taylor Dr
Columbus, OH 43210
(Please consult the Special Olympics website for competition event schedules and related information)

Pastoral Education: Charritos

This picture is proof that I am still learning new things about food.

The taquerias and taco trucks around my former stomping grounds of the San Francisco Bay Area were often good bets for a cheap, tasty and filling meal.  And without fail, I requested that at least one of my street tacos on every order were filled with al pastor, preferably the spicy variety.

Places like Taqueria San Jose in the San Francisco Mission District, or taco trucks like the Guadalajara Taco Truck (at the corner of Ohio Street by sheer coincidence) nearer to my home in Vallejo, would always be special visits, as I knew my taste buds would be dancing to a savory symphony of flavor.

I learned then that the places to get al pastor were those with a trompo, where marinated pork was wrapped around a vertical rotisserie spit and slowly cooked over a gas flame and sliced off by the cook when another order was received. No rotisserie spit meant you had little to no chance of getting the very best.

Since I have been to Columbus, I haven't really endeavored to sample street tacos in general, and frankly I don't know why.  On one early visit, I ended up at Taqueria Los Primos (I was actually trying to find Junior's Tacos at the time but was unsuccessful) and ended up with a variety of tacos, including al pastor (which was a solid version, from what I remember.)

In my first year of residence here in 2012, I made the grand trip over to the Columbus mecca of al pastor, Los Guachos.  And I admit, it wasn't what I was used to - the pastor, while juicy and tender, had a sweetish flavor which I learned came from their use of pineapple.  A pineapple was placed at the top of the spit to drip on the meat to give it a crispy, carmelized exterior, and a sliver of pineapple was included with the tacos themselves. I went away not necessarily disappointed, but perhaps a little confused because it simply was a taste profile I had not been expecting.

Forward to the present with Charritos, a newish Mexican restaurant located in the Arlington Pointe strip mall in Upper Arlington.  I had seen the "Now Open" signs driving by the area in the previous months, I had been craving something along the street taco vein in the past week or so, and my spouse and I were both on our own for dinner that day.

I walked in to a space with a few diners and very high ceilings; in fact, you had to crane your neck a bit to look at the main menu board overhead (thankfully, they had copies of the menu as well as a chalkboard with the daily specials posted next to the cash register.)

The only workers visible to me at the time were (I presume) the husband/wife co-owners of the restaurant, who were running around trying to keep on top of things.  That didn't stop the husband, a quite personable fellow, from chatting me up after I had walked in and surveyed their menu.  It looked like he had experience in food service in the past, as he fluidly from task to task while keeping his conversation going.

I was here for the al pastor no ifs, ands or buts. When I put in my order for four tacos ($6 plus tax) he mentioned that I should come in on Mondays, when they have a two for one al pastor special.  As I nodded my agreement, he shouted out some directions to his spouse and proceeded to assist another diner.  Soon after, he went to the trompo to slice off what looked to be some truly delicious pork.

My tacos all came with double tortillas with ample amounts of chopped onions, cilantro and al pastor. The al pastor?  Not spicy, but definitely closer to the versions I have had in California and quite tasty.  The red and green sauces that came with the order were nice renditions, both sporting the tang of vinegar and the green sauce bringing more kick.

Now here's he where the learning came in: I had not detected the same level of sweetness with Charritos' version of al pastor, save for the carmelized bits.  And I swore I did not see any hint of la piƱa in or around the trompo.  But yes, that first picture said otherwise - there on top is a large hunk of that yellow fruit, which helped with the nice carmelized exterior on these slices of al pastor.

More learning took place with my research performed by me shortly after my Charritos meal.  I found that pineapple use for al pastor was fairly common depending on the region in Mexico.  Also, I found that while there were places in the Bay Area that used pineapple for their al pastor preparation, it was a little on the uncommon side.

I think two future visits are in order.  One is a return trip to Los Guachos to experience their food with a mind more well-informed and a willingness to expand my horizons.

The second visit is a return to Charritos.  Yes, the two-for-one al pastor night sounds perfect for a truly tasty chowdown, but I look forward to sampling other menu intriguing menu items like the tlayudas, the cubacharrito torta, and the Oaxacan melted cheese appetizer) have me intrigued.  There is definitely something quite tasty cooking up behind these doors.

Charritos Mexican Grill
4740 Reed Road #103 (Google Maps)
Upper Arlington, OH
(614) 929-5866
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The Ice Cream Chronicles (Pt. 1): Reaching for Something Graeter's

Ice cream and summer (which just arrived this weekend) are a proverbial perfect pair.  Millions if not billions of people around the world must agree, considering the total world consumption is in the billions of gallons (the average consumption in the United States alone is almost 7 gallons per person, per this graphic.)

My first experience with Ohio as a whole was back in 2007, when I flew out to join a bunch of runner friends at the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, OH. Interestingly, this was my first experience with the Columbus metro area as well, as I was tasked with picking up my friend/hotel roommate for the weekend from the airport there.

As disastrously as that venture could have turned out (being a complete newbie to the area,) I managed to figure it all out with the assistance of another Columbus-based associate of ours.  During my brief visit with that associate before picking up my roommate, I had asked if there was something I really, really should do or try while I was here in Ohio. "Graeter's Ice Cream," they said unequivocally.

Some back story is required here.  Ice cream had been one of those things I had pretty much given up in an effort to get my weight issue in order.  Starting at the end of 2002, I had aimed for a gradual weight loss over time by combining some dietary deletions (including ice cream), portion control and an increase in physical activity.  This gradual change over time was also beneficial in that it was less of a diet plan (which implies something temporary) and more of a mental change.  

I hoped that by the time what I deemed a good fighting weight, I wouldn't have to think about calorie counting or maintaining an eating diary - it would just simply be second nature.  I also came to realize that an occasional indulgence was healthy - there was no obsessing over any food to the point of binging and showed the confidence in the way I was dealing with food.

By the time I flew out to Cincinnati, I had indeed reached a good fighting weight, and yes, Graeter's would be on my seeking list.

I found a Graeter's shop near the end of my stay here in Gahanna, shortly after I dropped my run race roommate off for his flight back home, ordering two scoops (Buckeye Blitz and Butter Pecan) on a sugar cone.  It became evident quickly to me it was less the flavor (each flavor was solidly in the very good category) as much as the thick and custardy texture that drove this ice cream's appeal for me.  I learned later that this texture was due to their use of the "French Pot" process, which creates ice cream two gallons at a time and requires a high amount of manual labor to stir and then pack the finish product. This latter aspect tends to make Graeter's more expensive than other larger-production ice cream brands.

Since that first trip out, my Columbus experiences have led me to like a certain area ice cream vendor (yes, you know who - more on that on a future post) just a little bit better.  And it's not like I haven't eaten any Graeter's scoops or pints since I've been here either.   I did realize, however, that I hadn't really done a true, careful tasting of any of their products since that very first sampling seven years ago.

To rectify this, I recently dropped by the store on Bethel Road (their Columbus Corporate Center - they have nine other retail locations scattered around the Columbus metro area.)  I simply wanted a scoop of butter pecan, just like seven years ago, but after asking if I was eating in, the server asked if I wanted an additional scoop for just 50 cents more.  

Well, geez, twist my arm already...okay, add a peach scoop to that order.

I went to sit down and slowly savor my newly acquired indulgences.  I started with the butter pecan: nice chunks of pecan surrounded by a ice cream base with just the very faintest hint of butter.  And yes, there was that custardy, thick texture - this butter pecan was that same very good as it ever was.  

The peach flavor, on the other hand, was new for me.  The custardy texture was less evident with this ice cream; I think that is a bonus here, whether that is the natural outcome of production or done intentionally.  The peach flavor was solidly there but not overwhelming; occasional chunks of the fruit reminded you that this wasn't anything artificial.

I glanced around the store, turning my attention between spoonfuls to the special co-branded Jelly Belly jellybean stand, the cases of pre-packaged pints and ice cream cakes, the line of customers itself, and then finally all the smiling kids. Many were hanging around tables setup for birthday celebrations, while others happily cavorting around the special indoor playground area, or talking up their parents at scattered tables around me.  That's when I had my revelation.

For me, I think Graeter's best aspect for me is how it appeals to the kid in me, the "Oooh, yeah, can we go there, Dad? Can we? Can We?" drive that every child has.  If I had a dream place I wanted to grab a banana split sundae, or slurp down a big old milk shake with family or friends, Graeter's is the kind of place I'd go.

Graeter's Ice Cream (Columbus Corporate Center)
2555 Bethel Rd (Northwest - Google Maps)
Columbus, OH 43220
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Survivor Story: Little Lebanon Bistro and Bakery

My familiarity with Arabic-Mediterranean cuisine grew substantially several years ago during a two-month work assignment in Damascus, Syria.  I had not ventured too much into that cuisine prior to my trip, but I enthusiastically dove in full bore during my stay.  From the kebabs and kibbeh, the falafel to the freekeh, and the soup to the shawerma to the sweets and so much more, I don't think I ever ate so well as I did those eight weeks or so.

I had heard through the grapevine there that the Lebanese versions of the dishes I was tasting were the gold standard for the region.  I kept that in mind when I got back to the States, but with the choices being somewhat limited I left myself open to all comers to match the tastes I had experienced.

Forward roughly five years later - I had now been living in the Columbus area for one full year and had grown very familiar with the metro area in general, as my job required a lot of travel.  A bonus point of all this travel was the opportunity to explore restaurants for lunch all over the metro area.  I was due for a trip through the Polaris business area in North Columbus when I caught a story on the local TV 10 newscast about three smash & grabs in that area.

This type of incident, while tough for any business, is especially so for one just starting like the Little Lebanon Bistro and Bakery.  This particular victim of the smash and grab incident had been only in business for one week at the time of the incident, and I could sense the frustration of the owner during his interview.

It was like all the stars had aligned for a visit.  I wanted not only to help them out by giving them some business, but also to sample and compare their wares against those that I had back in Damascus.

I remember my kibbeh wrap that I ordered was tasty enough, and both my spouse and I enjoyed the variety of maamoul cookies (a Lebanese shortbread with a variety of fillings) that I brought home that day for sampling.  I also had a friendly chat with the owner who had been interviewed.  He talked about the attempted burglary, how the business got started, and his Lebanese spouse, who was in the back cooking away.

Upon leaving, my impression was that while it didn't quite match what I had in Damascus, this restaurant's offerings were appetizing nonetheless and matched up favorably with similar restaurants in the area.  Little Lebanon would be worth a visit in the future...

...if they survived, that is.  The seating in the dining area was sparse, with paper cups and plastic plates for dine-in customers.  During my visit, the peak of lunchtime, only one customer had stopped by to eat.  And while the thief was unsuccessful in accessing their moneybox, the cost of cleanup, window replacement and other repairs could not have been cheap.

Forward roughly one more year - my spouse and I were looking for something different from our usual brunch spots on a trip up the Polaris area for some shopping.  My mind flashed back to my visit to Little Lebanon and I asked my spouse, "Well, how about Mediterranean?"   Before my spouse even flashed her agreement, my mind got to thinking, "Hmmm, are they still open?"

I did a quick search, and yes indeed, they had not closed.  Thus, I made my second visit to Little Lebanon.

On this visit, the main counter area seemed a little more fleshed out in its display cases of desserts and salads; this also was the case with the amount of seating in the dining area.  The menu board was now joined by a high definition TV screen, where a slideshow of what seemed to be new restaurant offerings cascaded by my eyes.  Also, silverware was evident and our order, a shawerma and falafel wrap plus two fatoush salads, came out on more standard restaurant serving plates.

My spouse and I again stuck with the simple and ordered wraps, which range between $6 to $7.  I found their version of falafel one of the better Columbus-area versions, with a nice crispy exterior and a pleasantly spiced interior.  My spouse's shawerma was also something we would order again if the mood struck us.

The whoa-factor for me, oddly enough, was in the fatoush, a salad that to me was typically filled with cucumber, tomatoes, mint, parsley and pita chips laced with a lemon/olive oil dressing and lots of sumac, a tangy spice omnipresent in many Mediterranean dishes.  Back in Damascus, one of my favorite and most simple meals was a fatoush salad with either a side dish of lentil soup or falafel.  I have a decent mint-heavy version of this salad I can whip up at home, but I've never been able to find a restaurant version that really hit my happy spot.  I was surprised by the presence of radishes in this version, but their crunch and tang melded well with the mix of green pepper, cucumber, mint, lettuce, and sumac-laced olive oil dressing.  This combination made this my favorite restaurant version of this salad in the States to date.

We again ordered some maamoul cookies to take home and sample.  As much of a sweet tooth as I have, I enjoy these exactly because they are not too sweet.  While we have enjoyed them all, we have found the date-filled version to be our favorite.

On this trip, we got to speak with the female half of the couple who owns the restaurant.  When I shared the story about my very first visit, she seemed to laugh and sigh at the same time as she related how close the restaurant actually was to closing.  Associates of theirs had tried convincing them to put in a dinner menu, but she and her husband resisted until it looked like the business was almost certain to close. As it turned out, she said the dinner offerings did the trick in turning things around, adding that they had just recently been able to upgrade and own some of their own restaurant equipment.

I asked her about a shirt she was wearing related to an event related to the "Be The Match" program, a cause near and dear to my heart (I was fortunate enough to have been found a match for someone in need of a marrow donation.)   She stated that a relative of hers had been diagnosed with a condition treated by donations and was doing well.  Because of this experience, she was hoping to start training to participate in their local walk/run event in the summer to further show her support for the cause.

Obviously, the scope of a business' economic survival pales in comparison to the survival of a human being over a difficult circumstances.  Nevertheless, it's encouraging to see and hear about survival in both of these instances.

Little Lebanon Bistro & Bakery
8495 Sancus Blvd (Polaris - Google Maps)
Columbus, OH 43240
(614) 781-1814
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Weather You Like It Or Not

The weather of the Bay Area of Northern California pretty easy to summarize.  In terms of rain, the season usually lasts from December to April, with any snow restricted to the higher peaks like Mount Diablo in the East Bay.

Temperatures rarely fall below 30 degrees during the winter except in sheltered valleys or higher up in the hills.  In the summer, residents who don't like the temperature typically can hop a freeway and drive a dozen or so miles either way to find warmer or cooler temperatures.  Once summer temperatures settle in, they can last well into October and even into the early part of November.

And then, there is that world-famous fog, Mother Nature's natural air conditioning unit for the region.  When the interior of California heats up too much, the low pressure created from the rising air draws in this cooling cloud like clockwork to bring relief to sweltering residents.

Yes, this meteorological predictability adds to the area's attraction for many residents- and tourists-to-be.

Being a bit of a weather geek, I've found the weather pleasant but...uh, boring.

While I was long-distance dating my spouse, I had heard (or is that, warned?) about the wide swath of weather this area of the country can produce, especially the dreaded Ohio winters.  But that first winter, I started thinking people's admonitions were a bit overblown..  National Weather Service statistics for that winter showed that the Columbus metro had it's 7th warmest winter ever and snowfall did not break the one-foot mark.

A colleague of my spouse remarked to me when I had been mentioning my first experiences with this region's weather, "No, that was not an Ohio winter."

And yes, since that rather gentle start, the weather gods of Ohio have made sure I received the all-you-can-eat buffet weather-wise.  These experiences have included, in no particular order:
  • Racing a thunderstorm home during a training run while serenaded by tornado sirens
  • Familiarizing myself with a minus symbol in front of numbers and "wind chill" readings
  • Learning about the almost mythical "Interstate 70" barrier when it comes to whether Columbus is going to get true snow or that nasty mess called a "wintry mix"
  • Trying to sleep in 90 degree temps without air conditioning when the 2012 Derecho knocked out power to us and a million other Ohio customers
  • Discovering that Columbus holds up "favorably" to Pacific Northwest locales in terms of lowest average sunshine per year (thank goodness for the local coffee boom!)
  • The beguiling phenomenon of snow rollers.
  • My first ever rained out summer baseball game.
My spouse has said to me that if the winter of 2014 had been my first Ohio winter, I would've called off the whole thing and gone screaming back to sunny California.

Of course, she's completely, absolutely, and totally wrong...I think.

Tried & True: CaJohns Fiery Foods

The North Market, which I first visited on my third trip ever to the Columbus-area, has become a beloved Columbus institution. I've come to find the market, which reminds me a bit of the Oxbow Public Market in Napa, California, to be a charming and welcoming place, and my spouse and I have frequented the market for shopping and various special events.

This first visit took place close to the Thanksgiving holiday, when my then-girlfriend needed to stop by the excellent Curds and Whey cheese shop to pick up some tasty contributions to her family's festivities up in Northwest Ohio.  Due to the season, vendors at the market were all pretty busy; while my spouse waited in line to be served, I decided to investigate the nearby area a bit to check out the nearby vendors.

It didn't take me long to find CaJohns, a local company started in 1996, in the neighboring vendor stall. As one who enjoys almost all things spicy, it didn't take me long to join the others gathered there to sample their sampler jars of salsas and sauces, laid out in inviting fashion on their front counters.

Courtesy of events like the North Market's Fiery Foods Festival and simple exploration, I've learned that Ohio overall has some several companies who turn out eminently chow-worthy hot sauces and salsas, with CaJohns proving to be an eminently reliable and tasty option.

I chose CaJohns as my first tried and true recipient not only because of their reliability, but also because I owe them a thank you.  I have heard it said that people are several times more likely to report a negative experience with a business than they are a positive one.  Well, this is my opportunity to report an experience in the latter column.

In the midst of last year's holiday season, we had bought a jar of salsa from one of favorite local product haunts, the Celebrate Local store at the Easton Shopping center to have with our dinner that night. Unfortunately, we noticed that there were signs of a possible contamination problem upon opening of the jar. We didn't know if this was an isolated incident, but we wanted to the folks at CaJohns to know about it just in case there was something more to it.

We shot them a detailed e-mail with a pictures of what were seeing, and asked whether we should go down to Celebrate Local to exchange the jar.  They got back to us promptly and apologetically, confirming that we had ended up with one of a few jars with an overfill issue and stating we could bring back the jar to wherever it was most convenient for exchange. For us, that meant a visit to the North Market.

The clerk was ready for us when we showed up for us the next night and explained the events.  Not only were we able to exchange the original jar (which is all we had really asked for), the folks at CaJohns threw in three more jars of our choice and a bag of tasty Shagbark Seed and Mill Tortilla Chips for our munching pleasure.

Thanks CaJohns - your goodwill has made an impression with us, and may have even reached farther than you think.  We ended up giving some of the jars to a friend of ours who was visiting from the Upper Midwest. I'm betting that you've earned at least one additional new fan from the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

CaJohns Fiery Foods
The North Market
59 Spruce St (Short North - Google Maps)
Columbus, OH
816 Green Crest Drive (Google Maps)
Westerville, OH
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Food Trucks to the Second Power (Pt. 2): Paddy Wagon and Zauber Brewing

I had not intended to do two food trucks on this particular day, but as mentioned in the part one portion of this post, Stacey's Five Dollar Hollar Food Truck proved to be conveniently placed for me in regards to grabbing a quick lunch.   And with it being such a filling lunch, I had a notion I might be going for a gut-buster of a day food-wise.  This was mainly due to the fact that later that day, I would be meeting up with my spouse for a pre-downtown-show visit to Zauber Brewing in Grandview Heights, where the Paddy Wagon food truck would be providing the eats for the evening.

As it turned out, this was a return visit to Zauber for both of us.  Our previous visit had been a few weeks prior on a Wednesday, when we found out to our dismay that the brewery had run out of its own beer on tap for drinking.  When we found out that Thursday every week is when they tap their new releases, we made a point of making a visit on that day in the near future.

Zauber's taproom, opened early in 2014, has a beer-hall feel with an slight industrial twist.  The space itself feels very roomy, with a central bar area surrounded by wooden picnic table and bench seating. A few TVs and sports memorabilia (mainly soccer-related) was visible on the walls; this seems like a potentially raucous place to check out a Premier League or World Cup match, or even an NHL playoff game.  We had noticed it was a solid gathering place for other ventures, such as board-gaming (in fact, they have board games available at the bar and have official game nights on Wednesday.)  In addition, they have a "Teaser Tuesday", where samples of their Thursday releases are available from 5-7 PM for $1.50.  If their own beers aren't available, they have a nice selection of both local and national craft brews on tap as well as a new cocktail selection featuring some local Ohio distilleries.

As it turned out, two of their beers (Zauber leans mainly on German and Belgian styles) were available on draft: the Magnum, a Belgian copper ale, and the Roggen Rye, a Roggenbier.  As is our typical thing, we order one each of the beers for mutual sampling.  We both agreed that both beers were solid and would work well for quenching the thirst on this summer-like warm day, but we both agreed we liked the Magnum just a slight bit better.

Since we were here to eat as well, we looked over Paddy Wagon's clever (or groan-worthy, depending on your view of puns) menu cards, which had been placed at all the benches for patrons to peruse.  My inclination initially was to go for the Bourbon-Glazed Bourbon Tacos, but since I had tacos earlier in the day, I opted instead for their "Common Law" Special of the Week, a Mediterranean burger with feta, mixed greens, and a truck-made tzatziki.  My spouse decided on the "15-to-Life Brisket Sandwich" which, with the addition of carmelized onions, matched the $8 price of my burger.

To be truthful, I was expecting a fairly large amount of food (maybe the bold theme of the truck had an effect on my perception) so I was little surprised to get a modestly-sized, well-crafted burger along with a side of kettle chips.  The burger was solid - the patty was a little on the dry side, but that was offset by a fine rendition of tzatziki sauce (actually, I would've loved more of it it was that tasty.

The true standout for both of us was the brisket, which was again a modest-sized item.  The tender beef matched with their signature sauce, plus the onions - it was just plain and simple GOOD.  Yes, the bourbon tacos still sound good, but on my next visit, they'll have to book me for 15-to-Life, because it will be the brisket with which I'll be absconding.  I suspect my spouse will be right there with me.

And yes, we hadn't even reached the proverbial cherry on top yet - a full night of laughs with Eddie Izzard at the Palace Theater downtown.  Taken altogether, this was a might tasty day all around, no matter what language you may speak.  Prost!

Zauber Brewing
909 West Fifth Avenue (Grandview/5xNW)
Columbus, OH 43212
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Paddy Wagon Food Truck
Various locations throughout Columbus metro area
(Check out their Website for their schedule)
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My Secret Life In The CSA

After this particularly brutal winter season, the opening of outdoor farmers markets were a welcome sight to many local residents.  And with the warmer weather, the bounty of vegetables and fruits arriving to vendors' stands will only increase in the upcoming weeks.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has also proven to be a popular way for people to receive the freshest local agricultural products.  In short, the subscriber purchases a share of the whatever the farm or farm-collective is planning to produce for a prescribed time period (typically, a growing season.)  In return, the farm regularly delivers the subscriber their share throughout that time period, either directly to their residence or at a central collection point.

Typically, this is a win-win situation for the farmer (ensuring a customer base for their product), the customer (who can gain the freshest and widest-variety of local agricultural products with little time spent or effort), the local economy (as money spent generally stays local) and the environment as a whole (less resources are used due to the lesser distances required to get these products to the consumer.)

This blog was not around when my spouse decided to join a local CSA last summer.  It was definitely a worthwhile experience, and I wanted to share some of our experiences with the process.

1) The Search: We used online local resources such as Local Harvest to help us find the best candidate.  Based on a colleague's recommendation, the fact that fruit was part of the offerings (not all CSA's offer fruit), customization of orders (you could reduce and increase orders of certain items to a certain point) and the fact that delivery was available directly to our residence (we found we could not make the pick-up times and locations for most of the CSA's we looked into,) New Century CSA out of Circleville, approximately 30 miles south of downtown Columbus, was our choice for a small share subscription.

2) The Shared (Risk): Weather is often the biggest factor in relation to when something comes into season, and we found that we were essentially in the same boat.  Some fruits and veggies were delayed, while others were sent with a note that they should be used more quickly than normal (e.g. cherries that were affected by a surplus of rainy weather.)

3) The Season: When something's in season, you typically get that item for several weeks in a row.  With "multi-use" produce like carrots and tomatoes, finding new ways to use them in our cooking turned out to be a fun venture.  I confess that I was lettuced out after several weeks in a row of the leafy stuff, and there was a time when I didn't want to see another candy onion again.  Other items we knew we would struggle with (beets - we do not particularly care for them) but we went in willing to give those a fair chance.

Maybe size does matter?
4) The Sweet Surprises: One of the biggest reasons why a CSA appealed to us was the opportunity to expand our culinary horizons, and sure enough we were not disappointed.  A Napa cabbage led us to discover an easy homemade Kimchi recipe, and we found that pickling both radishes and kohlrabi can be very tasty ventures.  I personally have never found cantaloupe to be a very tasty fruit, but this big specimen we received from our CSA was something of a mind-changer.  It was so large, we made a cantaloupe sorbet, parceled out to some friends, cubed some out in the fridge for munching, and still couldn't finish it all.  Even more familiar items led to inspiration - a batch of green beans and a chance sighting of some Szechuan Peppercorns at a spice market led to our first (yummy) venture into Dry Fried Green Beans.

5) The Size: In the end, even the small size was too large for us.  We just did not predict at the time we signed up that we would be on the go as much as we ended up being during our subscription season, so there were a couple weeks when we couldn't get through everything.  If we do try out a CSA again, we may choose to have a partner or two to make sure the food does not go to waste (if you're trying out a CSA, this may be a good approach in general if you're testing the concept.)

6) The Service: New Century CSA provided great service to us and is definitely worth consideration if you are interested in joining a CSA.  There were some mix-ups with the initial deliveries (our house can be a little tricky to find) but they worked closely with us to get those rectified.  For our inconvenience on both misdeliveries, they provided us a credit to use on future weekly allotments and offered to bring a second delivery out the same week if our shipment could not be found (fortunately for both us, we were able to locate the wayward produce.)

They also kept us well-informed about general goings-on and potential issues with future shipments (e.g. the rain-soaked cherries mentioned previously.)  The quality of the produce received was for the most part top-notch, though at times even the hot weather got the best of our cheapo ice chest with the produce inside feeling the effects.

CSA Resources
Local Harvest - How to Choose a CSA
Local Harvest - CSA Index for Columbus, Ohio
Columbus Underground Article on CSAs

Our CSA's Information
New Century CSA
7370 Bell Station Rd.
Circleville, OH 43113

Food Trucks to the Second Power (Pt. 1): Stacey's Five Dollar Hollar

The Northern California food truck scene had long reached the maturity stage by the time had departed for the Columbus area late 2011. Well-established congregation areas for the new wave of food trucks such as Off The Grid were commonplace, while the old-school taco truck areas along International Avenue in Oakland and other Bay Area locales continued to chug along as usual.

Columbus' food truck scene has grown quite a bit since I've been here, and while it is still somewhat a work in progress, the momentum is there to make it an established part of the community. Regular events and congregation spots like the Food Truck Court in Columbus Commons and Dinin' Hall in Franklinton seem to be doing well.  In addition, a host of new Columbus-based breweries (another similarly exploding scene) have regularly scheduled food trucks to provide some tasty eats with their brews.   And similar to the Bay Area, Columbus has its own taco truck areas to boast about, concentrated mainly along the southwest and northeast quadrants of the metro area near the I-270 beltway.

Recently, I was on a rare day away from my usual lunch environs due to a doctor's appointment.  which meant I had limited time to dine.  Thus, my minimum preference was to find a place that both was along the way and where I could get fast service without it being traditional fast food.  Additional preferences would be to try a place I hadn't been to before and sporting something cuisine-wise that I hadn't tried recently.

My mind's gears were spinning as I was driving from the Ohio State main campus toward Upper Arlington when Stacey's Five Dollar Hollar, a food truck stationed at the corner of Kenny Lane and Lane Avenue, came into sight.

It definitely fit the first two preferences and would probably fit the third, provided it wasn't too busy.. In addition, I recalled from local media articles I read that their focus was a Korean/Southwestern fusion, and that boded well for my generally spicy-food loving self.  So why not?

Upon reviewing the menu, I saw that Stacey's had just about every quick grub thing you can imagine (hamburgers, gyros, french fries, mac & cheese, etc.) in addition to their Korean fusion items.  Their signature item seems to be "The Freak" sandwich, a hearty grub item where you can throw just about anything they have onto a 12" slab of bread (there's a twice-the-size "Super Freak" and the smaller "Freak Jr." available well.)  But today, I was determined to have Korean and ordered up two Korean Tacos and a side of onion rings (see, I told you they have just about anything) for $6.

As it turns out, you don't have to order "The Freak" to get a lot of food, because there was plenty in my tray for me to munch on.   As with anything touted as fusion, the amount of cuisine x to cuisine y is going to vary; in this case, the tacos were pretty much southwestern with a Korean tinge.  This ratio went more to the latter when I mixed in the small tub of Asian slaw and the very tasty gochujang salsa (tomato salsa w/Korean chili paste) into the tacos.

The onion rings were almost certainly not from scratch, but I do appreciate that option in general and they were fried up well.  In addition, there was a smattering tortilla chips thrown in to add a little crunch to the bounty.

Bottom line: even if the Korean ratio might not have been as high as I might've wanted it, I did enjoy my tacos and I did get quite a bit of food for what I paid.  The service I received was both prompt and friendly.    Overall, folks who are sporting both big appetites and somewhat tight pocketbooks could probably do a lot worse than grab a bite at Stacey's.

Stacey's Five Dollar Hollar
868 W. Lane Avenue (West Campus)
Campus Pitt Stop/Penske Rental
(614) 902-7013

2017 Update: Stacey's Five Dollar Hollar food truck operations appear to be officially halted as of the end of 2015.  However, the related Facebook page still seems to be sporadically updated.

Memorial Day Musings, Part 2: Honeykiss Bakery

As a child, pies were generally something you bought from the frozen aisle at the store every now and then as a treat for me and my siblings.  It wasn't until my later years that I got to enjoy my first baked from homemade pie.  I still don't mind the grocery store version at your average picnic or barbecue, but a pie baked from scratch is generally something to be savored very slowly and with utmost delight.

I came to find out that I married into a pie-loving family.  At all the big family gatherings, there were all sorts of crusted examples of baked goodness, some of which had been passed down from previous generations.  I've also learned that my new home here has plenty of delectable examples of this baked good.

We hadn't decided what our contribution to the family get-together on Memorial Day would be as I was perusing one of my favorite local area blogs (The CMH Gourmand) when I happened on a post mentioning our subject line establishment: Honeykiss Bakery.  I had learned about and glanced at their website several months prior, posting a note to my brain back then that this site would be worth revisiting again.

Well, why not bring a pie?  It was time to check out the Honeykiss Bakery website again.  Sure enough, the bakery was taking orders for Memorial Day, but they needed to be put in within a couple days.

My spouse is a cherry fiend, and it's not a surprise that cherry pie is one of her favorite foods ever.  Honeykiss has a Cherry Cobbler and a Cherry Pistachio Pie on their menu that sounded awfully tempting.  But we're also fans of Brothers Drake mead and other brewed beverages in general, so when we read the bakery's description of their "My Blueberry Heaven Pie" together, even she had to agree that this would be our choice:

Our award-winning creamy blueberry pie features blueberry filling reduced in cinnamon, Brothers Drake Blueberry Mead & lemon.  Between the blueberry filling and the sugar-lemon streusel topping, is a creamy layer of Snowville Creme Fraiche, locally sourced eggs, & Rockmill Belgian Ale.

Because of our itinerary, we shot an e-mail to the owner Rachel to see if we could pick it up sometime after lunch on Saturday; she responded back quickly saying it would be no problem.  So after the Asian Festival (written about in a previous post) we skedaddled over to Grandview Heights to pick up our goodies.

A happy placard with the bakery's name greeted us at the entrance to the townhouse/bakery, located in a residential area not too far from Grandview's main drag.  We were invited in but not immediately greeted by Rachel, but in the kitchen we could see the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies resting on the counter that dominated the generally wonderful scents of freshly baked goods.

Shortly after, Rachel popped in, decked out with apron and cherry smile, though both my wife and I could tell this was not going to be a restful holiday for her.  We chatted for a bit on how we came to know of her business through the blog (while she did not know him personally, she had the pleasure of baking up a few goodies for the Gourmand), our love of the ingredients she used for the pie, and family gathering plans to pair up the pie along with very same mead she had used in her recipe.  She sounded quite excited for us, and we promised we would let her know how the pie went over.

Suffice it to say, the pie was a hit.  Unlike lesser blueberry pies where the filling is much too sweet, the blueberries provided all the needed sweetness, offset quite nicely by the tang of the lemon in both the surrounding filling and the topping itself.  The creamy layer between the topping and the filling and the from-scratch crust  just added another sublime touch that made each bite worth savoring.

I think a cherry pie from Honeykiss is calling our name sometime in the future...

Honeykiss Bakery
1665 King Ave (Grandview Heights)
Columbus, OH 43212
(614) 620-6689
2017 Update: Sadly, Honeykiss Bakery appears to have ceased operations around September 2016. What I wouldn't do for another slice of their peanut butter pie <sad face>

Capital Comparisons

During my first drive into Columbus on I-71 back in 2007 (ironically, to pick up a friend at the CMH, never mind that I had NEVER been to Ohio before in my life,) I was struck by how similar the feeling was driving into California's capital city of Sacramento on I-80.

Of course, both cities are the capitals of their respective states.  For me, the skylines of both cities popped into view a lot later than I felt they should. Also, the skylines are somewhat non-distinct, with a smattering of modernish, medium-height buildings surrounding a fairly distinctive piece of architecture (for Columbus, the Leveque Tower; Sacramento, the Tower Bridge.)

Over time, other similarities occurred to me.  Both cities are of medium-sized surrounded by spread out suburb towns and relatively inexpensive and fairly easy-to-navigate airports.  Both cities are surrounded north and south by agricultural lands and sit at the confluence of regional rivers. Both cities are home to are coming off fairly recent landmark celebrations (a bicentennial here, and a sesquicentennial for Sacramento) and are pretty fanatical about their local sports scenes, though Columbus' love of The Ohio State Buckeyes is unmatched by pretty much anything in California as a whole.

Also, both cities also are striving for both a more favorable perception and attention as a whole.  For Sacramento, the challenge is two-fold.  For many Californians, Sacramento is something of a dirty word inextricably tied to the often contentious political climate, which perhaps unfairly overshadows the good that city may has to offer.  In addition, two long-time attractive neighbors lie just a couple hours away to the west on I-80 - San Francisco and San Jose and the surrounding Silicon Valley - making Sacramento's efforts to gain attention even more difficult.

Meanwhile, my impression is that Columbus is not associated with toxic politics by most Ohioans; instead, most of this grief appears aimed more on the national level.  Similarly, Columbus does not have any super-attractive regional neighbors (no offense to Cincinnati or Cleveland) to fight off for attention.

Columbus as a whole seems to have favorable winds behind it; it will be interesting to see what the city does with them over the next couple decades.